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LONDON It’s an unlikely success story: a working man’s boot turned into an object of high fashion. But that’s the accomplishment of Dr. Martens shoes otherwise known by aficionados as “DMs” or “Docs.”

Doc Martens first appeared on the international scene in the early 1960s, a high topped jet black or cherry red pair of boots favored by bovver boys and skinheads in London’s rough hewn East End.

Gradually, word of DMs spread, and the shoes moved up the social scale. Bankers and policemen wore them, and so did Pope John Paul II, the Duke of Kent and the Dalai Lama.

In the process, DMs have become a fashion icon, now sported by the likes of supermodel Naomi Campbell and pop stars Elton John, Pete Townshend and Madonna.

Today, the original DM black boot has been joined by a cornucopia of 150 styles ranging from low cut streetwear to steel toed shoes to hiking boots, with 2,000 permutations of color and trim. But all DM’s maintain the company’s trademark, the carefully crafted sole affixed to the uppers by a special sealing process.

Such has been the popularity of the shoe that about 225,000 pairs of DMs are produced weekly by the manufacturer, R. Griggs Co., a family owned firm in Northamptonshire, England. Published figures say the privately held company produces an estimated $30 million annual profit on $195 million in sales.

And the low profile father and son team behind the success, Max and Stephen Griggs, was recently listed in 80th place in the London Sunday Times compilation of Britain’s richest 500 people.

“Dr. Martens shoes have become a standard,” boasts Stephen, the managing director, calling his product “the Volkswagen Beetle of the shoe world.”

“I think our success nowadays is as much as anything the fact that it is so deeply ingrained in Britain’s subconscious,” he says. “It’s a part of the fabric of the country almost.” The company acquired Dr. Martens in 1959.

The original shoe was devised by a German doctor named Klaus Maertens who, while convalescing from a skiing accident in the Bavarian town of Seeshaupt,
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decided to make a comfortable shoe to relieve the pain of walking. Together with Herbert Funck, an engineer, Maertens designed a shoe with an air cushioned sole, using old tires a revolutionary concept at the time.

The sole was the special feature of the shoe. Where soles of most traditional men’s footwear were stitched to the leather of the upper shoe, Maertens and Funck devised a method of heat sealing the sole to the upper, creating a cavity, or air cushion.

The result was so effective that within two years Maertens and Funck had patented and developed the design commercially, and the air cushioned shoes were sold throughout Germany chiefly as a “comfort” shoe for elderly women with foot trouble.

By 1959, the new shoes which had become know as “Dr. Maertens” were selling across Europe, and the owners were interested in finding a company to produce them in Britain.

Hence an ad in the trade press that the Griggses spotted.

The Griggs family had been involved in shoemaking since 1901 in the Northhamptonshire village of Wollaston, where shoes have been produced since the 17th Century.

After World War II, the Griggs brothers in charge at the time Bill, Ray and Colin found they faced tough competition from a dozen other shoe manufacturers in the Wollaston area as well as from new techniques developing elsewhere. The brothers persuaded the local companies to form a co operative, the Wollaston Vulcanizing Co., which was equipped with new molding machinery to make vulcanized soles for all the cooperative’s members.

But the Griggs revolution really began in 1959 when Bill Griggs learned of Dr. Maertens’ desire to license production of his “comfort” shoe in the United Kingdom. Impressed by the strategy behind Wollaston Vulcanizing, the Germans offered the Griggses the rights.

The Britons anglicized the name to Dr. Martens and called their own line “AirWair.” On April 1, 1960, the first pair of British Dr. Martens was produced in England. By the mid 1960s, Docs became an essential part of Britain’s youth culture, and no respecting bovver or skinhead was properly dressed without a pair of eight eyelet Doc Martens “cherry reds.”

However, the famous “bovver boots” the nickname came from their appeal to East End toughs were also bought in the thousands by workmen and women, sold, the Griggses say, on their sheer practicality.

The company realized the popularity of its industrial footwear when managers detected a sudden surge in sales of boys’ shoes. The company discovered that women were buying boys’ sizes and quickly introduced Dr. Martens for women.

DMs remained at the cusp of every trend from the punk look of the 1970s to the designer footwear of the 1980s and 1990s. Docs are featured in London’s Victoria Albert Museum’s permanent exhibition on 20th Century style and culture.
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