Dr. Martens, the counterculture boot, is finding a new following in Asia

Old shoe, new market.
Old shoe, new market.
Image: Unsplash/Syd Wachs
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Grungy, rubber-soled Dr. Martens—beloved by rock legends, skinheads, and edgy ’90s teens—have never quite had the sales to match their cultural legacy. But now, the yellow-threaded shoes are experiencing a revival in an unexpected place: East Asia.

On Oct. 23, Dr. Martens reported £290 million ($384 million) in revenue for the year ended March 2017. At a time when retailers are struggling, closing shop, or filing for bankruptcy, Dr. Martens reported a 38% boost in retail revenue and a more than 50% jump in online sales.

This comes after a lukewarm decade. In the early 2000s, the UK company laid off 1,000 workers and moved all production to China after losing £20 million in revenue the prior year. (It has since moved part of its production back to the UK, kickstarting a “Made in England” line that makes up about 2% of sales.) In 2007, a disastrous ad campaign made by ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi featuring dead rockers donning Docs in heaven left musicians’ families and fans outraged. The company later pulled the ad and fired the agency.

Despite all this, in 2013, investment fund Permira bought Dr. Martens for £300 million ($484.9 million at the time), betting on the brand’s dedicated base. The price tag was based largely on its retail potential and cultural cache. Prior to the acquisition, the brand had opened more than 30 stores and doubled the size of its business in four years. Newer icons like Gwen Stefani and Miley Cyrus were also rocking Dr. Martens on stage. But Permira was hoping to expand further: The company soon created chelsea boots, loafers with tassels, and a range of other softer looks. Now, with robust sales and an expanding retail chain, it seems the brand’s facelift is finally coming to fruition.

Broken-hearted in Dr. Martens 1490 boots in cherry-red smooth.
Broken-hearted in Dr. Martens 1490 boots in cherry-red smooth.
Image: Vevo/Screenshot

Some of this success is due to new products. Dr. Martens’s new “lite” line still retains the classic heavy-boot look, but with a light, flexible feel akin to the soles of sneakers. Since launching, the line has sold 200,000 pairs.

The brand has also created limited high-fashion collaborations that have sold out within weeks. It boasts its shoes have been spotted on the likes of Pharrell Williams as well as model sisters Gigi and Bella Hadid.

But most of Dr. Martens’s revenue growth comes from its success in global markets. Revenue from Asia now makes up close to a quarter (23%) of overall revenue, with most of it in Japan, according to chief financial officer Jon Mortimore. Japan, with five new stores, saw sales surge by 88%. Revenue in the US, meanwhile, rose by 16%.

The company now runs 71 stores globally and 54 concessions in South Korea. Asia also promises to be the highest growth sector for the brand, garnering £66 million ($88 million) in revenue and growing by 43% from the year prior.

This isn’t all that surprising with ’90s-style undercuts, neon-dipped tees, highlighter hair, and boxy jackets hitting the Korean street scene. A new style dubbed “k-punk” emerged at this year’s Seoul Fashion Week. Furthermore, the iconic boots have a way of resurfacing during times of political and social turmoil (paywall). As South Korea recovers from a presidential impeachment, brought on by bribery, favoritism, and corruption, perhaps it’s no surprise that the young are leaning into their devil-may-care, sartorial selves.