Off-Beat Casual: Detailing the Indelible Stylistic Footprint of Clarks

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There are very few footwear brands that can boast such rich cultural integrity across a multitude of varied subcultures, but Clarks is certainly one of them. Factoring in that this is mainly on the strength of 2 - 3 iconic styles from a company pushing 200 years old, makes this all the more unique. Hailing from the town of Street, Somerset in the south west of England, the company began as Cyrus Clark’s tanning, fell mongering and wool-stapling business in the early-1820s. However, once Clark’s younger brother James joined the fold, they subsequently graduated to producing sheepskin rugs and slippers, setting it in good stead for it’s eventual trade as a leading lifestyle footwear label.

In 1950, the brand put out the Desert Boot, a landmark style for the company, designed by James Clark’s great-grandson Nathan. As an officer within the Royal Army Service Corps that had been deployed to Burma in the forties, Nathan Clark had been inspired by the footwear seen worn by the soldiers of the old Eighth Army stationed there: high-cut suede ankle boots made in the bazaars of Cairo. Nathan and his brother Bancroft then developed the original sample on the same last as the Guernsey Sandal, giving the shoe it’s recognizable shapely form, and a neutral stoney-beige split suede, still a core colorway for the boot to this day. Echoing the functional “field shoe”as worn by Dutch Voortrekkers, its flexible yet robust crepe sole offered durability and comfort with the sleek two-piece upper rounding off a clean, minimalist silhouette.

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“The off-beat casual for up-beat intellectuals.”

Despite the Desert Boot’s initially poor reception from the firm’s Stock Committee, Nathan believed in the prototype, and after Esquire’s Fashion Editor Oskar Shoefler came across the design at a shoe fair in 1949, the boot went on to appear in the pages of the magazine, photographed in colour, with Clarks given significant editorial credits. This led to their distribution across the U.S., notably long before being available in Britain, and its adoption amongst the Beatniks of the early to mid-1950s, which itself had spun off from the Beat Generation which had begun a few years prior.

The Desert Boot became a key component of the laid-back wardrobes of “creative intellectuals”/Beatniks across the country, a direct contrast to the broadly conservative mainstream fashion at the time and heavily inspired by the scene’s leading thinkers and writers such as Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac. “The off-beat casual for up-beat intellectuals” read one tagline from an early Desert Boot ad, as Clarks sought to overtly connect with this blossoming demographic.

Over in Britain, Beatnik fashion was beginning to inform that of the Mods, a working-class, clothes-obsessed youth subculture originally born out of (and subsequently named for) their collective appreciation of modern jazz, known as modernist, and the typical uniform that went with it: tailored, modern Italian clothes. During the course of the ’60s, this evolved to incorporate key items of Beat dress, including the Desert Boot. Rising off the back of the mass hysteria that followed British beat and pop groups such as The Beatles, The Who and the Small Faces — all renowned Desert Boot wearers — they became a staple of the Mod-influenced fashion that surrounded it, perhaps culturally defined by George Harrison strutting over the zebra-crossing in a pair on the iconicAbbey Road record sleeve in 1969. Steve McQueen, though not a Mod himself, but someone who in fact detested high fashion, is a principal style icon for the subculture to this day, due in part to his infatuation with Clarks’ suede chukka stepper throughout the late sixties.

The Mod style rumbled on and even enjoyed a mainstream revival around the early-1980s, no doubt thanks to the 1979 film Quadrophenia as well as the emergence of guitar groups such as The Jam and The Smiths, whose respective members Paul Weller and Johnny Marr were routinely photographed in Desert Boots. By the latter part of the decade, British Invasion revivalists Bobby Gillespie and Lee Mavers would also choose the crepe-soled boot to accompany their mop-top haircuts, stonewashed Levi’s and other 60s-inspired get up.

Though the boot’s appeal in its homeland as well as the U.S. is evident, it was in Jamaica where it had an even greater cultural effect. As London-based DJ Al Fingers mentions in his essential guide to the nations infatuation with the brandClarks In Jamaica, a shoe this comfortable was important in a country where the main mode of transport for many was walking, and Desert Boots offered adequate durability as well as looking the part.

