In 1967, a man walked into a utility clothing store in the north of England, purchased a dark blue boiler suit and felt himself drawn to a pair of orange rubber boots. Despite the colour, he was tempted. Had he spent a few minutes less contemplating the idea, he might not have come across a shoe that would change his – and thousands of others’ – futures: the Dr. Martens boot. The man was Pete Townshend, frontman of The Who and ergo one of the most influential characters of last century, the year was remembered as the Summer of Love, and the shoe was about to scissor-kick its way onto the world’s stage and beat up anyone who tried to make it leave. Townshend wore the boots that night and subsequently described his performance as “a revelation”.
Despite having made its show-biz debut in the late ’60s, Dr. Martens had actually been around since the 1940s, when a doctor named Klaus Maertens developed the design. Maertens had worked as a cobbler in his youth and was enlisted in the German army in his twenties, during which he broke his foot skiing. The standard issue military boots he had been provided with were unyielding and uncomfortable, and he was driven to create something of a higher quality. Using recycled material looted from war-ravaged Munich and leftover air force materials, he and his friend-made-business partner Dr Herbert Funck developed a technique that allowed them to heat-seal the sole onto the uppers, creating air-tight compartments that cushioned the foot and offered unprecedented support.
By the 1950s, Maerten’s ambition and Funck’s engineering experience had produced the perfect workers’ boot. The air-cushioned soles were an innovation, and arrived at just the right time; thousands of men had spent years in unforgiving army boots, and the earliest example of shock-absorbent footwear was to be a hit with everyone from postmen to housewives: in the first decade of their inception, 80% of sales were to women over the age of 40. In 1952, business was so good that they opened a factory in Munich, having spent many years producing the shoes in a small shack, a workshop and even an army barracks.
The 1950s bred youth culture, teenagers and the feeling of post-war recovery; what better time to pitch a product to a demographic developing their own identity, with a little disposable income and a lot to say for themselves? But competition was tough, and the decade was slow for DM, in spite of Teddy Boys adopting a creeper-style shoe that was similar to that of the early DM designs. Even so, in 1959, British shoe manufacturer R. Griggs Group Ltd bought the patent rights, adjusted the design of the heel, introduced the signature yellow stitching and trademarked the soles as AirWair, anglicising the brand name in the process. Before long, the boot previously assigned to miners, the military and manual workers had branched into a wider social context and taken on Britain, bringing with it its kickass utilitarian design and functionality.