Gen Z Can't Stop Wearing Dr. Martens—How the Brand Scored the Coveted Generation


(Image credit: @emmachamberlain; Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images; Backgrid)

According to a Bloomberg report released at the tail end of 2021, Gen Z's disposable income stands at roughly $360 billion and counting. That number is staggering, and while it's less than that of millennials, it likely won't be for long. So really, it's not the least bit surprising that every brand has its sights set on the youngest cohort of shoppers, doing everything in their power to gain its trust and its dollars as soon as possible. That way, when Gen Zers do become the ones with maximum spending potential, they reap the benefits. But for many such brands, bagging the under-25 crowd hasn't come easy. 

One brand that has done it and done it well is Dr. Martens, the British footwear company that began making workwear boots but was soon picked up by counterculture movements, from punk musicians in the '70s to emo ones in the early aughts, and never looked back. Today, its legacy of gaining the trust of even the most skeptical of consumers remains strong thanks to Gen Z.


(Image credit: @emmachamberlain)

On Emma Chamberlain: Dr. Martens Adrian Loafers ($140); Bottega Veneta Cassette Camera Bag ($2750)


(Image credit: @oliviarodrigo)

On Olivia Rodrigo: Dr. Martens Jadon Boot ($190); Cfierce Dream Pleated Skirt ($76); Vamp top; Chanel bag

The easiest way to spot the brand’s dominance among the generation is by looking at its most prominent members, people like Olivia Rodrigo, Hailee Steinfeld, Addison Rae, and Emma Chamberlain, who told Who What Wear in 2020 of her affinity for Dr. Martens, especially the brand’s platform offerings: "I tend to only wear platforms so I'm really into platform Docs," she said. "I have the short ankle ones, I have the high ones, I have ones that have a zipper in the front that are high-top." Given her 16.2 million Instagram followers, combined with Rodrigo, Steinfeld, and Rae’s combined 87.7 million, it’s no wonder the brand has seen such success with young people, who, according to a 2022 study conducted by L.E.K. Consulting, consider Dr. Martens to be the second hottest brand for casual women’s footwear, only losing out to Crocs and beating both Birkenstock and Ugg. 

Darren McKoy, the creative director of Dr. Martens, believes that it is in the brand’s DNA to appeal to young people, especially those who are interested in side-stepping the status quo and creating a future for themselves that is unique. "[Our ethos] is all about empowerment, which is all about creativity, which is all about expressing yourself and being you,” he tells me from Dr. Martens’s store in Camden, a neighborhood in London known for housing counterculture movements. "This stays true from the last 60 years to today,” he says. As creative director, McKoy focuses much of his attention on the brand’s image and storied history, which he believes are paramount to its ongoing success. "We don't design to get into trends or fashion or things that are happening,” he says. "What we do to stay relevant is outside of the realm of products."


(Image credit: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)

On Willow Smith: Dr. Martens Jadon Boot ($190); Miaou Ren Skirt ($155)

Instead, McKoy’s team spends much of its time getting to know potential new customer bases on a personal level by engaging in conversations on platforms native to Gen Z like TikTok, nurturing young talent through an in-house apprentice program, and holding events that fit both Gen Z’s interests and the brand’s. Rather than trying to sell them boots outright, Dr. Martens works diligently to empower these groups and be in touch with them, which in turn keeps it young and enticing. "[The brand is] constantly absorbing culture,” says McKoy.

By keeping its product line fairly standard season after season, with Dr. Martens’s original 1460 boot remaining fundamentally the same since its development in 1960, the brand allows wearers to become the creators. "We take inspiration from Gen Z, from thrifting and taking classic styles and re-envisioning them and making them their own,” says Kristin Jones, Dr. Martens’s vice president of merchandising in the Americas. Heavy attention is paid toward the way that Gen Z consumers customize and style their Docs, "showcasing their individuality through lenses that matter to them, like TikTok,” Jones continues. The consistency and durability of Dr. Martens’s footwear is also how the brand appeals to Gen Z’s interest in sustainability. "There’s a [common] notion of constantly looking for something new, but actually, it’s probably more important to have something that’s consistent that you can have for the rest of your life,” says McKoy. "And that plays into what Dr. Martens is as a brand—it’s evergreen.” 


(Image credit: @lilamoss)

On Lila Moss: Dr. Martens Jadon Boot ($190)


(Image credit: @addisonraee)

On Addison Rae: Dr. Martens 1460 Boots ($170)


(Image credit: @haileesteinfeld)

On Hailee Steinfeld: Dr. Martens Jadon Boot ($190)

Naturally, other brands do operate differently, with successful strategies and techniques that bear no resemblance to those in practice at Dr. Martens. But a simple approach is what’s worked for the brand for decades, and McKoy sees no reason to complicate matters. "We're not marketing to you to [get you to] buy [our shoes]. We do marketing to let you understand the brand,” he explains. "And if you then choose to adopt [it], amazing. If you don’t, and you choose something else, that’s your decision. At the end of the day, we will continue to do what Dr. Martens does really well, and that’s make great boots.”

There’s never been a big push for Gen Z, Jones says, just as there was never a big push to get Dr. Martens on musicians rather than blue-collar workers, who its boots were originally designed for. Instead, the company focuses its energy on highlighting those areas where its history aligns with shoppers’ interests and passions. "[From there,] we allow consumers to come and adopt the brand aesthetic as they see fit,” McKoy says.


(Image credit: Backgrid)

On Zendaya: Khaite Teyana Wool Trousers ($1480); Dr. Martens Adrian Loafers ($140)

With $360 billion at stake, not dedicating a great deal of energy toward Gen Z is a risky bet for a brand, especially one as big as Dr. Martens. And yet, between the celebrity sightings, consumer reports, and the 697.9 million total views on TikTok, it appears to have been one worth gambling on. By turning the tables on itself and focusing its attention on maintaining an authentic brand image, which is inherently alluring to counterculture groups, Dr. Martens has done what so many brands have tried and failed to do: score Gen Z.

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Senior Fashion Editor

Eliza Huber is a New York City–based fashion editor who specializes in trend reporting, brand discovery, and celebrity style. She joined Who What Wear in 2021 after almost four years on the fashion editorial team at Refinery29, the job she took after graduating with a marketing degree from the University of Iowa. She has since launched two monthly columns, Let's Get a Room and Ways to Wear; profiled the likes of Dakota Fanning, Diane Kruger, Katie Holmes, and Sabrina Carpenter for WWW's monthly cover features; and reported on everything from the relationship between Formula One and fashion to the top trends from fashion month, season after season. Eliza now lives on the Upper West Side and spends her free time researching F1 fashion imagery for her side Instagram accounts @thepinnacleoffashion and @f1paddockfits, running in Central Park, and scouring eBay for '90s Prada and '80s Yves Saint Laurent.