It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for Darren McKoy, who’s lovingly known as DMac to friends, peers and around the space he’s called home for seven years – the Dr. Martens head office, which is planted in the centre of Camden, North London. Earlier this month, it was announced that he’s taken the role of creative director for the storied footwear brand. Prior to this, he was global product director – less creative, more merchandise-oriented.
“But design has always been there,” he says in the hi-tech, recently refurbished office. “We had a creative director, who left the business in December last year, and I worked very closely with him for seven and a half years. It was a natural progression for me to move into that role.”
McKoy didn’t follow the standard path to get to where he is now. There were no hazy teenage dreams of being a designer, nor did he go to art school. Yet throughout his life, certain moments have pointed to the position he’s in now – he just didn’t know it at the time.
The designer connects his working-class upbringing in Sheffield to how Dr. Martens has always operated. “It comes together quite naturally,” he says. “Dr. Martens, fundamentally, is a working-class brand. My background in terms of work ethic, pride and passion are very similar. It’s very much a democratic brand.”
Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, he had his eyes and ears open to the world around him. Like Dr. Martens’ history, where style subcultures like punk merged with the new subversive sounds coming out of teenage bedrooms, there was a high-octane clash of music and fashion on his radar. It all came from his uncle, who was an original Trojan skinhead. “He used to wear 1490 cherry red boots and he was the coolest person I knew in Sheffield in terms of style,” McKoy says. “He was into The Specials and Trojan music – all that good stuff.”
And like most fans of Dr. Martens, McKoy can vividly remember the first time he slipped on a pair of DMs. For most people, it’s a rebellious teenage rite of passage after they’ve saved up enough pocket money. But for him, it was a little more wholesome – his first school shoes were 1461s, bought by his mum before he started secondary school. “There was definitely an interesting clash going on there,” he says, “in terms of how it comes from a cultural standpoint, but also the fact Dr. Martens has always connected to me personally.”
Before he stuck the boot in at Dr. Martens in 2015, McKoy, who appeared on Drapers’ 30 under 30s list in 2013, had held positions at Adidas, The North Face and Onitsuka Tiger – all marginally sportier than the heritage brand he now helms. For him, though, those experiences give a whole new perspective when designing for a predominantly Gen Z customer base. Like the under-25s and their ever-changing tastes, McKoy’s adept at keeping up with the times.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best designers throughout my career. You get to talk to collaborators that bring a different point of view,” he says. “I’ve been immersed in that for many years and it has helped me get an understanding of what we should do and how we should do things moving forward.”
For a brand steeped in as much history as Dr. Martens, McKoy gets that it’s imperative to balance the old and new. If not, he risks pissing off one half and pleasing the other. Most of his stylistic references come from Japanese brands like Comme des Garçons, but he has a particular sweet spot for English heritage brands like Burberry and, himself “being from the north of England”, terrace culture.
Over the past few years, Dr. Martens has established itself as a trusted collaborator for brands far and wide. Supreme, A‑COLD-WALL*, Rick Owens and Comme des Garçons have all released collections under the British brand, to huge success.
“Balancing the [old and new] is critical to ensure our past inspires the future,” he says, using the ever-popular 1460 and 1461 boot as an example. “It has stood the test of time – we haven’t needed to mess around with a masterpiece. We innovate around it, looking at how we can refresh it. Innovation doesn’t always come through creating the next new thing. Innovation sometimes comes through obsessing and re-mastering the classics.”
For a brand like Dr. Martens, McKoy’s perspective makes sense. Its loyal customer base isn’t necessarily after a new shape or style – the foundations have already been laid out. But in the world of social media, where trends come and go like a high-speed conveyor belt, collaboration is all part of keeping up.
With that said, McKoy gets his buzz from the streets, when he’s travelling around the world and seeing Dr. Martens interpreted in a variety of ways. “You see how many unique people are wearing the products and, for me, that’s so impactful and so powerful,” he says. “You can be in Leeds or Harajuku, New York or LA, and everyone wears Dr. Martens differently. That’s a constant point of inspiration.”
It goes hand in hand with the creative director’s outlook for Dr. Martens’ future: banding together to push forward an optimistic agenda. “This year, the attitude for the brand is really about community,” he says. “It’s about empowering people to be themselves in these, let’s say, testing times. It’s about ensuring we can take the creativity forward, whatever creed or background you’re from. The power is in the community.”