Clarks' Cultural Footprint
Clarks' Cultural Footprint
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date November 15, 2018
With one of the most eclectic fanbases in footwear, Clarks has managed to connect with various subcultures the world over since its inception, with different iterations of their signature crepe-sole synonymous with different style tribes. Founded in 1825, Clarks began when brothers Cyrus and James set out to manufacture rugs and slippers, among other things. Originally known as C. & J. Clarks, the British brand as we know it developed in the aftermath of World War II, under the stewardship of Nathan Clark, a descendant of co-founder James Clark. Nathan Clark served in the Royal Army Service Corps during the War, where he studied standard issue military gear. While stationed in Burma, Nathan Clark came across soldiers who had served in North Africa and were issued ankle-height suede boots with crepe soles—an Anglo-Egyptian hybrid boot similar to the footwear worn by Dutch voortrekkers.
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Clark jotted down some quick notes and rough sketches and sent them back home. When he returned to England, he was adamant that Clarks needed to create its own version of the so-called “Desert Boot.” Released in 1950, the Clarks Desert Boot featured a two-piece suede upper and a comfortable but rugged crepe sole—still a Clarks’ hallmark nearly 70 years later. The Desert Boot is arguably the most important piece of footwear Clarks ever created. On top of paving the way to commercial success, the Desert Boot was also the first Clarks shoe closely associated with noteworthy subcultures, which in turn helped solidify Clarks cultural significance across the globe.
Initially, Nathan Clark found the response to his Desert Boot tepid at best. That is until the Chicago Shoe Fair exhibition, where the brand received a glowing review in Esquire that highlighted the shoe’s casual versatility. With an elegant style and an affordable price, the Desert Boot became a staple for a new class of “creative intellectuals”: the Beatniks. Throughout the United States the Desert Boot spread on the back of the Beat Generation, adored by those who were emulating the casual aesthetic of writers and intellectuals like Jack Kerouac.
By the ‘60s, Desert Boots were marketed as “the off-beat casual for up-beat intellectuals,” a not so subtle reference to their ubiquity within the closets of Beatniks. Building off that aesthetic association, the Desert Boot finally caught on in Clarks’ homeland, with a generation of English youth renowned for their modern—and, admittedly American—mode of dress, the Mods, embracing the crepe-soled suede chukka. Throughout the ‘60s, the Desert Boot benefitted from a dual identity of sorts: revered in the U.S. for it’s British elegance and lusted after in Britain for its association with the decidedly American Beatniks. Embracing that duality, Clarks transformed the Desert Boot to shoe of choice for both creatives and antiheroes alike. Bob Dylan was a noted fan, while George Harrison wore a pair for the cover of Abbey Road. That said, few embodied the Desert Boot’s identity quite like the late Steve McQueen. McQueen's roles in Bullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair and The Great Escape solidified him as an Americana style icon. McQueen’s choice footwear? Desert Boots, naturally. Given so many notable associations, it’s no surprise that the Desert Boot found a place at the heart of preppy menswear acolytes’ footwear rotations.
While the Desert Boot was certainly popular during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in the United States and the U.K., its impact there is modest compared to Jamaica. Best described as a group of discontent Jamaican youth with a mean streak, Jamaican rudeboys were inextricably tied to the country’s musical scene—first ska, then reggae and now dancehall. Renowned for their sartorial inclinations, rudeboys adopted the Desert Boot as part of their everyday uniform. Originally associated with Americana and Britishness in Kingston, the shoe quickly became a rudeboy favorite and the suede chukka became synonymous with the increasingly violent—and illicit—culture that surrounded rudeboyism in Jamaica.
By 1967, police were profiling people based on their footwear choices, with Desert Boots considered a sign of criminal activity. The same year, Clarks introduced a new silhouette, the Wallabee, a square-toed chukka sitting atop the company’s distinct crepe sole. With Clarks notoriety in Jamaica and the implicit links between the footwear brand and the rudeboys—who, despite their criminal associations were idolized—the Wallabee was immediate success on the Caribbean island nation. The 1971 introduction of the Desert Trek, a low-cut, crepe-soled hiking shoe with an intentionally noticeable stitch down the middle of the shoe and its subsequent commercial success in Jamaica was proof that Clarks as a brand, rather than simply its shoes, was popular in and of itself. The Desert Trek, too, became associated with crime. In Jamaica, they were called “bank robbers”—a reference to the hiker and his backpack stamped onto the heel of the shoe that, in Kingston at least, seemed more akin to an outlaw making off with a bag of cash. The trio of Clarks was subsequently fetishized within Jamaican pop culture, appearing on the country’s most famous musicians, sound system organizers and socialites. Reggae and dancehall album covers prominently featured Clarks throughout the ‘70s and by the time the ‘80s rolled around, Jamaica’s leading musicians were bragging about their Clarks.
