What is the back story of Dr Martens and industrial footwear?
Dr Martens as a fashion brand is in the middle of an amazing revival. The team I work with in the product design sector are creating some fantastic new styles, but there is also the feeling that the brand is heavily connected with the fashion and music scenes – there has always been groups of people that have embraced the Dr Martens brand.
When you look back at the roots of the brand, however, the original founders set out to create rugged, utilitarian footwear for workers. There became a change in what workers needed from their footwear, especially as PPE became more widely known. There was a need to increase the way we looked at products. We don’t drive the cars we used to in the 1960s, or use the same appliances. In the same way, we looked at the DM Industrial range of footwear. It’s OK saying that you make durable footwear for workers, but the legislation and requirements have changed, so we have had to make sure that we have kept the same brand values to the products, while keeping them up-to-date with the latest regulations and styles. One of the best things for us is that the workplace environment hasn’t just changed, it’s widened, from steelworkers and heavy industry to services and warehousing. We forget that just ten or 15 years ago, companies like Amazon weren’t the giants they are now, and that logistics and warehousing wasn’t such a heavy industry as we are seeing today. In that sense, the styles and fit, as well as the need to comply with the latest PPE regulations, has had to adapt.
What are the main challenges surrounding PPE legislation?
I like the challenges. If you hear about some PPE products failing the rigorous testing, we welcome that. We are well aware that companies making lower-quality or even counterfeit goods will find it harder to get their products onto the market with stricter testing and checks. For us, any sign that there is some kind of modification or update to the EN testing is great. We have such a strong global brand that we have to be aware of all the other regulations around the world as well. Every global market has a slight twist on the regulations in terms of performance, and as a result the design, so we have to have a much broader view than just the UK or European markets. From that point of view, those trends that we see can directly influence the look of a product.
If you ask people ‘what does a Dr Martens boot look like?’, chances are they will describe a thick heel, yellow stitching and a black PVC rubber body. That’s great – it’s the image we want people to have in many respects. However, we have found a need to create another channel of development that sits alongside the classic DM boot. It has certainly paved the way for us on the industrial side. Many people who work in the industrial sector, in any capacity, have been wearing stylish trainers day-to-day, and don’t want to be wearing something that, in their eyes, looks like something their grandad wore. We have taken a lot of influence on the fit, construction and materials from fashionwear and used them when we design a new product range.
How important is it for a design brand like DM to uphold its image and brand?
We know that whatever we do, there is always a focus on comfort and fit, but not at a cost to safety. If you put on a brand new fashion shoe, chances are it will be a bit uncomfortable and need breaking in. But the guy who turns up wanting one of our industrial shoes has to go straight from the store to the worksite. You have to put the boot on for an eight or ten hour sift, day after day. There’s a focus now, therefore, on out-of-the-box comfort and fit. And that’s great, but it has to be married with the non-compromising elements of protection. Lots of PPE either fails the testing, or is very short-lived.
Wherever in the world we make our products, we hold them to the same level of quality standards. We always go back to the roots of the brand – we have a triangle-shaped business, at the very peak of which is the industrial division. We believe that form follows function, and nowhere is that more true than in the industrial brand. On a wider scale, we are probably more well-known for our fashion brand, but a lot of the influences in that have trickled down from our industrial offering. We develop the technology in our industrial footwear then dilute it slightly and introduce it to our fashion brands.
How are customers' changing demands affecting what you do?
Trying to protect workers who are used to stylish sports brands has really got us thinking. We needed a lightweight product that was still loyal to our brand values. A number of new materials has helped us do combine style, comfort and protection. The result of this is our new DM’s Lite range. TheCalamus style in particular is a great example of how we have been able to combine new technologies like EVA midsoles, which have been part of the sports industry for a while. These provide comfort and flexibility, while also providing excellent levels of protection. They are completely metal-free – we have a composite toecap, with a rubber outsole which provides FRC slip ratings and 300 degrees of heat protection.
On the subject of products failing, what we do in the development process is look at markers from competitor brands, which we think might be less well-built. We do our own independent testing on those brands. There was one company, which I won’t name, whose products we were doing flex tests on. At 150,000 or so flexes, we started noticing cracking appear on the perforated part of the upper. When we tested ours, we turned the machine off at 500,000 because we weren’t seeing any difference. No matter what we develop from an aesthetic or comfort point of view, if that product doesn’t pass the rigorous standards we are looking to put it through, that’s it. Likewise, if we hear anything from our customers or wholesale partners about a drop in quality, we take it very seriously. As I said earlier, when a brand has as much visibility and kudos as Dr Martens does, it needs to have certain standards to live up to. We take the whole process, from design to manufacture to testing and beyond, very seriously. We add a level of due diligence to everything we do to offer a level of certainty to all of our products.