If you, a dedicated menswear aficionado, haven’t heard of Solovair before, you mustn’t beat yourself up! Nor had I! But this isn’t some brand-new, out-of-the-blue footwear designer, Solovair has been manufacturing for generations and even made the boots of another brand you’ve undoubtedly heard of—Dr. Martens.
Though Solovair (part of the Northamptonshire Productive Society) no longer manufactures those famous boots, they continue to fabricate excellent footwear, much as they have since the company’s founding in 1881. For more on this historic brand operating in the shadow of some of fashion’s great behemoths, read on.
Before today’s modern shoemaking business practices, the business of shoemaking in the 1800s lacked structure. Artisans worked out of their homes and made money only for the wares they had ready to sell when a higher-up came by with a wheelbarrow. If you hadn’t met a quota, you wouldn’t make very much money, and the craftspeople were poorly compensated for their labor.
In the town of Wollaston, five such shoemakers banded together to form the pragmatically-named Northamptonshire Productive Society in order to pool their resources, and hopefully, profits. These clever (and productive) shoemakers almost immediately reaped the benefits of their ingenuity. They were awarded a yearlong production order for the English Army. Now, better organized, and guaranteed a share in the fruits of their labor, these folks couldn’t go back.
By the turn of the century, England was changing rapidly. Industrialization was shaking up the way people lived and worked and with a slew of new factory and manufacturing jobs opening, people needed sturdy footwear to stay safe. In the twenty or so years since its inception, the company’s staff had increased exponentially and NPS had to move to a new factory, where it remains to this day.
Chicken or Egg
In 1901, also in Northamptonshire, a manufacturer called Griggs sprang up. As far as we can tell, they and NPS were in friendly competition, although the two brands became rather tangled together in the late 1950s. It’s hard to tell if Dr. Martens or Solovair came first, but regardless, the folks at Griggs heard of an air-cushioned sole made by a Dr. Maertens in Austria and acquired exclusive rights to the patented air-cushioned sole. The only issue was that Griggs had neither the technology to make these new-fangled soles, nor a way to Goodyear welt these soles to their characteristic leather uppers. This production moved to NPS and the very first pair of Dr. Martens was made, not by Dr. Maerten, nor by the company who had the license to make them.
What’s unclear is whether or not Solovair was independently developed by NPS or happened to coincide with the introduction of Dr. Martens’ technology. Did NPS merely have the equipment to Goodyear welt the air-cushioned sole developed by Maertens to the Griggs’ boot or did they have this equipment precisely because they’d pioneered this similar air-cushioned sole tech? Regardless of this chicken or egg situation, Solovair was created and many Dr. Martens shoeboxes were printed with “by Solovair” starting in 1960 and petering out in the 1990s.
When NPS’ contract with Dr. Martens expired, they trademarked “Solovair” and continued manufacturing Dr. Marten-esque boots on the original machines they’d used since the 1990s. This happened to coincide with a global trend that sent a lot of U.K. brands abroad. So, while Dr. Martens ceased (for the most part) their U.K. production, Solovair was still there to pick up the slack. In 2006, when the factory was threatened with closure, a local Wollaston resident and footwear expert, Ivor Tilley, offered to buy NPS from the collective of workers, and they unanimously decided in his favor.
As a privately-owned entity, NPS and Solovair have continued to thrive, each manufacturing their own signature styles. Solovair’s styles mimic the original Dr. Martens that were made in their factory and on the original equipment, albeit with arguably more interesting materials. NPS, on the other hand, produces more traditional dress shoes, much in the classic English shoemaking tradition.
Beyond their own lines, NPS continues to manufacture for other brands. Even in the present day, some 130 years after the first five shoemakers banded together for job security, other well-known brands still turn to this small, relatively-unknown band of makers in Northamptonshire for help when they want to make the most excellent products possible.
Solovair Black Hi-Shine Gibson Shoe
That classic chunky, Goodyear-welted goodness, the Gibson is the elevated version of the fast-fashion Dr. Marten shoe that everyone seems to have. The Solovair air-cushioned sole, the hi-shine black leather; it all comes together for a gorgeous and classic wardrobe essential.
Available for £129 at Solovair.
Another elevated classic, the Wallace from NPS is a hugely superior version of the Clark’s desert boot. It has the suede upper, the crepe sole, and the stitch-down construction; just about everything you could want from a good, solid chukka.
Available for £100 at NPS.