Clarks’ cultural history in the United States, Jamaica and the U.K. paved the way for the brands continued relevance over the last three decades. Contemporary Clarks aficionados, such as Liam Gallagher of Oasis and Ghostface Killah of Wu-Tang Clan, can directly trace their affinity for the brand to the cultural footprint it left throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Gallagher’s love for Clarks knew no bounds, with the Oasis frontman wearing Desert Boots almost exclusively throughout the ‘90s and even collaborating with the brand on a pair in 2010. Gallagher’s infatuation coupled with Clarks’ history within Britain made the brand central to the “Cool Britannia” aesthetic that swept through the nation in the late ‘90s, an ode to things inherently British.
On the other side of the pond, Clarks had travelled from Kingston, Jamaica to Brooklyn along with the thousands of Jamaicans who had immigrated to New York. First worn by Brooklyn Yardies in the ‘80s, Clarks—Wallabees in particular—became a mainstay in New York’s emerging hip-hop scene in the ‘90s. In 1993, Wu-Tang Clan emerged as one of the genre’s dominant forces. As their notoriety and fame grew, they established themselves as the preeminent ambassadors of Clarks Wallabees within the still-nascent hip-hop world. They wore them on stage, were photographed in them for album covers and magazine spreads and rapped about them proudly. Ghostface Killah championed the shoes in particular, regularly referring to himself as the “Wallabee Champ” and “Wallabee Kingpin”, while fellow New York rapper Foxy Brown rapped that “Wallabees be the apparel” on Nas’ It Was Written.
Back in Jamaica, love for Clarks hadn’t waned. In Al Fingers’ standout chronicle of the country’s love affair with Clarks, Clarks in Jamaica, the DJ-turned-Clarks historian explains that, despite restrictions on imports, Jamaicans still found ways to purchase their beloved Clarks. Record runners used to bring reggae and dancehall vinyls to John MacGillivray, a record store owner in London and would return to Jamaica with pairs of Clarks in their luggage, bought directly from the brand’s factory in Somerset.
Despite the fact that Clarks were no longer as readily available in Jamaica, Desert Boots, Wallabees and Desert Treks remained supremely popular and continued to be intricately linked to the country’s vibrant music scene. Native Jamaican and self-proclaimed King of the Dancehall Vybz Kartel grew up in an era when Clarks and music were near synonymous and the shoes remained a key component of his wardrobe as he rose through the ranks of the Jamaican Dancehall scene. In 2010, he released what is arguably the clearest testament to Clarks’ cultural capital in Jamaica: “Clarks”. The ode to Clarks was Vybz Kartel’s crossover from cult favorite to internationally recognized artist and spawned follow-up singles “Clarks 2” and “Clarks 3.” The release and subsequent success of all three tracks in Jamaica reportedly led to an increase in Clarks sales and even their median price.
Recently, Clarks began a concerted effort to separate Clarks and Clarks Originals, the latter a lifestyle division more in-line with the culture of Clarks. Even contemporary Clarks Originals projects and collaborations have ties back to the original subcultures that fetishized the crepe-soled shoes.
The rise of casual menswear in the early 2010s saw the Desert Boot return as the footwear of choice for a new generation of “creative intellectuals” that dressed much like the Beatniks of the ‘50s and idolized the likes of Steve McQueen. Since its reemergence in menswear, Clarks has collaborated with countless retailers, brands and celebrities highlighting both its iconic status and connection to countless subcultures and movements. Naturally, Supreme has released a plethora of collaborations with Clarks that have explored both the British brand’s catalog as well as its cultural legacy in New York City by including lesser-known—but cult favorite—silhouettes like the Desert Mali and Weaver.
After half a century of being intricately tied to distinct groups around the world, Clarks may be as famous for its related associations as for the footwear it produces. While the brand continues to perform and innovate, it will forever be associated with the generations of artists, musicians and subcultures that elevated the brand to cult status.