dr martens flowers Doc Martens Evolve
I CAME late to the cult of Dr. Martens. I had never liked labels on my footwear. I was afraid of skinheads, who were the shoe’s leading fans. Then in 1992, during the summer of the second Lollapalooza tour, I dropped into a store on Lower Broadway to try on a pair.
That was the heyday of the blocky, slablike boots ideally suited to mean city streets and mosh pits. Essentially unchanged since they were introduced to the mass market in Britain in 1960, Dr. Martens were long associated with punks. With the rise of alternative rock in America, the boots with the inch thick soles and trademark yellow stitching crossed the Atlantic as the perfect accessory for faded flannels and baggy shorts.
For me Doc Martens, as everyone called them, were not so much a style statement as a problem solver. Docksiders, loafers, ankle boots I had tried them all but none felt right. Part of the reason I had become a rock critic was so I didn’t have to dress up for work. Finally here was footwear that was durable and could be worn with everything in my wardrobe. Even scuff marks only made them look better.
I was immediately hooked, and over the next 12 years I went through a half dozen or so pairs, mostly the model 1461 shoe, a sibling to the classic 1460 boot. Blisters were inevitable, but in time they healed. My most cherished souvenir from a trip to London was a pair of brown Doc Martens, even though I could have bought the same pair a few blocks from my Manhattan home. For the first time in my life I was loyal to a clothing label.
Alas, the Dr. Martens company has been slavishly loyal to itself. (The name comes from a German doctor, Klaus Maertens, who came up with the idea of a tire inspired rubber sole after a skiing accident.) In 1994, at the height of the company’s popularity, it was selling 125,000 pairs of boots and shoes in this country a month, but an aversion to change proved its undoing. Seattle grunge rock waned, and the teen pop movement that followed had no use for Docs: you would never see a Backstreet Boy in a 1460. The hip hop rooted sneaker culture of the 90’s made Doc Martens seem stiff and clunky. “Like any fashion trend, Doc Martens had an iconic look,” said Michael Atmore, editorial director of Footwear News. “And it gets identified with a particular era, which is both the beauty and the horror of it.”
I stuck with Doc Martens when everyone seemed to cast them aside and the shoe stores near my home cut back their stock. Over dinner one night, a friend glanced down at my scuffed pair and made a crack: “Going to check some gas meters later?” I chuckled, but I knew the loss was his. He didn’t understand. Doc Martens were not just a shoe but a symbol of stability in an unstable world. Or so I kept telling myself as I bought one pair after another, enduring the raised eyebrows of friends and family.
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By last year, when worldwide sales had dropped to five million pairs a year, half of what they had been in the late 90’s, something had to give. The company introduced a new line of shoes and boots this year to attract younger buyers and, it hoped, keep the loyalists. The name of the new line alone, Comfort Tech, made me wince: Doc Martens are not supposed to be overly comfy or tech. Your feet have to earn the right to wear them. “We’re still keeping the classic product,” said Bobbie Parisi, the company’s chief of global marketing. “But we wanted to offer consumers the same styles in materials that you don’t necessarily have to break in for a year and get your D. M. blisters.”
On first inspection, the footwear ($90 for the shoe, $110 for the boot) didn’t seem radically different. Looking closer, I saw that the heel was translucent, reflecting trends set by sneakers and the iMac. The leather on the shoe was crinkly, not greasy smooth. The toe was harder. after its drummer, Bill Berry, left: it looked the same, even though it no longer was.
Slipping into the new shoes, I walked around my office and out to lunch. I felt a little disloyal. Grudgingly, though, I had to admit some of the alterations were improvements. The inside foot bed was softer and squishier. The buttery leather on the boot actually made it possible to bend my ankle.
I was older now, with a child, and the company was right: I didn’t have the time or patience to break in shoes.
If the original Docs stood for continuity, the revamped models are a way of acknowledging change in footwear and in life. I laced up my new boots and hit the pavement, hard. There were diapers to buy.