Dr. Martens is overhauling its original factory in the Northamptonshire town of Wollaston. The plan is to more than double its production capacity from the current level of 70,000 pairs to 165,000 pairs per year, and to open what the company is calling a new visitor and heritage center in the spring of 2020.
Although it now produces most of its shoes abroad, Dr. Martens has had considerable success recently with its premium Made in England line, cobbled by 50 craftsmen at its former factory. The plant's production was downsized after it decided to move all the production to the Far East, notably in China and Thailand, starting around 2002. Since then the factory has been used mostly for vintage made-to-order styles.
Last October, the company reported strong sales. Annual revenues reached £348.6 million (€405.4m-$459.1m) for the year ended on March 31, 2018, up by almost 20 percent from the previous year. It also made a pre-tax profit for the year of £1 million (€1.2m-$1.3m), having posted a loss of £5.5 million (€6.4m-$7.3m) in 2016/17. The operating profit went up from £31.2 million to £40 million (€47m-$53m).
With business up and English heritage serving as a selling point, the time apparently seems right for the company to invest £2 million (€2.3m-$2.6m) in an upgrade and expansion of the original site for the future and its image, while looking back over the past.
The brand can trace its history to 1901 and the Griggs family in the town of Wollaston, in the English Midlands, which established a reputation for producing a good, simple work boot. Not quite a half-century after the Griggs set up shop, a young Dr. Klaus Maertens in Munich, who had just served in the Second World War, was struggling with a broken foot. To speed his own recovery, he fashioned a rudimentary new shoe with an air-cushioned sole. A mechanical engineer whom Maertens knew from his university days, Dr. Herbert Funk, saw promise in the design, and the two formed a partnership. They began production of their shoe in 1947, developing a clientele especially among women of middle age and older. In 1959, they began advertising abroad.
The Griggs, now third-generation bootmakers, saw the ad and pounced, acquiring an exclusive license to the air-cushioned sole. They also changed the heel of the boot, and gave it a bulbous upper, a yellow welt stitch and a two-tone groove at the edge of the sole. The final touches were the name, “Airwair,” and the slogan, “With Bouncing Soles.”
The resulting eight-holed 1460 Dr. Martens boot was mostly worn by workers like postmen and factory hands. But then it was picked up by rock-'n'-roll musicians. The shift began in the 1960s, with the proto-punks and Pete Townsend of The Who, and it has continued to the present day, through style after musical style, spreading into the U.S. through grunge and emo and nu-metal.
The present Northampton factory began operating in 1960, with the brand poised to enter the zeitgeist. Such is the history and the image that the new visitor and heritage center will be trying to convey. The new facilities are scheduled to open in the spring of next year. There will be memorabilia on display, of course, and a store selling products made by hand in Northampton.
Previously owned by the R. Griggs Group and called Airwear International, the company was founded in 1901 by the Griggs family of bootmakers. It was acquired in 2013 for £300 million (€346.6m-$389.3m) by a big private equity firm, Permira.