I have been wearing Wallabee-style shoes in one form or another since I was a teenager. For much of that time, though, I was blissfully unaware that the style in question is primarily made by and associated with the long-established British shoe brand (which I wrote about earlier this week) known as Clarks. I grew up in South Africa where the same territory carved out elsewhere by Clarks has long been dominated by a brand called Grasshopper, which is a beloved national institution nearly on par with springbuck and vuvuzelas. It was only when I moved to the UK some years ago that the crepe-soled shoes I had been wearing most of my life started being misidentified as kicks made by Clarks. Eventually, I tried out said British equivalent and (despite my patriotic allegiances) will confess to liking them just as much, if not more.
It feels appropriate somehow that my way into Wallabies would be through South African Grasshoppers when Clarks’ longstanding flagship shoe, the Desert Boot was itself inspired by the ‘veldskoene’ or ‘vellies’ (literally ‘field shoes’) first worn by Dutch Voortrekkers in South Africa before catching the eye of one Nathan Clark in North Africa during the Second World War. Following his eponymous brand’s adoption of the style, Clarks desert boots have since become internationally famous and represent something of a rite of passage in men’s clothing.
You could say the same is now true of the Wallabee despite its slightly more eccentric-looking exterior. According to Mark Palmer, author of Clarks: Made to Last: The Story of Britain’s Best-Known Shoe Firm, the style came to fruition in 1967 after being referred to as ‘Project M’ in its development stages. This simple, largely-unchanged design consists of a crepe sole, suede upper, moc toe, and two-stack lace configuration which took inspiration from moccasins made by a German business known as Sioux. Viewed initially as being too radical for the local British market, early Wallabees were instead targeted at North American customers. This strategy included the use of what was at that time the largest billboard ever seen on the North American continent. It measured 185ft by 45ft (roughly 57m by 14m) and was erected next to a highway in Toronto, Canada where it was seen by more than 250 000 motorists per day. People certainly took notice. By 1973, 18 000 pairs were being made every week to keep up with demand.
As I mentioned earlier this week, the spiritual home of the Wallabee (in addition to seemingly everything else made by Clarks) was long been the island of Jamaica. Indeed, it was Jamaica’s national obsession with these shoes that fed America’s own growing version of the same. Thanks to Jamaican immigrants moving to New York in the 1980s, Clarks — and Wallabees in particular — made their way from the musical worlds of reggae and dancehall into the emerging hip-hop scene. Wallabees would go on to appear on stage in live performances, on album covers, in magazine spreads, and even get name-checked in various tracks by artists like Notorious B.I.G., Slick Rick, and the self-proclaimed ‘Wallabee Kingpin’, Ghostface Killah. As Slick Rick himself has said: ‘Hip-hop introduced Clarks to the world on a global scale’. Sure enough, by the ’90s, the Wallabee craze finally circled back round to British shores via another musical subgenre in the form of Britpop with leading figures like Liam Gallagher and Richard Ashcroft seemingly always clad in these comfy, crepe-soled kickers.
In more recent years, the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and Liam Gallagher have released their own branded sets of Clarks alongside other trendy Wallabee-based collabs with popular streetwear brands like Supreme, Stüssy, and Aimé Leon Dore. It speaks to the fact that Wallabees are as trendy now as they’ve ever been. In fact, the Financial Times reported in 2020 that Wallabees were officially Clarks’ best-selling style (take that, Desert Boots).
The reason Wallabees have been kicking about my own closet for so long is, first and foremost, that they are almost certainly the most comfortable shoes I have ever owned. The wonderfully underengineered combination of soft crepe soles with some equally supple suede makes for a pair of shoes that, in my experience, you could walk a mile in right out of the box without a second thought.
Then there is their versatility. I once heard Wallabees described as being the sweet spot between sneakers and dress shoes, which seems a perfect summation of their protean appeal. They are easy-going enough to be worn with something as casual as shorts or sweatpants, all while being sufficiently fancy to be dressed up alongside some nice trousers or a casual suit. Just ask Samuel Beckett or Wes Anderson.
And all this while retaining a singular, slightly odd appearance that, as with so many of Clarks’ creations, somehow manages to retain a sense of individuality despite endless iterations and widespread popularity. It’s a mainstream icon that is nevertheless thoroughly eccentric.
They are also the shoes I find myself reaching for most often at this time of year. As we stand with one foot in summer as the other strides ahead into autumn, Wallabees are a closed shoe that nevertheless feels light, breezy, and altogether less burdensome than proper cold weather clogs. I’m also relishing the days when it’s still dry enough for me to wear them without fear of running into a ruinous rain spell, although, honestly, even then it feels worth taking the risk. Because there’s nothing quite like them. It’s the reason I’ve spent most of my life wearing them and why I feel pretty certain I’ll spend the rest of it doing just the same.