18 November 2018Last updated


School shoes to status symbols

As Clarks celebrates its 190th anniversary, we take a look at the understated style pioneers

Tabitha Barda
20 Sep 2015 | 12:00 am
  • Bob Dylan.

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  • Keira Knightley and Rihanna.

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  • The Desert Boot (left) and Wallabee (right) are iconic.

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  • V&A capsule Collection: Dh693,

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  • A/W 2015 Collection: Curtain Lace suede sandal, Dh495.

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  • A/W 2015 Collection: Image Jewel shoe in nude, Dh575.

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  • A/W 2015 Collection: Glick Dary lace-up, Dh595.

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For many of us who grew up in the UK, footwear brand Clarks is synonymous with school shoes – sensible, comfortable, and not a lot else. But that’s to miss a swathe of cultural influence, cutting-edge design and, yes, even a ‘cool factor’ that much of the rest of the world has been on to for years.

Founded by two Quaker brothers in a little Somerset village 190 years ago, the Clarks brand pioneered the concept of shoes that are shaped to the foot – sounds obvious, right? But it was a revelation at a time when ready-made footwear was horrifically uncomfortable and treated the right and left foot as if they were the same shape.

It also invented the now-famous Desert Boot in 1950, a floppy suede ankle boot that broke all contemporary design moulds and went on to become an icon of alternative cultures – from the Beatnik movement in the US when they were worn by the likes of Bob Dylan, to the 1990s Britpop phenomenon when they clad the feet of Oasis’ Liam Gallagher.

The 1967 Clarks Wallabee shoe – an unconventional take on the moccasin – also caught the imaginations of subcultures, being adopted by hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan and contributing to the brand’s rise as a status symbol in Jamaica, where it’s an integral part of rude boy culture. There’s even a Clarks rap by artist Vybz Kartel – check out YouTube to see his lilting: “Everybody haffi ask weh mi get mi Clarks.”

More recently Clarks shoes have been spotted on the fashion-conscious likes of Rihanna, Keira Knightley and Emma Watson.

In its nearly 200 years of existence, Clarks has remained surprisingly the same – always led by the principles of quality and new technology, and still owned by the same family who started it centuries ago.

Although its commitment to comfort makes it as perfect for grandmas and schoolkids as it is for rappers and celebrities, its refusal to compromise quality for the sake of transient trends means it has always stayed true to itself, regardless of what anyone else might think. And there’s not much cooler than that.

Tabitha Barda

By Tabitha Barda

Deputy Editor