But with the emergence of the Rude Boys, another youth subculture born from the delinquency around West Kingston in the mid sixties, the boots took on a whole new persona, becoming a wardrobe mainstay for the angry and increasingly violent young men synonymous with the nation’s rocksteady, reggae, second-wave ska and eventually dancehall music scenes. Teamed with their sharp 3-button tonic suits and “stingy brim” pork pie hats, the chukkas helped finish a look intended to be an imitation of upper-class dress of the time, but these cues eventually led to suspicion from law-abiding neighbors and profiling from the police. Reggae DJ and producer Jah Thomas would later recount that “the original gangster rude boy dem, a Clarks dem wear”, with it being documented that the price tag of the Desert Boots made cops assume any young male wearing a pair had actually stolen them.

When Clarks launched the Wallabee in 1967, the timing appeared to be perfect for the Rude Boys, who sought to switch up their footwear after the recent stigma attached to Desert Boots. Sixth generation family member Lance Clark, now the business’ managing director, had designed the low-top, crepe soled moccasin, and they were to be produced exclusively in Padmore and Barnes’ factory in Kilkenny, Ireland. Suffice to say they went down a storm amongst the island’s young men along with 1971’s similarly designed, low-top trail shape the Desert Trek, which featured stitching running down the centre as well as a stamped “Trek Man” on the heel counter. The Desert Trek would become unofficially known as the “Bank Robbers” (a reference to the Trek Man’s backpack being interpreted as a swag bag) and this completed a trio of iconic shapes intrinsically linked to nation’s illicit activity and the lore that went with it.

“The original gangster rude boy dem, a Clarks dem wear.”

— Jah Thomas

As the eighties dawned, so too did the materialistic culture that was already rife globally. Clarks became a status symbol, and Jamaican boutique owner Jason Panton recalled that “people wanted other people to know him stepped up him life. Part of the way you show that is you have a Clarks, you have a gold chain around your neck, and you ain’t afraid to wear it on road.” Even though they’d gained such a troublesome reputation, the nation’s Clarks frenzy showed no sign of stagnating, featuring in song lyrics and album covers alike, notably “Clarks Booty” by Little John and General Smilie & Papa Michigan’sRub-A-Dub Style LP, where the duo can be seen standing resplendent in fedoras, open collar track tops and high-shined Desert Boots.

It would be the Wallabee that would become best known to cross over culturally. Hip Hop’s love for the moc-toes is well established, having originally stemmed from the wave of Brooklyn Yardies who had left the Caribbean to settle in New York City, taking with them their obsession with all things Clarks, and sowing the crepe-soled seeds for the city’s new generation of B-Boys in the 1980s. The rise of Wu-Tang Clan in the early nineties cemented this, with the group’s members frequently photographed in Wallabees, perhaps most famously on the cover of Ghostface Killah’s debut solo LPIronman in 1996. Ghostface, who incidentally gave himself the moniker “Wallabee Kingpin” as well as titling his remix and b-sides compilationThe Wallabee Champ, appears with fellow Wu-Tang associates Raekwon and Cappadonna surrounded by heaped pairs of custom-dyed two-tone Wallabees in bright pinks, purples and yellows to match their Polo Sport tracksuits. “I had a Chinese man I always would take my Clarks to just to get ‘em dyed. My man Kim. He’s the guy who did all the shoes on the Ironman cover” Ghostface would recollect.

“Wu-Tang gotta be the best thing since stocks in Clarks Wallabees.”

— Method Man, “Gravel Pit”

By the end of the nineties it was clear the now Platinum-selling group had influenced Clarks sales figures in a big way, as intimated by Method Man famously spitting “Wu-Tang gotta be the best thing since stocks in Clarks Wallabees” on their 2000 hit “Gravel Pit”, even holding up a black and beige pair (“African Killabees”) in the accompanying music video. Fitting then that the brand would eventually collaborate with the Wu-Wear label to produce two collections of the famous moc-toes, first a “W” insignia-stamped, leather collared Wallabee Boot in 2018, followed by the all-over swirl patterned pairs in 2019, completing the design described by Raekwon in the intro to his “Glaciers Of Ice” track in 1995. Outside of the Wu-Tang Clan, other prominent Wallabee fans across the genre included the late MF DOOM who also worked with Clarks on a number of signature pairs in the noughties, and Nas, who’s 1996 albumIt Was Written featured the lyric “Wallabees be the apparel”, rapped by Foxy Brown.

