It was just a small question in our regular Consumer Champions column. Why, a reader asked, had her £170 Dr Martens boots fallen apart after just six months? The response was huge, with readers accusing the bootmaker of sacrificing quality, offshoring production and chasing profits under the ownership of a London-based private equity company a long way from its roots in Northamptonshire.
Much of the response was emotional: from the moment the Who’s Pete Townshend scissor-kicked his way on stage in 1967 wearing eight-eyes boots, through to the height of punk, wearing Dr Martens has been a symbol of British working-class subculture. The company’s shift to China, factory closures in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Somerset, and a takeover by private equity, seem symbolic of what has happened to the British economy since then. Yes, there’s still a “Made in England” label on some Dr Martens – but today only 2% of its shoes are manufactured in England, with everything else moved to Asia.
So has there really been a decline in quality? Many Guardian readers think so. One sent us pictures of her poorly stitched boots. “I bought the limited edition Lazy Oaf X boots for £180, two out of the three boots we ordered have broken! I have previous pairs of Dr Martens which have lasted me five-plus years so I know I haven’t ‘worn them out’.”
Another reader, CH, says: “I purchased cherry red shoes and within eight months the sole was coming away from the shoe. Sadly Dr M’s workmanship and quality is not as good as it once was.”
QBC from London wrote to Dr Martens, alleging: “Your production standards have dropped. The previous pair had a moulded insole that could be removed from the boot and fitted perfectly right into the toe of the boot. The replacement pair has a glued-in flat-foam insole which leaves a gap between it and the inside of the boot. Not only that but the leather that comprises the tongue is 0.2mm thinner – 1.4mm compared to 1.6mm of the previous pair.”
But Dr Martens’ chief executive, Kenny Wilson, who joined in 2018 from the home furnishing store Cath Kidston, robustly rejects the allegations. “While we produce around 11m pairs of shoes a year and have a very low rate of defects (0.5% of our total), we accept and acknowledge that we don’t get it right all the time. In these cases we work very hard to understand what happened and learn from it.”
The chief operating officer, Geert Peeters, says the shoes are still all welted, the leather has not changed and production standards have not slipped. The materials suppliers have not changed for decades and there is stringent quality control, the company says. It denies that the leather is thinner, and says shoe construction remains the same as on 1 April 1960, the day the 1460 boot was named and first made.
Has the move to factories in China sent quality spiralling? One commentator alleges: “As any Dr Martens aficionado knows, the quality plummeted when they moved most production out of the UK. I have two otherwise identical pairs of Dr Martens boots – one UK made, one Chinese-made – and while the UK-made ones are among the most comfortable footwear I own, the Chinese-made ones [are]made of nasty, rigid, thinner leather … in this case the manufacturer apparently sacrificed quality for profit, and its customers are paying the price in bunions and blisters.”
Not true, says Dr Martens. The shift to Asia was in 2004, so it’s by no means a recent development. It says the production methods used in its Asian factories are identical to those at its base in England, and that you could pick up an operator in one of its Asia factories and shift them to England, and all the processes would be exactly the same “all the way down to putting the lid on the box”.
Other critics say it is not China that’s the problem, but its new owners. Dr Martens is now owned by Permira, a £30bn group headquartered in Pall Mall, London, which bought it in 2013 from the Griggs family for £300m.
“The stitching came apart on my slip-on boots. Take a brand, hand it over to venture capitalists, who then slash costs and pimp image,” was the view of one reader.
Critics of private equity firms say they typically make deep cuts to jobs and operating costs then sell the business off five or six years later for a quick profit. Indeed, one Labour MP said in 2007 it was a “national scandal that the casino capitalists from global private equity groups are allowed to treat British workers and some of our biggest companies as nothing more than pawns in a game of get rich quick”. Those were the words of John McDonnell, then a lowly backbench MP who no one thought might one day be a serious contender to become chancellor of the exchequer.
But the company says it is a fiction that there has been cost cutting or asset stripping. “Our growth story is driven by investment. Operating expenses grew by 30% last year, and for the period of Permira’s ownership, investment in operating expenses has been larger than revenue growth. And we have just made a big investment in our factory in England to double production.”
Yet what is also apparent from the response to our story is how many readers were recommending a brand called Solovair instead. Its shoes are strikingly similar to Dr Martens, and they are all made in England. The company made Dr Martens shoes under licence for 35 years. “We’ve been around since 1881 in Northamptonshire, and in 2006 were bought out by a local person who saved the company and kept all 60 employees in their jobs. We’re still very small compared with Dr Martens, but we’re growing fast.”