How Dr. Martens Has Kept The Spirit Of Subculture Alive For More Than 60 Years
Despite massive global popularity, the British shoe brand has maintained its credibility among the cool kids through the generations.
If you’ve been paying attention to celebrity off-duty fashion over the past couple of years, you’ve surely noticed that Doc Martens have achieved must-have status among the industry’s top trendsetters. As the pop-punk renaissance made its mark on the Billboard charts, we watched Machine Gun Kelly and Travis Barker hit red carpets in boots from the British brand, with their respective partners Megan Fox and Kourtney Kardashian Barker often following suit. When Olivia Rodrigo took her hit album Sour on tour, she opted for platform Docs as her go-to onstage footwear, much like fellow women in rock Avril Lavigne and Willow Smith. Even the Internet’s most followed and fawned-over style stars like Dua Lipa, Addison Rae, Bella Hadid, and Kendall Jenner have at least one trusty pair of Docs in their arsenal for when they want to inject their look with some punky edge.
While Docs are enjoying something of an “It” shoe moment, thanks in part to the trend cycle’s recent revival of ’90s grunge and Y2K mall aesthetics, they’ve been a pop cultural staple for more than half a century. After being adopted by rock gods like The Who’s Pete Townsend and the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious in the ’60s and ’70s, Dr. Martens quickly transitioned from a company famous for durable work boots manufactured in a tiny English factory town to a status symbol for people in the know, largely due to word of mouth. Docs initially catered to cool, rebellious youths from a variety of subcultures — often those with music at the core — but gradually, the brand was embraced by fashion elites. Perhaps one of the most prolific labels out there when it comes to collaboration, Doc Martens has partnered on cult-favorite designs with the likes of Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Yohji Yamamoto, Marc Jacobs, and many more.
Though plenty of heritage labels are able to remain relevant through the years as younger generations of consumers discover their wares, Doc Martens’ consistent popularity in the zeitgeist is rare — especially as shoppers in the digital age have seemingly infinite options at their disposal, both new and vintage. What’s even rarer is that, despite the company’s massive success on a global scale, Docs have maintained their “cool” factor. While moments like the current emo and pop-punk revival undoubtedly help the brand continue to grow into the future, strategic marketing decisions and relying on organic product placement sit at the core of Docs’ secret to success.
According to Darren McKoy, the creative director at Dr. Martens who took on the role in 2022 after working in several different positions at the company, “natural adoption” is key to keeping Docs part of the cultural conversation. “That is built on the fact that the people who have been wearing it, whichever celebrity, Tyler, the Creator or any of these people, they’ve all had a love for the brand, they’ve all got their own story, and they’re all part of the culture — let’s say a subculture or counter culture of their own doing,” he explains. “For me to see these different celebrities or influencers wearing the product, I think it’s a beautiful thing. I also think it’s beautiful because it’s just organic, which is the most important thing. They come to us, and they ask us for pairs; we don’t go out and push and say, ‘We need to put this on this person or this person.’ It’s just a natural, organic connection because they all have a natural link to [us].”
For McKoy, who came of age admiring Docs styled by a wide variety of his heroes — think Britpop pioneers Blur, Will Smith on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, No Doubt frontwoman Gwen Stefani, and trailblazing hip-hop girl group TLC — this sort of melting pot is what led to his innate love and appreciation for the shoes. “If you look back over the six decades of [Docs], there are waves of different social situations or music moments that have helped the brand to continue to grow, be it from Pete Townsend to The Clash,” McKoy says. “I think for the last 10 to 15 years, it’s been constant — music’s become more universal and less ‘you are only into this, or you’re only into that.’ It’s more of people crossing many genres. It’s been a beautiful journey because we can go from hip-hop to grime to rock to punk to whatever movement it may be because Dr. Martens has always been ingrained in the heartbeat of music.”
Thanks to the Internet, the communities and subcultures that Docs once primarily catered to are now just pop culture; gatekeeping is increasingly difficult in our interconnected world, and even the most niche artists and items can go viral in an instant. McKoy keeps this at top of mind, especially when it comes to staying relevant to those savvy consumers who value authenticity and discovery above all.
One way that Docs celebrates its heritage while bringing the product to new audiences is through designer collaborations. For all of the household names that join forces with Dr. Martens, there are dozens of esoteric partnerships for the “if you know, you know” crowd — Hiroshi Fujiwara of the Japanese label Fragment Design, or Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons, for example. Most of the designers who’ve lent their creative touch to a pair (or several) of Docs over the years have a personal connection to them; take Raf Simons, for instance, who was a loyal Docs wearer before he started his eponymous brand. It’s also crucial that each partner Docs takes on shares a similar ethos and embodies similar values, like Engineered Garments, which is built on creating quality products, or Stussy and Supreme, which have built legacies on their own subsets of surf and skate culture.
In addition, these collaborations with Docs offer fans of both brands a more accessibly priced piece for their collection than from the luxury label itself. “We don’t look at elitist collaborations; that’s not the point,” McKoy adds. “The point is that storytelling and making sure that we can amplify their story and they can amplify our story. And we can connect with their consumer because we think there’s a natural synergy and connectivity between both consumers.”
Many of fashion’s prominent trends in recent years have been steeped in nostalgia, and while the brand’s history is of utmost importance when McKoy and his team are creating, they are adamant about not leaning on it too much. Though the Docs shoe silhouettes and styles remain largely the same, allowing for them to be shared or passed down from one generation to the next like an heirloom, the narratives around them have changed, as have shoppers’ first points of entry to the brand. Even though young consumers might be coming to Docs from a Jenner or Hadid street style photo instead of after watching their favorite underground artist perform in them, McKoy’s goal for the next wave of Dr. Martens fans is that they continue seeing the boots as a canvas and a method of self-expression — something that will ensure the company is able to thrive for another 60-plus years.
“Nostalgia is important because the past inspires the future, and that’s one of the big things I talk to the creative team at the moment, is our past inspiring the future,” McKoy says. “Pay homage to where you've been, but then think about how we can to continue to move that forward. Simple as that.”