Welcome to A Brit Excellent, a small celebration of British brands, foods, people and places that I love. Every week I give a little nod to our humour, our quirkiness and all the excellent things we make.
At some point we’ve all owned a pair of Clarks. Whether it was school shoes or sandals when you were little or a smart court shoe to wear to job interviews. My first experience of Clarks was being taken at the age of two to have my feet measured. I fell asleep in the car on the way and refused to wake up on arrival or during the fitting so no one knew if I could walk in them. In the end Dad had to give up and take me home. Eventually I did make it there awake and, like every child in the 90s, I had those T bar sandals. My feet were measured with the electronic robot plates that hugged round your foot to get an exact size. That was terribly exciting back then (and still would be now to be honest.)
Clarks is the shorter version of C & J Clark International Ltd named after the Quaker brothers Cyrus and James Clark who founded their business in the early 1820s in Somerset. The Clarks’ headquarters are still based there, which I love.
Cyrus started making sheepskin rugs in 1825. His younger brother James was meant to become a chemist’s apprentice but after pleading with his parents he became Cyrus’ apprentice in 1828. James decided the off cuts from the rugs would make good slippers and set up a little system where workers would collect materials, make the slippers at home and then collect payment for them. This became quite the enterprise and James became an equal partner to the business in 1833. The Clarks boys started trading nationally and then in Ireland and Canada and were as far as Australia by the 1850s. One of my favourite facts about this time is Clarks won a gold medal at the Great Exhibition in 1851 for their “gutta percha elongated galosh.”
Upholding Quaker values, the boys wanted to give back to the community so opened a school for their factory workers as well as a theatre, a library, a town hall as well as an open-air swimming pool. There was also low cost housing and playing fields that anyone could go and knock a ball around on.
By the 1940s people started to realise that having bad feet was probably a lot to do with having bad shoes so, after analysing thousands of measurements from local school children, Clarks developed a new fitting system. In 1945 they launched the “footgauge” which is that scientific slidey thing with all the measurements which you’d play with while you were waiting as a kid.
What I didn’t realise was how popular Clarks shoes were with Jamaican rude boys. In the 60s when Jamaica got it’s independence, the young lads adopted them as part a uniform. Al Fingers, who wrote a book called Clarks in Jamaica said “The original gangster rude boy dem, a Clarks dem wear.” Huge reggae and dancehall stars at the time even wrote songs about them.
In the 90s the Clarks Wallabees had a huge resurge when they were worn by members of the Wu-Tang Clan, which is unexpectedly brilliant. Raekwon and Method Man liked them because they looked good, they were comfy and no one else was wearing them. Ghostface Killah even called one one of his albums “The Wallabee Champ.” The Wallabees were also the choice of shoe for Walter White. Throughout Breaking Bad he wears his pork pie hat, sunglasses and his Wallabees. I do wonder what Cyrus and James would make of it all.
Last year Clarks celebrated 190 years of making shoes and there are some brilliant video installations. There’s also plans for exciting collaborations and no doubt a massive party somewhere.
There are so many things I love about Clarks. I love that it is 84% owned by the Clark family, with the remaining 16% held by employees (and related institutions) but mainly I love my own silver Glove Puppets because they’re so sodding comfy.