Clarks: Crepe Soles for All Souls 

Clarks Desert Boots
Image credit: ercwttmn / CC BY-ND 2.0

The C. & J. Clark shoe company started life in the English village of Street, Somerset in 1825. In those days it was a sheepskin rug business owned by brothers Cyrus and James Clark. It was the latter of the two who, in 1831, first turned his hand to shoemaking. Keen to find some practical use for the off-cuts left in the wake of his older brother’s rugmaking, James started stitching together homemade slippers using a large pair of scissors and some needle and thread. The resultant slippers proved so warm and comfortable that people were reluctant to take them off. Thus were sown the seeds of an international footwear concern that, according to Mark Palmer, author of Clarks: Made to Last: The Story of Britain’s Best-Known Shoe Firm, ‘now sells more than 50 million pairs of shoes a year, has a turnover of almost £1.4 billion and employs some 15,000 people’.

Today Clarks is a nearly two-century-old business that, remarkably, was owned by the same family for nearly all of that time (They took a £100 million rescue deal from the Hong Kong-based private equity firm LionRock Capital during the pandemic which substantially diluted their share). And, after all of this time, they are still headquartered in Street, although the tiny family operation has expanded into a sprawling multinational company since those early years. 

Indeed, despite their family-run, small-town origins — not to mention their roots in Quakerism — the brand has long had a reputation for embracing innovation. Clarks was among the first shoemakers in Britain to introduce machinery into the production process and to create footwear designed according to foot shape. To quote Palmer again: 

‘It was one of the first to adapt the sewing machine for shoe production; an early convert to offering a variety of width fittings; the first to design a shoe in 3D on a virtual last; and the first to use new materials such as polyurethane soling to replace leather. And although to begin with, Clarks took a dim view of advertising — along with other Quaker firms who thought it degrading — the company was soon producing imaginative “showcards’ using stars of stage and screen to endorse its products.’

Cyrus and James Clark
Cyrus and James Clark
Image credit: C & J Clark archive / CC BY-SA 3.0
Vintage Clarks factory
Scene in a Clarks factory
Image credit: C & J Clark archive / CC BY-SA 3.0
Clarks vintage slipper
One of James Clark’s sheepskin slippers made circa 1825
Image credit: C & J Clark archive / CC BY-SA 3.0

Clarks’ modern history begins in the wake of the Second World War under the stewardship of Nathan Clark, a descendant of original slipper-maker James Clark. Nathan Clark was responsible for the introduction of the Desert Boot, a crepe-soled, soft suede shoe that remains arguably the brand’s best-known line to this day. It was introduced in 1950 and was based on Nathan’s experiences serving as an officer in the Royal Army Service Corps. While stationed in Burma in 1941, he took a keen interest in standard issue gear and was particularly struck by the ankle-height suede boots worn by soldiers serving in North Africa — an Anglo-Egyptian creation similar to the footwear formerly worn by Dutch Voortrekkers at the Southern end of the continent. 

Upon his return to England, Clark decided that his family’s business should produce their own version of this so-called ‘Desert Boot’ and, in time, it proved to be perhaps the most important shoe the brand ever created. It paved the way for unprecedented sales, gained global name recognition, and holds an indelible place in pop culture (more on the latter in a minute). More than seventy years later, the desert boot remains a shining jewel in the Clarks crown.

Other iconic models followed not long after, most notably the moc-toed Wallabee in 1967, the only model that has threatened to overshadow the prominence of the Desert Boot in recent years. Thereafter came the Desert Trek in 1971 — a divisive design in all senses of the word featuring a prominent centre seam bisecting the vamp — as well as slightly more below-the-radar classics like the Weaver, Desert Mali, and even the Natalie

Nathan Clark holding a Desert Boot
Nathan Clark holding his most famous creation, the Desert Boot
Image credit: C & J Clark archive / CC BY-SA 3.0

It would be impossible to separate Clarks’ success as a business from its many dedicated and diverse fanbases. These have variously lasted decades, spanned continents, and seem to just keep on multiplying. Among the first of these were the Beatniks of 1950s America, who embraced these British shoes for their elegance and affordability and, in turn, made them newly appealing to the British themselves via the Mods of the 1960s who looked across the Atlantic for inspiration in developing their own distinctive style. 

The ’60s duly birthed many a famous Clarks fan on both sides of the pond. George Harrison, for example, wore desert boots on the cover of Abbey Road, and Bob Dylan and Steve McQueen were both fans of the same style (although the latter is more widely associated with wearing chukka boots made by fellow British shoemakers, Sanders & Sanders). Later generations would similarly embrace the Wallabee, including the likes of hip-hop legends like Ghostface Killah and Raekwon from Wu-Tang Clan and Britpop icons like Oasis’s Liam Gallagher and frontman for The Verve, Richard Ashcroft. 

There is no place, however, that has more wholeheartedly embraced Clarks in all shapes and sizes than the country of Jamaica. As Lauren Cochrane put it in the pages of The Guardian last year: ‘The phenomenon of Clarks in Jamaica is about a lot more than footwear — it tells the story of the relationship between the island and the UK over 100 years.’ The company’s shoes were first sold on the island in the 1920s and were seen as aspirational because they hailed from Britain. Initially, only women’s and children’s sizes were available (indeed, Clarks has long been a go-to choice for school shoes in its country of origin), but in time men’s styles made their way over, beginning with the Desert Boot around the midcentury point. By 1970 hundreds of pairs were being sold weekly and annual Clarks sales in Jamaica totalled £100 000.

This was in large part thanks to Clarks’ growing association with the country’s musical scene, beginning with ska and reggae and extending into dancehall. Jamaican rudeboys adopted Clarks as part of their everyday uniform and pretty soon these shoes gained a degree of infamy for their association with criminal activity, so much so that police would profile people based on their footwear choices. It was bad enough that when Desert Treks were introduced in Jamaica they soon came to be known as ‘bank robbers’. Even so, Clarks have been enshrined in Jamaican popular culture thanks to the embrace of generations of musicians, socialites, and even politicians in the form of the country’s Prime Minister, Andrew Holness (You can read all about the brand’s foothold in Jamaica in Al Fingers’ 2012 book, Clarks in Jamaica). 

Vintage man packing Clarks shoes
Image credit: C & J Clark archive / CC BY-SA 3.0

Elsewhere in the world, the #menswear revival of the 2010s saw Clarks shoes being embraced with renewed enthusiasm by fans of classic men’s clothing. And, a decade or so on, there are no real signs of things slowing down. It seems remarkable that a centuries-old shoe brand could remain relevant — let alone inspire such zeal — in the present day (Birkenstock is another rare example that comes to mind). 

On reflection, however, the appeal feels less than mysterious. For decades Clarks has made its name peddling simple, well-made designs that are comfortable, reliable, and relatively affordable all while feeling idiosyncratic and, ultimately, somewhat indefinable. Put another way, they are just odd-looking enough to feel perpetually fresh-faced despite their ubiquity and have been embraced by so many different groups and subcultures that they resist all classification. As such, they present each wearer with the chance to make a chosen pair of Clarks all their own. This has allowed the company — somehow — to survive and thrive long enough to go from producing footwear at the dawn of the Victorian era to doing streetwear collabs in the present.

Back in 1996, the song ‘Affirmative Action’ on Nas’s It Was Written featured a verse by New York rapper Foxy Brown. It included the memorable line ‘Wallabees be the apparel’ to evoke the distinctive wardrobe of her chosen crew. With just shy of two hundred years of history and weighing in as one of the largest and best-known shoe brands in the world, a quarter century later you might well say that Clarks be the apparel for pretty much all of us.