An old favourite gets a bit of a lift this weekend. Doc Martens shoes have already attained a classic status beyond fashion, becoming as permanent a part of the style landscape as the American dream jean, the Levi 501. Now, in Red or Dead shoe shops, there are high-heeled Doc Martens, designed specifically for women and a big step forward for the 'DM'.

The sole - the celebrated bouncy sandwich made from a granular PVC compound - has remained virtually unchanged since 1960. Over the years, its manufacturers have done no more than introduce a couple of lighter variations and a commando sole.

The addition of a thick heel brings a twist, one that may not be to the liking of the skinheads who still buy eight-eyelet boots, the best-selling DMs of the Sixties and early Seventies. The traditionally broad sole has been slimmed down for the high-heeled range, and sizes are limited to between three and eight. The first styles include high-heeled lace-ups and Chelsea boots, and plain Gibsons and elasticated slip-ons, selling from pounds 60.

Beautiful they are not. But the typical DM wearer has always found beauty in the ugly; the chunkier the better. There is a sense, too, of maintaining a great British tradition. You go to Italy or France for delicate, elegant shoes, but you buy British for sturdy welted workhorses that will last for ever.

The design and manufacturing team has been keeping quiet about its new Doc Martens. Like Formula One engineers nurturing a new engine, it does not believe in premature boasts. Last March, the first prototypes were shown to retail customers at a trade exhibition in Germany. They took orders for 16,000 pairs and have been turning down enquiries ever since.

The high-heeled Doc Marten is the result of a collaboration between R Griggs, a Northamptonshire company that churns out DMs by the thousand, and Red or Dead, a hip young fashion company best known for its bold, bright footwear and kitsch clothing. But Vicky Pratt, who designed the high-heeled DM, is not around to see her creation hit the shelves: she was lured away from Red or Dead during the summer to work for Shelly's, a high street footwear retailer which also produces its own in-house ranges. The best designers in the fashion footwear market are (like Formula One drivers) hotly sought after by rival companies.

Griggs has prepared its factories to produce 5,000 pairs a month. This is small-time business for the company, which makes 150,000 pairs of Doc Martens every week, but the Griggs family is cautious by nature. It still seems slightly bemused by the international demand for its product.

Stephen Griggs, the company's managing director, confesses: 'To be honest, we didn't realise so many women had started wearing DMs in the mid-Eighties. In our innocence, we just noticed a massive swing from men's to boys' sizes, and we thought boys were buying them.'

Coinciding with the launch of the high-heeled DM, Griggs is also manufacturing a new 'County' collection of more conservative Doc Martens for women: blue suede brogues, pine- green leather Gibsons, mustard boots. Like the heeled DMs, the shoes are made with slimmer shapes and lighter soles.

The air-cushion sole was invented in the Forties by Claus Maertens, a Bavarian doctor who had injured his foot skiing. To relieve the pain of walking, Maertens made a pair of shoes using old tyres, trapping air within closed compartments to cushion the foot. Maertens and a colleague, Herbert Funck, marketed his invention.

The two doctors made some money from Dr Maertens's shoes in the Fifties, but it was the British connection that put the DM phenomenon into overdrive. Bill Griggs, a shoe manufacturer who had set up his own factory producing vulcanised rubber soles, acquired the licence (which now covers the world) in 1960 to make the footwear and set about turning a small-scale success into a big-time brand.

Mr Griggs anglicised the name to Dr Martens (still the trading name, although 'Doc' has stuck in the popular consciousness) and started selling to industry, the police, even the Post Office. They were, and still are, advertised as 'Air Wair' Dr Martens - shoes with bouncing soles resistant to oil, fat, acids, petrol or alkali.

Doc Martens shoes were winners from the start, and a marked improvement on the G B Britton's 'Tuf' boot that dominated the market at the time. By the mid- Sixties, Griggs was struggling to keep pace with demand although the DM was still considered a product for working men rather than the fashion-conscious. Then the skinheads started wearing the cherry red.

In the early days, the skinheads' enthusiasm for Doc Martens was not widely welcomed in Wollaston, Griggs's headquarters. Stephen Griggs recalls: 'We were mildly embarrassed about it, actually. My grandad got phoned up by the Daily Mirror, demanding to know why we were continuing to make them.'

For some, the eight-eyelet DM boot was the symbol of a disintegrating 'bovver boy' society. Wayne Hemingway, of Red or Dead, remembers being divested of his DM laces when he went to watch Blackburn Rovers. 'The police used to line us up, us 11- year-olds, and confiscate the laces.' The idea was you could not kick anyone without laces because the boots would fly off.

In the Seventies, the range of DMs was still restricted: 90 per cent of production was accounted for by the eight-eyelet boot and three-eyelet shoe, invariably in black or cherry red - 'a production heaven', according to Stephen Griggs. Skinheads and punks were not interested in variety.

However, the British fashion explosion of the early and mid- Eighties changed all that. Designers such as Richmond/Cornejo customised their boots, adding shoe jewellery and encouraging women to wear them. The skinhead spell was broken. Japanese tourists made pilgrimages to London to stock up on Doc Martens. And then came Red or Dead, which now sells 50,000 pairs a year to young customers who set many of the trends on the high street.

Griggs and Red or Dead have been working together for eight years, during which Wayne Hemingway has made a mint by matching DM soles with every upper known to fashion (and a few more he invented for good measure). In the Eighties, he sold everything from air-cushioned brogues, tasselled loafers and jodhpur boots to clear plastic 'Space Baby' boots, many of which are still part of Red or Dead's range. More recently, the company has added metallic glitter for night, and bright-red gingham checks for customers who really want to go wild. With the reassuring base of a DM, it seems anything will sell.

That Red or Dead is still setting the pace in 1992, rather than relying on its past achievements, owes much to the down-to-earth Wayne Hemingway. He is a businessman, not a fashion victim: 'I can't stand all this lah-di-dah business in fashion, all this kissing-on- cheeks stuff.'

From the company's headquarters near Wembley Stadium in north London, Hemingway is masterminding an expansion remarkable at a time when the fashion industry is in recession. There are Red or Dead's own-label collections of shoes and clothing, and another collection of clothing and accessories specifically for Miss Selfridge. The next step for Hemingway is the development of a range of clothing under the Dr Martens label, funded and manufactured by Griggs.

For DM purists, high heels are just the first of a series of shocks to come. But how will the heeled DM go down with, say, the people who shop in London's Covent Garden? Reactions outside the Red or Dead branch this week were mixed. Elena Goodison, 24, said: 'The heels look weird, like they've been stuck on.' Una Lydon, 18, shook her head. 'They're too clumpy, not for me.'

But for every thumbs-down there was vociferous approval from someone else. Lisa Southgate, a 20-year-old student, said: 'They're great, really bouncy and strong.' Fiona Watson, 23, said: 'They are incredibly comfortable. You can really walk in them.'

Griggs tested its new product more unconventionally: over the road from its head office. On the day I visited recently, Stephen Griggs summoned his tester from Wollaston Post Office to meet the gentleman from the press.

Her name is Mary Barnes and she is Wollaston's postwoman. 'Very honoured, I was, to be asked,' she said. 'And very comfortable they are, too. My 12-year- old liked them. 'Cor, Mum]' she said. 'Can you get a pair for me?' '

High-heeled Dr Martens are available from all Red or Dead stores, including 36 Kensington High Street, London W8; 33 Neal Street, WC2; First floor, Royal Exchange, Manchester; 43 Stephenson Street, Birmingham; and from Schuh stores, including Union Street, Glasgow. Mail order information on 081- 902 5588.

(Photograph omitted)