One afternoon last spring, Paul Italiano was inside FashioNation, the rock-and-roll boutique that he and his wife Pam have co-owned and operated since 1987, when one of his longtime customers entered the store on South Broadway with his teenage son.
The father, whom Italiano knew well from his patronage of the store over the years, announced that his kid was there to buy his first pair of Dr. Martens boots — ankle-high boots with air-cushioned soles that are often referred to simply as “Docs.” Both the father and Italiano grinned as the boy scanned the 100 styles that FashioNation, at 1594 South Broadway, offers of the iconic boots, which became a signature fashion statement among punk rockers, new-wavers, alternative rockers and members of various subcultures during the 1970s, '80s and ’90s.
“The dad was just enjoying watching his son being a grownup and thinking about when he got his first pair," Italiano says. “This is like a rite of passage.”
It's such a rite of passage that Italiano and his wife have started to collect photos of kids and young adults buying their first Docs.
The teenager elected for a classic choice — eight-eyelet “greasy” Dr. Martens — and posed for a photo (with his dad on his right and Italiano to his left) holding the boots with his middle finger sticking out. “With some attitude,” Italiano noted along with a smiley emoji on a Facebook post.
The photos that the shop posts to Facebook leave out real names for customers' privacy (and Italiano and his wife ask for permission to post the photos ahead of time), but they show a diverse mix of youngsters — including babies! — rocking their first pairs of Dr. Martens.
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Now that virgin Dr. Martens buying experience is happening with a younger generation multiple times per week, according to Italiano. He also explains why the purchases are so meaningful: "Any thirty- or forty-year-old with these boots can tell you every detail about where and when they bought their first pair of Docs. It's not like a pair of Converse or something. With Docs, it's special. Many can remember specific details, like it was hot the day they got their first pair, or that they came in and found a perfect pair with cherry steel toes or green laces... .”
“In the older days,” he continues, "wearing Docs meant you weren’t part of the corporate, mainstream side of culture. It was simple rebellion through footwear. If you were the cool teacher at school, instead of wearing penny loafers, you might wear a pair of three-hole Docs. And if you were a student, you knew in your own little way that this was a finger to The Man."
Nowadays, Dr. Martens boots are more mainstream, but they still communicate plenty about their wearers through the weight of the fashion accessory's history. Furthermore, they give Italiano hope that even with shifting musical tastes among younger generations, rock-and-roll culture is far from being dead; he even had one teenager come in and request Docs that were decorated with the design from the cover of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures.
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As Westword described in a 2016 cover story (“Hit Parade,” November 18, 2016), FashioNation is already known for drawing rock stars when they pass through Denver — including times the shop hosted bandmembers from the Ramones, REM, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Motörhead and many more. Sometimes musicians are even there when a young customer is choosing his or her first pair of Docs.
That happened in November last year, when John Bechdel of the band Ministry was in the shop and posed with a young man selecting a pair of Dr. Martens. Al Jourgensen's partner, Liz Walton, took the photo of the grinning teenager along with Bechdel and Italiano, which Italiano captioned, “Just came in for his first pair of doc's!!! - and a photo with a huge ass rock star!! SWEET!!! Ministry in the house!!! he went with the 8 black greasy, John from Ministry got the Joy Divisions boots!! what a day!.”
“So many of these kids are making their first adult purchase,” Italiano says. “They save their money, and this is what they want to buy. You can’t understate that. This is a rite of passage. I went from a kid to 'Now I got my Docs.'"