On Tour With Dr. Martens’ Creative Director, Darren ‘DMac’ McKoy

Complex UK flew out to NYC to meet up with DMac as Dr. Martens goes on tour to spread its message of strength and community through its latest campaign.

Darren ‘DMac’ McKoy / Image via Dr. Martens

Dr. Martens, the iconic footwear brand whose roots were formed in Northampton six decades ago, is setting the stage for a new visual identity through the launch of its new Made Strong campaign and innovative incubation, 14XX.

Kicking things off with an event at Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, the brand brought its latest vision to life and introduced it to the world for the first time through a carefully curated product installation previewing the new collection. The walls of the warehouse provided a gritty backdrop for NYC photographer Adam Zhu’s work to shine on. Not only that, but music lovers and fans got to experience live performances from the likes of cellist and singer Kelsey Lu, house DJ Hank K, native New Yorker and GHE20G0TH1K founder Venus X, and more, further showcasing DMs’ ongoing connection to underground music.

A new era for the Dr. Martens cannot take place without situating it within the contextual history of the brand, since its inception 60 years ago with the OG 1460 boot. In the space, a visual display of the evolution of Dr. Martens products—strategically placed in the centre of the unreleased 14XX collection—is a symbol of their history being at the heart of their future movements.

Through this, onlookers are able to see how things have changed since the very beginning, as much as the things that have stayed the same, notably the iconic yellow welt stitch. The outskirts of the room are methodically decorated with the new additions to the Dr. Martens’ product range including the 14XX Beta Pack, the Protection Pack, and the Sub Boot. As well as a new product range, Dr. Martens has also teamed up with 14 creatives, including Japanese rapper Nene and Lagos-born, London-based skate collective Motherlan, to help reshape perceptions of strength through their own stories.

Complex UK flew out to NYC to catch up with UK-born creative director, Darren ‘DMac’ McKoy, the driving force behind the team of visionaries who conceptualised Dr. Martens’ new campaign. We discuss how important it is to re-explore what strength truly means to the new generation, his perspective on the buzzing underground culture in the UK, his introduction to DMs since joining the company 8 years ago, as well as the future of the brand.

COMPLEX: What does this campaign and the start of the “new era” mean for the future of Dr. Martens?
Darren ‘DMac’ McKoy:
From a brand perspective, we really want to capture the spirit of Dr. Martens over the last 63 years, but just modernise it for Gen Z and for the younger consumer. We have some extremely die-hard Dr. Martens wearers that we hope will be with the brand for a while. Because of what we stand for and what we believe in, be it through self expression or through the core values of the brand—which is durability, versatility, and being there to empower people—I think what we want to do now is start to move and connect with new consumers that probably never considered Dr. Martens in the past, and recontextualize our heritage for today’s world.

I’m interested to know how you’re engaging your core, cult following, whilst still attracting the new wearers of DM. How are you merging the two?
They’re very similar. I think we have many different wearers. I always give this example: you could have somebody in one of the new styles or somebody in one of our classic styles, and they could be styling them in ten different ways but, fundamentally, they’re still wearing the same boot and it’s just their own expression. So, for me, I think our core wearers are equally as important as the new wearers. We always find the answers in the archive and we continue to focus on that first. 14XX is just really about us exploring different areas of rebellion. So the majority of our business will be driven through our core consumer and our core narrative. But this is opening us up to a new wearer, opening the aperture.

You joined the business nine years ago and was officially appointed as creative director in March of last year. How has it all been so far?
It’s been an amazing journey because, first of all, the brand is in a really good place. And like you said: it’s moving into a new era. Having been here as the brand’s grown from when I first joined, and seeing the transformation and the consistent progression of the brand, that’s also remarkable. New people coming in, new ideas, new ways of thinking, but also retaining a lot of the history and the heritage within the design team, gives it a perfect blend. Then, in terms of my role, the business has really allowed me to explore new ways of thinking and new ways of doing, too. 14XX being a perfect example, or the way in which we collaborate and who we work with to help us push the narrative from that perspective. It’s been an amazing journey.

