Exclusive: Inside Dr. Martens’ Revival + The Brand’s Big Plans for the Future

On a sunny morning in London, Dr. Martens CEO Kenny Wilson is playing tour guide inside the brand’s 2-year-old flagship at Camden Market.

The executive’s first stop? The “Boot Room,” where artists, from punk to pop, regularly play intimate gigs. Wilson proudly points out some of Dr. Martens’ greatest hits and music memorabilia lining the perimeter of the space, including the famous look that The Who’s Pete Townshend wore in 1966 during the brand’s infancy.

Next door, in a more traditional two-story retail store, the CEO and Darren Campbell, global chief product and marketing officer, show off a custom station where shoppers can personalize their shoes and boots (old and new). There’s also a virtual reality experience that allows fans to go inside the brand’s U.K. factory, where Wilson made his own pair of shoes after he joined the company last July.

While he might be relatively new to Dr. Martens — which is owned by private equity firm Permira — Wilson has always had a strong affinity for the brand. “I grew up in a working-class community in the U.K. I got my first Dr. Martens when I was 13,” he recalled.

Now, after a long stint at Levi’s and more recent role at British player Cath Kidston, Wilson is forging ahead with big plans for Dr. Martens at a time when it is experiencing major momentum.

A lot of factors are working in the label’s favor: The ’90s revival continues to be strong, and the brand is attracting new generations of consumers with the help of organic celebrity endorsements from Bella and Gigi Hadid, Hailey Bieber, Brooklyn Beckham and others. Plus, recent collaborations with Marc Jacobs, the Sex Pistols, Bape and more have kept the brand top of mind.

For the 12 months ended March 31, 2018, revenues grew 20 percent to 348.6 million pounds, or about $465 million. (The company releases its next results this fall.) Wilson declined to discuss specific sales forecasts but said the company continues to experience comp increases in stores and strong e-commerce growth.

The team, which has expanded significantly and counts 2,000 members globally, is investing in the digital arena while targeting key geographic markets in Europe, Asia and North America.

We’re seeing consumer demand across all of our products. We’ve got a lot working at once,” said Leslie Lane, president of Dr. Martens’ U.S. and the Americas divisions, who noted strength in the classic 1460 boots, the stacked Jadon style, sandals and Chelsea boots among others. The label has also opened doors in New York and Los Angeles, and is planning additional debuts in other markets during the next six to 12 months.

The Americas will be key to the bigger equation going forward, according to Wilson, who is confident the company could hit $1 billion in overall sales within the next five years. “It’s how we make sure we build on our success and not get complacent,” he said.

Here, the executive opens the company’s playbook and talks about the importance of digital going forward.

Dr. Martens revival
The new Dr. Martens CEO brings valuable experience from Levi’s.
CREDIT: Courtesy Image

What initially attracted you to Dr. Martens?
Kenny Wilson: “It’s one of those brands I loved as a kid. When I worked at Levi’s, the uniform was a pair of Levi’s, a pair of Dr. Martens and a T-shirt. [When I was contacted about this role], I knew the brand was bigger than the company, and I thought I could bring something to help the team grow the business and add value.”

What about your experiences at Levi’s and Cath Kidston are you drawing on?
KW: “I was at Levi’s for 19 years, and that is also an iconic brand. There’s a huge amount of synergy in the thinking there and here. I’ve run complex organizations with different channels — with e-commerce, stores with wholesale on different continents. I’ve done a lot of work in America and in Asia, so from a leadership standpoint, I had a lot of the things the owners were looking for.”

What’s the biggest difference in running shoes and jeans companies?
KW: “There’s a lot of similarities in that they’re heavily sized products. When I arrived, everyone said shoes were very complicated from an SKU standpoint. But there’s fewer SKUs here than there are in jeans. All the operational things you face like how you keep the brand in stock and how you forecast the product are the same. I’ve had to learn more about shoes. My second week, I made a pair of Dr. Martens. I worked for Clarks earlier in my career, so I knew how shoes were made, but didn’t know the specifics of this brand. My job isn’t to be the expert in shoes. I’m more of an expert in brands. I am not going to be a shoe dog. I’m always clear about the distinction between what I do and what the team does.”

What is driving the heat at Dr. Martens?
KW: “When you go into the stores and look and the breadth and the range and the quality of what we’re doing, you can see the team has done an amazing job on the product. The marketing is strong. Strategically, we’ve built our direct-to-consumer business.”

