Clarks Desert Boot. UK, 1950
“Everybody haffi ask weh mi get mi Clarks.
Di leather hard, di suede soft,
toothbrush get out di dust fast”
Few brands are desirable enough to earn themselves a name-check in pop culture. Actually, that’s not strictly true: from Hollywood to hip hop, product placement is a booming industry.
But can you doubt the purity of an artist’s devotion to a brand when he goes to the trouble of reciting care instructions?
Vybz Kartel’s 2010 Jamaican dancehall hit Clarks exposed a whole new generation to one of the world’s favourite shoe labels.
7,000km from Kingston, the staff at C&J Clark, has grown used to idolatry. Through the years, the UK label from Somerset has featured in numerous songs, movies and books.
Since the sixties, the brand’s prominence in culture has made it the Zelig of footwear. The style manifestos of London mods, Paris’s Mai 68 social revolutionaries, Jamaican rude boys and even the Wu Tang Clan have all flagged Clarks as a key ingredient.
Throughout this time, one style has championed the label’s cult appeal like no other: the classic Clarks Desert Boot.
Rats to Rudeboys
The brand’s colourful past has been getting fresh attention in 2015 as Clarks’ best-known shoe celebrates its 65th birthday.
‘From Rats to Rudeboys’ is a WhatsApp campaign that tells the Desert Boot story using leading figures from the subcultures that wore them proudly.
The legend of the Desert Boot’s creation is well known. It was Nathan Clark, great-grandson of C&J Clark’s founders, who set things in motion in 1944.
Serving with Britain’s Eighth Army in Burma, Nathan spotted off-duty officers – Desert Rats – sporting an intriguing style of crepe-soled shoe bought in Cairo’s souks.
Nathan sent patterns and specifications back home, but they lay idle until he was able to personally build his own prototype in 1947. It was an elegantly simple and efficient design: stylish and observant to the material shortages of post-war Britain.
But Nathan Clark’s enthusiasm hit a wall. The Desert Boot’s beige-grey, 2mm suede upper and crude stitch-down construction ran against the grain of the sturdy, formal styles of the era.
Clarks’ Stock Committee told him it would never sell.
Nathan Clark: The Original Intrapreneur
Undeterred, Nathan used his position as the company’s Overseas Manager, and took the shoe to the 1949 Chicago Shoe Fair. (For aspiring intrapreneurs, it is worth mentioning that he was also the General Manager’s brother). With the help of a troupe of belly dancers and a tonne of real sand, Nathan unveiled the Clarks Desert Boot.
A feature article in Esquire magazine followed, bringing Clarks to the attention of US distributors. With a high comfort-factor and a look equally at home in business and casual settings, the Desert Boot proved a hit with North American audiences.
In spite of Nathan’s renegade success, it took nearly 15 years for the Desert Boot to reach shelves in the UK, Europe and throughout the Commonwealth. By the mid-sixties, dress standards were loosening at the same rate as social mores so that, after 20 years, Nathan Clark’s original vision could finally find its feet. Literally.
Pure and Simple
It began life as an ugly duckling. But in spite of its huge success, among the rest of Clarks’ range, the Desert Boot has always looked a bit like an eccentric, hippie uncle at a family reunion. The same can be said of two other celebrated Clarks styles that followed in the Desert Boot’s softly rippled footsteps: the Wallabee and the Desert Trek.
‘Treks’ were the first shoes I ever wanted badly… I mean get-in-a-fight-with-your-Mum badly. I was 12.
Like the Desert Boot, Treks had crepe soles, supple uppers and a non-shiny finish that made them a convenient form of rebellion – a way to get around the intention of a school uniform while staying within the rules.
A Clarks press release makes the case for crepe soles: “One of nature’s great shock absorbers and water-repellents, crepe is made from latex tapped from the para rubber tree. Mixed, mashed and dried, it’s rolled into sheets before being trimmed to size, with any off-cuts recycled. It’s entirely natural and it’s sustainable.”
Well, exactly. It’s also quiet, extremely comfortable, and provides an unlimited supply of tiny rubber balls to pick off and flick around maths class.
I never really understood why Clarks bothered making any other kind of shoe.
The Original Original
But Clarks made (and continue to make) lots of other kinds of shoes. Through the eighties and nineties, while they were busy building a billion-pound brand, distinctive styles like the Desert Boot, Desert Treks and Wallabees would come and go from Clarks’ collections in a way that seemed disjointed and disrespectful to their timelessness.
It was a situation Clarks rectified when the Clarks Originals label made its debut. Arriving hot on the heels of the nineties Britpop explosion, Clarks Originals provided an incubator where the Desert Boot and other styles from the company vault could flourish without causing the parent brand to deviate from its central mission.
C&J Clarks operate more than 1,000 brand and franchise stores in 55 countries. Their extensive high street presence keeps the brand accessible. Meanwhile, Clarks Originals help keep it desirable.
Clarks Originals makes it possible for the Clarks name to reach consumers and their emotions in a way that a democratic family shoe store can’t.
Within the Clarks ecosystem, the Desert Boot is its Galapagos – an island for nurture and experimentation.
The style has been adapted to include shapes for women and children. Frequent updates, collaborations and special editions riff on the iconic boot’s simplicity and sentimentality. New finishes, materials, contexts and stories continually bolster the folklore surrounding the Clarks Desert Boot, underlining the parent brand’s vitality and commitment to lasting quality.
Clarks Desert Boot: The Making Of An Icon
Little John, Clarks Booty (1985)