What’s your first story with a pair of Dr. Martens?
I used to wear them to school! My uncle used to be an original Black skinhead up in Sheffield and he wore 1490 boots. He used to listen to Madness, Specials, two-tone music and ska. He was probably the coolest person I knew when I was a kid. And with someone like that being a fashion icon, or at least a style icon at the time, someone who looked really different to everyone else that I was hanging around with or even in my family, you kind of look at him and think, “He’s the odd one out, but actually, he’s probably the coolest guy ever.” “What’s that music he’s playing? It sounds sick!” My uncle said to my mum that she needed to get me a pair of Dr. Martens because the shoes that I was wearing were always breaking down. “Get him some proper boots!” So that became an impromptu link into the brand at an early age and then that evolves into the narrative that it is now.

With the campaign being called Made Strong, and the brand being synonymous with durability, why is now an important time to redefine strength?
Well, I think we all know the world’s in a different place and continues to morph and evolve. We have an opportunity to bring people and communities together and generally celebrate strength and celebrate people’s individuality. For me, it’s a great opportunity for us to start to break down, let’s say, some of the negativity that’s going on in the world and actually push a positive and progressive story out there, which celebrates strength. Every time you talk about strength, everyone always talks about being “hard” to deal with certain situations. No, strength can manifest itself in different ways, right? I’m going to come and speak to you and help you out with a problem that you’ve got. That’s strength. Putting yourself in someone else’s moment. I think it’s just a good way of taking the values of the brand from its products’ roots and, like I said before, recontextualizing them for our wearers and allowing a campaign that brings a new point of view to people being strong in times of uncertainty.

You’ve collaborated with 14 different creatives to tell the story of strength and different perspectives of strength. Are there any of their stories that really resonated with you and highlight aspects of what this new campaign is about?
There’s a lot of key messaging. What I find fascinating about it is this idea of collective strength, and how we need to start to bring communities together again. We always talk about youth culture and subcultures, and a lot of that was built through strength and communities coming together through music or social issues. I think the great thing about this is that you’ve got 14 individuals who have all got their own stories but, actually, we’re talking about the same thing—which is, fundamentally: how do you find positivity through your own strength? 

Collaboration with creatives is such a key thing for the brand and it definitely doesn’t feel like the latest additions, like Slawn and Motherlan, were random choices. 
They weren’t random at all. Some of the people in the campaign will feature in other aspects of what we’re doing as well across the years, which is wicked. Slawn and Motherlan, there’s a natural connection between us and them, and with everyone else in the campaign. But there’s some exciting things that’ll come down across the course of this year and next. I think it really goes back to individuals who are doing unique things, individuals who have different perspectives on strength, individuals who are pushing and driving community—which is something that Dr. Martens has historically been involved in, peer to peer. 

What do you think of London’s up-and-coming creative scene? There’s so much happening right now, with people like Slawn doing a madness in the art space, Len in the underground music scene, and other Dr. Martens collaborators like jazz outfit Ezra Collective reaping their rewards.
We’re in New York right now and I have the luxury of travelling to many cities. It’s really interesting. There’s so much going on—it’s hard to keep up. But the more you travel, the more you open up your mind to different ways of thinking, different ways of doing things. I think people like Slawn and Ezra Collective, they’re pushing the narrative in their own way. They’re all giving back to their communities and trying to foster everyone to go in the same direction that’s in the wider community. For me, it’s a beautiful moment because what Dr. Martens has always been about is the element of empowerment. If you win, pull everyone with you! I think that’s why the campaign is really interesting, because it’s a platform in different cities. That’s the reason why it’s targeted towards different cities, building and strengthening communities across the globe.

We started here in New York, and this is the first of three cities you’re hitting with this campaign. Tokyo and London are up next. Why was NYC first to bat, though?
I think New York’s important because we’re looking to continue to drive our business here. The U.S. is still our biggest market and New York is obviously a cultural epicenter, as is LA in terms of all things Dr. Martens. So New York was important because there’s a community that we want to reconnect to, be it through the lens of music or other creative mediums. We wanted to get to the space to show the evolution of where the brand is going.

I’ll be 100% honest with you: I’ve developed a newfound respect for Dr. Martens because I was a casual wearer before this trip. Then, coming on this trip, learning about the history behind the brand, seeing the direction you’re going in now, seeing the new product and speaking to you about it, it's been really eye-opening. 
I appreciate that. I think that’s part of what we’re trying to do. I think the combination of product, people, brand, community, and actually being aware of who we’re talking to and who we’re trying to kind of build for, is the one thing that will hopefully build people’s eyes to the brand. Fundamentally, it’s about fostering the same connectivity that we’ve had for years, but for today’s wearers and actually educating the kids that probably didn’t know about Dr. Martens 10, 15, 20 years ago.

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