brand: Tredair-sole, Bouncing Boots, Veganline.com, Comfylux, Made in London
Over the years we have found that big brands sell better, even if they are expensive and that it isn't clear what they mean. Maybe the brand is better advertised, or people like the conformity and sense of belonging that comes with a Levi®, Nike®, Doc Martens®, Birkenstock®, GAP® and the rest. Those who buy off an amateurish site like Veganline.com might want the quality control which comes with a brand: the sense that they know what they are getting so they don't need to trust the shop that they are getting it from.
By accident, one brand used to count for counter-culture: it was a brand that any UK shoe factory could sell, and any working-class person could buy cheaply or get for free. Employers of manual labour can buy safety boots from cheap catalogues, just as offices buy stationary. There is no sales tax on safety boots and some employers - builders, factories, warehouses - could get sued if an employee got a crushed foot and wasn't wearing them.
The DM brand itself belonged to the descendants of a German doctor who let it be used by a marketing company and any Goodyear-welting safety shoe factory under licence. The marketing company wrote "Airwear" on the boots but most people called them DMs or Doc Martens. Yellow sewing-string was used to emphasise strength of construction; and there was a yellow pull-tag to show the site foreman that you were wearing proper safety boots to work. Another accident of history is that the UK was an early industrial country and developed a network of smallish shoe suppliers who tended to sell wholesale rather than building-up stock, brands or sales teams of their own. The factories, too, tended to be owned by family trusts and were very experienced in keeping costs low. During the war they had been forced to make standardised state-organised designs to keep costs even lower. So the brand was like cheddar cheese, army boots or MA1 jackets - a quality-controlled and well-known label that wasn't expensive to buy. Many of the factories are the same ones that you see on the internet selling snobby gentleman's brogues, and there is a cheeky satisfaction in knowing that the same quality is available free to your local builder or the garage mechanic.
In 1979 a new government economic policy of high exchange rates to reduce inflation also made DM boots, like any British-made products, a tiny, niche part of the market compared to cheaper imported competition. This caused the quickest possible lay-offs, factory closures, and a long-term reduction in tooling, advertising and any non-essential cost. About the same time and probably as a result, the brand was bought by one of the largest factories - Griggs - who used it in a less co-operative way. They preferred to own any other UK factories where it was made and to select the shops where it was sold.
Their Northamptonshire neighbours in other factories and the army surplus shops that had sold so many boots were abandoned. Letters withdrawing licences were sent-out about 1983. George Cox, the footwear company that made brothel creepers among other things, got their letter a month after opening a new factory.
Better linkage between the cash tills and the supply chain meant that chain stores could order DMs a lot more easily and sell them at higher prices. The brand was still unusual in that the sewing & sole-making was done in the UK and that only about 6% of turnover was spent on advertising. They were still seen as trendy although no-one could quite remember why. Short-runs of specialised shoes were still available to the firm's preferred vegan shoe distributor and safety DMs were still available alongside the fashion ones. Wholesalers, army-surplus shops and your local family shoe shop often tried going straight to the smaller factories, and several obscure un-advertised new brands were borne for the traditional product - Solovair® (Nothamptonshire Productive Society), Tredair® (White & Co 1890), Rufflander® (William Lennon & Co), Provider® (WJ Brookes Divine of the Kinky Boot Factory programme, now a wholesaler), George Cox®, Tuf® (Britton & Co, defence contractors later UK Safety wholesalers) and Totectors® (later to merge with UK Safety before both closed) as well as wholesaler's own brands - Gladiator® (South Son & Whitecombe Ltd, former footwear wholesale company, once owners to the British Boot Company in Camden) and Getta-Grip® (Hooton & Co, wholesalers) They never caught-on because most of us would assume that they were all cheap copies of DMs, while the truth was that some were glued-together, some were sewn and all were pretty good Open University students may know the videos - which were also shown on television - about The Kinky Boot Factory in which the Provider® people tried to find a new market, and another one showing DM's first attempts at big-budget advertising.
In 2003, DMs decided that they would behave like Nike and THE GAP, in cutting their production costs by sourcing in China. This was not to cut costs to customers but to spend the saved money on advertising, obtaining space on the shelves of trendy town-centre shops made scarce by the town and country planning act of decades earlier "We thought that Dr Martens broke the usual rules of brand marketing", said a spokesman, "but we were wrong".
Will this new product sell in America? The question is no longer of interest to firms like Veganline.com who try to avoid Chinese product.s Counter-culture is better represented by people who work for local factories than people who buy from China and support an autocratic state. Veganline.com uses one of the factories that broke away from the DM brand. Have your heard of Tredair? No? It has not been a big money-raking organisation since 1979. For a long time the director answered the phone himself and paid himself no more than a teacher, gradually running down the brand rather than ending it altogether - but we think the product is technically better than other cushion-sole goodyear-welted footwear, using a patent foam-injection technique rather than a bit of felt as the mid sole. The plastic sole is better quality too: bouncier but as flexible as a pair of trainers. .