James Pozzi visits Dr. Martens’ shoe manufacturing site in Northamptonshire and sees how following the success of its consumer line, the British icon is turning its attentions to its industrial range.
The influence of Dr Martens on contemporary British culture has been constant since the Griggs family secured a patent in 1959 to manufacture its shoes in the UK after being founded by a German, Klaus Märtens, in 1947. But given its status as an icon of fashion and music, it is often easy to forget Dr. Martens built its reputation in industrial footwear.
From mods to punks and grunge to Britpop, the brand was seemingly present in helping map every turn of Britain’s social icons. But having made its name as a work boot for everyone from police to dockers, its presence has been felt in equal measure on the factory floors of the UK.
And now the plan is to reaffirm its status as a safety footwear staple all over again. During a recent visit to its famous Cobb Lane facility in Wollaston, Northamptonshire – where it has had a presence since 1960 – I was given a first-hand insight into the company’s production processes, its workforce and its plans going forward.
This includes the availability of a range of new safety boots, both based on classic designs and some with a new twist based around the style icons beloved by everyone from Pharrell Williams and Miley Cyrus.
The big turnaround
There is a sense that Dr Martens has gone full circle, from safety boot to fashion icon, and it is a now a company extending this style credibility into its safety footwear. And the genesis of this move goes back just over a decade to more troublesome times when Dr Martens was treading water.
Beset by plummeting sales, job cuts and financial uncertainty, Dr Martens changed direction by placing greater emphasis on the consumer end of the business. The move paid dividends as sales increased and customers returned to the brand.
Integral to this was returning production to the Wollaston site in 2004, just a year after the company – on the verge of bankruptcy – had moved its manufacturing operations to the Far East.
With company turnover hitting £160m last year, it is also firmly established as a UK mid-market champion. Another beneficiary of the foreign desire for British goods, it’s no coincidence the Made in England name is emblazons across its shoes – six times per pair, no less. In a further celebratory act of its country of origin, the company now markets a range titled under the same three words.
On the shop floor, the company employs traditional manufacturing processes to produce around 330 customised pairs of shoes daily. From the cutting of leather to the stitching, its workforce are integral to every shoe’s production.
Particularly impressive is the speed and skill to which one technician maneuvers machinery to create the trademark hardness in the tip of the shoe. By solidifying of the front of the its shoes, this produces what an employee calls the “knock-on wood effect.”
“We have a good mix here of both long-serving employees and young graduates,” said Stephen Bent, factory manager at the Wollaston site, who highlighted the staff’s emotional connection to the brand. Its factory floor is a visibly eclectic mix with each individual fine tuned in their individual skill with automated processes kept to a minumum. “Our graduates come from all kinds of backgrounds including some with degrees in subjects such as architecture; often they are intrigued by the craft of shoemaking,” Bent explained.
Skills are something Dr. Martens is evidently passionate about as a company. Acknowledging the decline of traditional shoemaking within the UK, the company launched its apprenticeship scheme in 2012 aimed at addressing this. There was a collaborative element to this, with Dr. Martens seeking advice from fellow British icon Mulberry, following the success of its own scheme it set up in 2006.
Despite taking on a handful of apprentices per year, the scheme has no shortage applicants. Competition is fierce, and perhaps given its growing army of young people wearing its products, Dr. Martens is benefiting from its cross generational appeal towards a new audience.
With momentum on its side, its future is intriguing after being acquired by private equity firm Permira for £300m from family-owned R Griggs Group last year. Now launching a new range of industrial shoes incorporating elements of its consumer brand so integral to the company’s revival, combining durability with style never looked so good.
And it’s in its industrial shoes that the company now hopes to make new headway. Still possessing a sizeable share of the safety boot market with its famous 2216 remaining its biggest seller, Dr. Martens recently unveiled a new line set for release in September. And it is excited as it now has what it calls a true composite.
Consideration has expanded to the upper echelons of manufacturing and construction businesses. With management and executive individuals spending more time on the shop floor, new business-like shoes such as brogues are now available. This means a switchover of shoes to safety boots – a chore for anyone visiting factories – is a thing of the past.
It also spent time reviewing which sectors it needed to improve its product offering in. These include the development new products for heavy industry, light industry and services. A global outlook was also used, befitting the company’s status as a world wide exporter. For example, its motorbike boots are more rugged in style and use the colour brown, based on market preference. In these highly customised manufacturing times, attention to detail is king.
It’s these little considerations that place Dr. Martens in a promising position going forward from a manufacturing point of view. Considering the scale of turnaround in the past decade, it’d be difficult to predict where the company will find itself a decade from now. Based on what I saw, it’ll be on a strictly upward trajectory.