Over the same decade, but back in their native Britain, Clarks became firmly linked to another flourishing national music phenomena: Britpop. Not so much a genre as it was a movement, Britpop came to the fore as kids from up and down the U.K. began to reject American trends and embrace all things inherently British, be it within music or any other creative capacity. The sensibilities of Mod fashion from a couple of decades before were once again being appropriated, which meant a revival for the country’s premium crepe sole footwear brand. Cool Britannia was in full swing, and Clarks took the opportunity to consciously separate the premium styles from it’s standard leisure line to coincide with this. The newly-branded ‘Clarks Originals’ collection was launched in the mid-1990s, with a new Union Jack backdrop logo as well as an advertising campaign featuring some of the indie music stars of Britpop’s heyday.

Though they shared a bitter rivalry in just about every other aspect, the two biggest bands in the country at the time, Oasis and Blur, were both keen Clarks enthusiasts. While southerners Blur tended to rock Desert Boots, as illustrated on the back cover of their 1991 debut albumLeisure (where Damon Albarn can be seen relaxing in a field wearing a cola suede pair), their Mancunian adversaries were known to sport various styles from the ‘Originals’ line. Liam Gallagher was photographed throughout 1997 in everything from Desert Treks to Weavers (a low-cut cousin to the Wallabee with a softer, top-stitched lip) even going on to work with Clarks on a custom Desert Boot shape for his own Pretty Green label in 2010 and up to now is largely responsible for a renewed interest in some of the more obscure models, including the Desert Rain and the fringe-topped Apache.

The trifecta of best-remembered Britpop bands is arguably completed by The Verve, and despite frontman Richard Ashcroft often being erroneously credited as wearing Wallabees — he recently admitted they were in fact Mallorca-bought knock offs called Dingos — on the cover of their era-encapsulating recordUrban Hymns in ’97, the singer doubtlessly helped shift units of the moc-toes in the late nineties. He would eventually go on to wear a genuine Clarks pair to skulk down the streets of Hoxton in the equally-iconic music video for Bittersweet Symphony. Alternative artistic figures such as Elliott Smith and Harmony Korine would also habitually don Wallabees for late nineties press appearances, with the latter choosing the classic sand suede pair with DIY Sharpie scrawls for the first of a series of infamously-surrealistic appearances on the David Letterman show in 1995, on this occasion promoting his movieKids.

Clarks’ popularity flowed on into the next decade, with the company managing their rapid growth by making necessary business changes, with a particular focus on branded retailing and outsourced production to keep up with the huge demand. By the beginning of the 2010s, Clarks had established themselves as a global brand, but this hadn’t altered the course of their intense following back in Jamaica, where the brand was experiencing renewed hysteria following dancehall legend Vybz Kartel’s trilogy of “Clarks” singles. “Everybody haffi ask weh mi get mi Clarks” proclaims the producer over the original chorus, referencing the recent scarcity of crepe soles on the island due to a restriction on imports. With a viral music video to supplement the chart success of these releases, sales of Clarks Originals surged to the point where the shoes were almost doubling in value on the resale market. Recently, the brand has honoured it’s connection to the island with a series of “Jamaica Bee” Wallabee Boots, which feature an enlarged Trek Man on the heel below a national-flag inspired collar, and a collaboration with Jamaican-English footballer Raheem Sterling, again on the mid-top Wallabee, but with the country’s motto “Out Of The Many, One People” across the tongue.

“Everybody haffi ask weh mi get mi Clarks”

These days, collaborations between heritage and streetwear brands are commonplace, with some even feeling slightly saturated, but Clarks has always been inclined to work with like-minded companies, artists and individuals to put together solid takes on its celebrated range. Since 2011, it has crafted a noteworthy roster of collaborations to invariably dip into its vault and bring back lesser known styles like the Desert Mali, as well as subtly tweaking the classics by utilizing Gore-Tex technology or laser-etched finishing. Next to such complicated treatments however, the crepe sole shoe has also been adopted in its natural canvas colorway by the likes of Stüssy and Carhartt.

At a moment when many subcultural revivals are happening concurrently, particularly those around the 1990s, Clarks strength lies in being directly tied to so many of them. The brand has had a hand in shaping some of the most prominent and perpetually hip cultural factions over the last half-century, and intelligent business moves (such as opening a store in the heart of London’s Soho district) as well as it’s tactful collaborations program keep it relevant for new generations of streetwear heads. Though now this British institution is perhaps just as revered for it’s affiliations as it is its designs, 50 years of Clarks’ influence and staying power shows us history is a powerful commodity in the fashion industry, one that cannot be synthesized, and their sustained appeal is a testament to that.

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