It was just a year ago that Dr. Martens, those clunky, lace-up boots immortalized in early Nineties films like “Singles” and “Reality Bites,” resurfaced on the fashion radar. A fresh advertising campaign and collaboration with Yohji Yamamoto — whose Dr. Martens boots, some featuring a kimono print, sold for up to $2,000 last winter — suggested that Airwair International Ltd., the British company that produces the line, was serious about boosting its profile. Fast-forward to the spring 2009 collection, which features the company’s utilitarian boots in fluorescent colors and patent leather, and it would seem the brand’s rep for luring a counterculture fan base is giving way to a more style-conscious set.
“We like to say we’re on-trend,” says Kimberly Barta, vice president of marketing for the firm’s U.S. operations. She is quick to note that while the company is updating its iconic silhouettes, the signature characteristics of the line — which was launched in 1960 for postal service and factory workers in England — remain unchanged. In fact, the company claims that in spite of the economy, sales are “trending up, with August, September, and October surprisingly strong months,” according to Bob Bradford, vice president of sales. He adds that Airwair’s fiscal year, which ends in March, was up 8 percent compared with the previous year. Of the supposed recession appeal, Barta chalks it up to the collection’s workman aesthetic. “The British phrase is ‘fit for purpose,’” Barta says. “People want to engage with authentic brands, and they want brands that have real stories.”
That said, a chic element has certainly crept into the line: The company recently announced an upcoming capsule collection by Raf Simons, while the new creative director, Andrew Bunney, has introduced a wellie boot (he calls it “a muddy festival boot”) complete with floral patterns. Style-setting boutiques Colette and Ikram have snapped up looks for spring, adding to the 3,200 U.S. retailers currently carrying selections of the company’s 450 styles. And then there is Airwair’s “seeding campaign,” a program that provides shoes to established and emerging talent, from artists to architects. “Some of these people will go on to be famous. Some may not,” said Barta of the recipients. “But all have a unique influence in their field.” Perhaps the best evidence of the brand’s rising hip quotient: Johnny Depp ordered Docs as party favors for his 9-year-old daughter’s birthday party earlier this year. All of which is not to say Docs’ makers will stray too far from its tried-and-true durability, says Bunney: “No sense in making something if it’s not for the long haul.”