Trends are also working in your favor.
KW: “Clearly, the [fashion] is moving toward the chunkier workwear boots, but the improvements at the company are a lot more structural. Trends come and go, but this is a brand that will be here for the long term. I believe we [have so much more potential]. We sell 1.6 million pairs in the U.K, and we only sell 2.1 million pairs in all of North America. If you do the math, why is that? We haven’t had the chance to expose the brand to more consumers. Germany is Europe’s biggest economy, but we also sell less pairs in Germany than the U.K. There’s clearly a cycle that benefits us, but there’s so much growth ahead of us if we continue to do the right things.”

Dr. Martens Revival
The boot brand has been seen on celebs like the Hadid sisters and Hailey Bieber.
CREDIT: Courtesy Image

What other markets are you focused on?
KW: “We do well in Asia right now. Our biggest market is Japan. We’re growing double-digit there. It’s our fastest-growing market. We’ve just scratched the surface of China. We’re well-established in Japan and Korea, but we think we can double the business. We’re well-distributed [around the world] in terms of breadth, but how do you build out the brand? Now it’s about focusing and saying: How do you build the brand in a way consumers can see us? There’s a difference in planting a flag versus going to key cities and seeing Dr. Martens on the street or having a store there. I’m not big on flag planting. I’m much bigger on saying we’re truly present. There’s different levels of awareness of understanding. Obviously,
the awareness is high here in the U.K. The reason people gravitate is because they want to stand out and do their own thing. That’s the same in Tokyo, London or New York.”

How concerned are you about political uncertainty in the U.K., U.S. and other parts 
of the world?
KW: “I don’t think political uncertainty is deterring us from doing anything. In an uncertain world, you make your own certainty. If we were waiting for politicians to decide what they’re going to do with Brexit or waiting to see what Trump is going to do in the U.S., we would be waiting for a long time. I get encouraged because our investors say to me, ‘Run it as a family company. Think of it as something you’re going to hand over to your kids. What would you do?’ We’re about making decisions to move the company forward. We’re not really short-term-bothered.”

How involved is Permira in running the business?
KW: “They understand what makes Dr. Martens tick. I meet the team on my own once a month, and we have a board meeting once a month. They’re smart people and understand the brand, and they’re encouraging of what we’re doing. If I look at how much the company has grown, their investment has allowed us to professionalize.”

Where do you see the brand in the next 
five years?
KW: “We want to keep the brand true to itself. Making the organization bigger doesn’t mean we’ll change [Dr. Martens]. We’ll be in more countries and more present in the places we are in. There’s so much growth in this business in footwear — we want to stay focused on that and do it really well.”

Nailing the digital business is crucial for everyone. How are you doing?
KW: “We’re moving forward, but we’re not where we need to be. Our digital business is going to grow 60 percent this year, which is great, but that’s from a small base. It’s not enough. Just before I joined, we hired a chief digital officer. He’s now built the team out. We also have e-commerce directors in all the key markets. We’re replatforming our websites in Japan and Korea. Some of those activities are helping drive the growth. It’s going to be so important for us to say we’ve got some brick-and-mortar stores, we’ve got great wholesale partners, but we are also a digitally focused company. But we’re not there yet.”

How much do you think about competition?
KW: “It’s easy to think about it as buying Dr. Martens versus Timberland, but competition is broader than it was before. We see ourselves competing for the consumer pound/dollar/yen. If I got some money, I can choose to spend money on Dr. Martens, but I can choose to spend it going out or going to a gig or having beer with friends. We need to make sure the 25-year-old wants to spend money with us.”

gigi hadid, milan fashion week, street style, dr. martens
Gigi Hadid wearing classic Dr. Martens ankle boots as she touches down for Milan Fashion Week in February.
CREDIT: Splash

How important are collaborations to your success story?
KW: “It’s part of keeping the brand being talked about. It also encourages the design team to think about innovation. How can we innovative our product 1460 boot or 1461 shoe? It forces us to constantly think about how to reinvent the original and then build the business beyond the silhouettes that people know us for. So someone who already has a lot of the boots says, ‘I’m going to buy that Sex Pistols collaboration because I like it.’”

Do you have a typical day or week?
KW: “I wouldn’t say I’ve got a typical day. I focus on the brand and product — and on people. While we are sitting here, there’s a team finishing their day in Asia Pacific and waking up in America. Whether I’m sitting in Camden or Portland [Ore.] or Tokyo, I’ll be spending my time meeting as many people as possible and getting a chance to ask as many questions as I can. One of the smartest people I worked for said, ‘Listen, learn and lead, in that order.’ Shut up and ask as many questions as possible. It’s true you learn as much as possible that way. People working on a brand like this are excited, and they want to talk about it.”

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