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From Jamaica to Japan: Clarks’ Subcultural History

The history of Clarks is steeped in British heritage, but the real foundation of the brand is with its subcultural impact. Adopted by movements across the world that furthered Clarks humble handmade British profile into a symbol of quality, the brand still finds itself relevant and influential to this day. They sparked a revolution, defined generations and captured the imagination. This is how Clarks were built.

Jamaican ‘Rude Boys’ 

Everybody haffi ask weh mi get mi Clarks – Vybz Kartel

If this was a spider diagram then the ‘rude boy’ culture of Jamaica would be at the epicentre.

The Jamaican rude boy took pride in their appearance with Clarks Desert Boots establishing the brand’s flagship silhouette as a staple item. Being expensive, stylish and made in England gave the shoe a sign of affluence, as well as a counterculture strike to the colonisation of the Caribbean country. Practically, the boot was versatile, strong and could withstand lots of wear; its crepe sole made barely a sound affording the wearer with an element of surprise that quickly earned Clarks an unsavoury reputation with Jamaican law enforcement.

Tom Austin, former President of Clarks of England, reflected that it was a phenomenon ‘transported’ from Jamaica, something he confidently claimed was grassroots-led with no Public Relations intervention,

we didn’t do anything to inspire the Jamaican market… but (Clarks) did attempt to carefully ride on the trend without alienating the rest of our customer base

The initial adoption of by these trendsetters gave the brand the go-ahead amongst the streets, leading the way for more adopters of the crepe sole paving the way for the original Clarks’ styles like the Wallabee, Desert Trek, Lugger, Natalie and particularly the Desert Boot to build a near 50-year heritage.

Mods

You can strongly argue that the migration of Jamaicans was the catalysts for Clarks, spreading Originals with their travels around the world and ultimately selling the appeal of Clarks Originals back to the country that originally developed them.

Possibly the most well-recognised piece of Mod clothing. The Desert Boot design, like a lot of Mod style, was taken from a military background. When Nathan Clark was stationed in Burma in 1949 he saw off-duty officers wearing crepe-soled suede boots leading to the brand’s creation of its quintessential shoe (more on that later). Comfort and durability have always been the selling point, and with a versatile profile that lent itself to the mod style of smocks, terrace parka’s and Jeans/Cords and the occasional suit, the desert boot became the perfect foil to the mod outfit.

With its popularity in Jamaica, the early adoption of the brand left no indecisiveness to Clarks’ legitimacy as a decidedly ‘cool’ shoe. Creating the initial wave of British ‘cool’ that would lead on to the present via the import of rude boy culture to ska, northern soul, 90s rave culture and Britpop.

Britpop 

The popularity of Clarks Originals continued to spread through music and, understanding the counterculture statement that a pair of Clarks Originals made, the stylistically and musically astute British ‘connectors’ such as Oasis and The Verve, amongst others. Expanding on the stylistic foundations set by their mod forefathers, the Britpop update to the Clarks subcultural magnet drew in staple styles like the Desert Boot, as well as adopting others such as the Wallabee.

UK accreditation of Clarks’ status was cemented by Richard Ashcroft’s grey Wallabees on the cover of the Verve’s 1997 album, Urban Hymns, as well as their feature in the video for lead single ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’.

Oasis remained particularly outspoken about their love for Clarks and in 2000 Liam Gallagher approached Clarks to propose collaboration with his clothing brand Pretty Green.

NYC – Rap

Jamaican influences took a while longer to penetrate America, particularly the suburbs of New York, where 90s hip-hop culture particularly took a shine to the Wallabee design. Legendary rapper Slick Rick is a noted Wallabee enthusiast, going on record to say;

Brooklyn had a lot of style. Early Brooklyn, NY had a lot of style to it. It had a gentlemen style going on there with the Jamaicans, they would be the biggest inspiration with the Clarks Wallabees, the slacks, the Kangol hats and all of that type of stuff. They would be my biggest influence like that

Wu-Tang Clan, fresh from a recent collaboration with the brand, have permanently placed the brand at the forefront of their style moments, the champions of this being group members Ghostface Killah and Raekwon (and Cappadonna) helping the Clarks Wallabee become relevant in the streets, often putting their own spin on the suede moccasins by dyeing them unique colours (see Ironman album cover for reference).

References through tracks such as Gravel Pit, Glaciers of Ice and even a collection of B-sides and remixes from Ghostface titled The Wallabee Champ

Infamous rapper and renown super villain MF DOOM was the first to get his Wallabees dues, being gifted a two-part collaboration from Clarks with a homage to NYC in the form of the Knicks colourway wallabee high, and a classy brown leather low top edition.

With the Wallabees crepe sole and moccasin upper, it added a ‘sneakerheads’ touch to a dressy shoe.

Finishing up his NYC style feature, Slick Rick remarked;

Shoes wise, I haven’t seen any shoes that I would say top Clarks Wallabees or old school Ballys, to me. I would say that Clarks Wallabees still rule right now as far as shoes that look like you have a little swag on you. You might have to alter them a little bit, but as far as walking into the store and getting a pair of shoes to look cool Clarks Wallabees still have it locked hands down

Army Surplus Fashion

Launched in 1950, the desert boot was designed by Clarks family descendent Nathan Clark – and almost didn’t come to fruition. Whilst on military duty in Burma, he spotted similar boots on a group of men who’d bought them in Cairo. Inspired, Nathan designed his own pair, only to be met with resistance by the rest of the Clark family who didn’t believe the shoe would sell. Nathan persevered, however, taking the desert boot to Chicago which led to them appearing in Esquire magazine and the rest is history.

It’s feature with leading figures like Steve Mcqueen aided its deployment into the fetished military surplus community. With its military heritage on full display, it remains an influence to those inspired by it’s Army influence such as Nigel Cabourn, Kanye, Nick Wooster amongst others.

Japanese Fashion Culture

Clarks’ worldwide dominance and arrival in different sectors was followed by increased interest from Japan. The popularity of the Desert Boot and the Wallabee grew amongst Tokyo retailers who wanted to satisfy a youth-oriented market craving an authentic product manufactured using original materials, in the country of origin. Unlike the catwalks of Milan and Paris, young Japanese ‘cool hunters’ regarded Great Britain the home of street fashion, regarding the Desert Boot creators as a member of the A[quascutum] B[urberry] C[larks] of British Brands


Clarks Desert Boot remains the preferred item of footwear for a sophisticated clientele in Japan whereas it is perhaps perceived as a more utilitarian product in the UK.

Atsushi Hasegawa Creative Concept Manager at Clarks

I knew about Clarks – only because of Clarks Originals – from when I was working in fashion and was a kid in the 80s. They had Clarks Originals in very good shops… I’ve grown up with Clarks Originals – Desert Boots, Desert Trek, the Wallabee, Natalie. I absorbed many famous shoes when I was young and I definitely liked Clarks Originals with their authentic, simple designs

From its inception to this modern day, Clarks continues to outfit and revolutionise cultures making it the most versatile footwear brand on the globe. From the feet of Drake to the small screen with Walter White’s iconic attire in Breaking Bad, to the brands renewed and vigorous approach to its originals archive as well as its improved collaboration work, there’s no stopping the humble brand from Somerset.

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