Q&A: Steve Murray - CEO at Airwair International – Dr. Martens


AS CEO of global iconic brand Dr. Martens, Steve Murray's role centres around building its unique heritage both in the UK and globally. Here he talks expansion plans for the shoe giant, its new flagship in Camden, and the role of the physical store.

RF. How did your career lead you to CEO at Airwair International – Dr. Martens?

SM. Dr. Martens is an iconic brand with an iconic product and a very unique history. I’m a product guy at heart and I’ve spent my entire career with great, globally recognised brands where building on a unique heritage is key – including at both Vans and Urban Outfitters, whose customers and business models have many parallels with that of DM. In addition, I’ve spent almost half my working life in the US, which is Dr. Martens’ biggest market, and I also have extensive experience in both Asia and Continental Europe. More than 80 per cent of Dr. Martens' revenues are from outside the UK so I guess the international component was a big factor.

RF. Who is the Dr. Martens customer?

SM. We have several, mostly defined by attitude or function rather than by age or demographic. The customer we’re most often associated with are those individuals who want to stand out from the crowd – those not afraid to look different. They may be regarded as rebellious or a bit alternative and who often challenge social norms. Through the years there have been many social tribes who've adopted Dr. Martens as part of their uniform – punks, goths, scooter boys, grunge enthusiasts, you name it. Usually with a particular musical genre associated with the look. However, we started as a work boot and a big part of our business is still industrial, where the customer is firmly blue collar and more focused on functionality of the product – comfort, durability, protection and so on – than they are the more rebellious aspects of the brand. More recently we seem to have been adopted by a fashion customer too, and in certain parts of the world we have a substantial casual business where the consumer is more mainstream.

RF. Can you tell us about your new store concept in Camden?

SM. We opened in Camden in April and it really is an experiential store concept. It carries our full footwear range across Men’s, Women’s, Kid’s, Industrial, as well as limited edition exclusive product. But it’s the location and the store elements that make the space really special. Even though we're very proud of our manufacturing heritage, which all started in the shoe making region of Northamptonshire nearly a century ago, we regard Camden as the brand’s spiritual home because of its alternative vibe, diverse street culture and association with music. There are probably more Dr. Martens wearers in Camden than anywhere else in the world. The building is a 19th century stable with lots of original features, and we echoed this in the store's design, which is deliberately an industrial, stripped down, hard edged environment. When you walk in, you really feel like you are experiencing the brand. Downstairs, we have a permanent live music space where we host some fantastic established and up-and-coming bands in collaboration with online radio specialists Mixcloud. Around the edge of the space we showcase some of our music memorabilia and original items donated by the likes of The Joe Strummer Archive and Pauline Black of The Selector. We also installed a virtual reality experience, which takes customers on a virtual tour of our UK factory, showing them how a pair of DMs is made. Upstairs, we have a customisation area where you can personalise and create your very own pair of DMs, or upgrade your old boots. It really is a unique store experience and we intend to replicate this type of feeling across our entire store base. 

RF How important was it to bring the brand’s heritage back to the area and offer live music events?

SM. Dr. Martens has a long-standing and important relationship with music and so being in Camden – a place that has a history steeped in music – was very symbolic. We’ve positioned the brand right where it belongs, in the heart of a vibrant and alternative community. Because of our history with music, and through all of the artists that have engaged with our brand over the years, we wanted to create a music space within the store; a space that is accessible to our customers and that also gives up-and-coming acts a platform to showcase their talent. We hope that the live music area will be a really positive thing for London’s music scene and we see the new store as becoming a real cultural hub for the brand.  

RF. Can you tell us about Dr. Martens’ expansion plans for the future?

SM. We have big plans for the future and see it as breaking down into three distinct areas, although they obviously overlap. First is geographical – historically we’ve been over-reliant on two markets, the UK and the US, but we’ve recently been growing dramatically in Asia, Canada and Continental Europe. We’re investing a lot in these new markets and so far, the consumers there seem eager to adopt us. Secondly, we’re expanding our direct-to-consumer business, not just by opening new stores, of which we’ve done a lot recently, but by turbo-charging our digital capabilities. It’s important to recognise that we don’t just see this as a trading channel, although obviously giving our customers the opportunity to view the entire product line the way they want to buy it is important. But we also see it as a way to share news of what the brand is up to in a more general sense; our music events, our artist community, our connection to local activities. Lastly, product  – although we’re incredibly proud of our Originals line – which literally dates back to the 1460 boot, our first eight-hole work boot, launched on the first of April 1960 - in recent years we’ve extended and updated the type of footwear we make and can now point to significant success in areas such as vulcanised pumps, sandals, women’s heels and more athletically-inspired casual shoes.

RF. Are there any cities you are planning on opening a store in the near future and why?

SM. Last year we focused our efforts on two markets – the Netherlands and the UK – and opened new stores in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Den Hague, Maastricht, Camden, Cambridge, Derby, Hull and Reading, as well as a handful in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Brooklyn and Manhattan. We also opened a few in Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong. This year we’re extending our Continental European presence by focusing on France and Belgium; we hope to open new stores in Lyon, Lille, Paris, Brussels, Ghent and possibly a few more. We see it as a natural extension to our stores in the Netherlands, which are doing very well. In the US we’ve decided to focus on the Greater New York area to build more of a presence and really cement what the brand stands for locally before we migrate to other regions. We also plan to open more than 30 stores in China through our recently appointed licensed retail partner there.

RF. How do you feel the role of the physical store has changed in recent years?

SM. That’s a good question. Our own stores have gone through a very deliberate transformation over the last couple of years and we’ve spent a lot of time internally talking about how our store environment has to represent everything we want the brand to be. Hence why the design of our newer stores – and some of the older ones which have been refurbished – now use materials which emphasise our industrial roots – burnished steel fixtures, reinforced industrial shelving, tough work benches reclaimed from factories, metal cages used to merchandise our footwear, unvarnished antique flooring, etc. These design elements are combined with imagery lifted from the music side of Dr. Martens – festivals, concerts, band members wearing our product on stage – to give the customer a brand experience to go with their shopping experience. We think bricks and mortar stores will always be a critical part of our distribution mix, but for a brand like ours, only if we use them to tell a bigger story.

RF. What’s next for Dr Martens?

SM. Essentially more of the same. In the last few years we’ve become a lot more strategic in the way we do business and have deliberately created a diversified model which balances our consumer groups, product lines, channels of distribution and geographies. In the past, Dr. Martens has occasionally been guilty of riding a trend wave with not much thought as to what happens when that particular trend is over. Because of the brand’s rich heritage, we’re able to attract many diverse consumer groups without them alienating each other, from industrial to casual to alternative to fashion. We just need to stay to true to the brand and make sure that everything we do is authentic to our customer, whatever 'tribe' they come from.



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