One Step Ahead

August 26, 2014

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Somehow, the Clarks® brand imbues both the comforting nostalgia of your childhood and the progressive functionality of the modern age. Having been there since the beginning, perhaps even on your feet for your first day of school, Clarks are synonymous with comfort, style and function. It’s challenging to remain relevant generation after generation, but if there’s one thing that Clarks can be known for, it’s standing the harsh test of time. During their long lifespan as a brand, Clarks has survived three industrial revolutions, two world wars and even the Great Depression. Six generations of the Clarks family have played a part, carrying their pioneering spirit through with every change of appointment. Although the brand rightly evokes romantic notions of cobblers hand-crafting in small workshops, the Clarks family has in fact introduced revolutionary manufacturing systems and implemented game-changing innovations to the footwear industry. Along with this, their impact on fashion culture remains undisputed as one of the original heritage brands to claim a space in the wardrobes and hearts of millions of people around the world.

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The Clarks story takes us back to Britain in the 1800’s; a dynamic age of Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens, when the industrial revolution was in full swing and countless inventions came about daily. The effects of these events flowed down to the burgeoning community of Street in Somerset county, where tradition underpinned everything, craftsmanship was currency and products were designed to serve practical purposes. It was upon these values that the Clarks brand would be founded and still stands for nearly 200 years later.

The birth of Clarks can be traced back to a Street local named Cyrus Clark; a skilled tanner operating a successful sheepskin rug business. Although Cyrus had set up his business to serve a single purpose, his younger brother and precocious apprentice James Clark saw a new opportunity. The rug making process was a wasteful one, with every rug producing “useless” sheepskin off-cuts. One fateful day in 1830 James began re-purposing the off-cuts into slippers that he called the “Brown Petersburg”. This new style of footwear was completely unique and James’ resourceful product soon became highly coveted by the townsfolk. With no factories operating in the area, James and Cyrus literally took production into their own hands, cutting and sewing the slippers at home after a day’s work. Cyrus and James’ innovative sheepskin slipper side-project would soon demand all their attention and set in motion an unstoppable series of design and manufacturing advancements.

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The brothers soon began operating as an official partnership under the moniker of C. & J. Clark and were intent to build their young brand. In the mid 1850’s James’ eldest son William joined the business. Like his father before him, William proved to be a visionary leader and innovator, and took the family business to new heights. William was in fact among the first in the world to introduce a sewing machine (the then groundbreaking Singer) into the manufacturing process. Mechanization transformed Clarks’ output, raising productivity and consistency to an unprecedented level and enabling them to produce superior quality footwear in large quantities, at affordable prices. Despite this advance, craftsmanship still held a vital place in the process, with many aspects of their shoes being finished by hand. Through his innovations, William established C. & J. Clark as a pioneer of new technology and the leader in footwear manufacturing – a reputation the brand upholds today.

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In 1883 Clarks released another first – the Hygienic range – a revolutionary approach to footwear design that followed the natural shape and line of the foot. This innovative new range set Clarks apart from the rest in the game, and cemented their reputation for producing the most comfortable shoes. Clarks’ next dramatic invention for the shoe industry was initiated by siblings John, Roger and Alice Clark – the third generation of the Clarks family. During the 1930’s, they began work on a revolutionary foot measuring system in response to society’s burgeoning interest in proper foot-care. Approaching the task with scientific precision, the Clarks brand carried out detailed analysis of thousands of children’s feet and with the data collected, developed a tool called the foot-gauge. When the final product was introduced in the late 1930’s, it immediately became a retail industry standard for fitting every individual with their ideal shoe. Designed as a universal instrument for all to use, the Clarks foot-gauge was a gift to the feet of millions out there on the quest for comfort and good health.

During their decades of success, Clarks never once lost sight of their goal to provide honest, practical goods for real people. The post-war boom saw the expansion of factory production and a plethora of mass-produced products flood the market – some of questionable value to society. During this influx, Clarks stood by the core principals established at their inception and continued to craft innovative, high quality goods that were accessible to all. With the benefit of the end user in mind, Clarks embraced the changing manufacturing landscape, using new processes to standardize their output and lower the costs to their customers. With a democratic approach to fashion and exceptionally high quality standard, Clarks continued to be the go-to footwear brand during a time of great change.

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The proof of their output’s worth is particularly exemplified by the global success of Clarks now eponymous Desert Boot®. The year was 1949 and Nathan Clark was working for the company, the fourth generation of the family and an Oxford scholar, soldier and traveler. A curious and passionate man, Nathan was always on the look out for fresh design concepts, even in unlikely places. The inspiration for the Desert Boot came during Nathan’s time serving in Burma, where a crepe-soled boot picked up in Cairo’s fabled Old Bazaar had become the footwear of choice for off-duty soldiers. Recognizing the design’s potential, Nathan began developing a prototype back in Street, cutting a new pattern himself and employing the skills of traditional English tannery, Charles F. Stead – which remains one of Clarks’ suede and leather suppliers today. The crepe sole proved to be a revolutionary material; a great shock absorber, water repellent, all natural and sustainable. The pairing of quality suede with crepe gave rise to a totally radical design that was both practical and fashion-forward. The Clarks Stock Committee was at first less than enthused by Nathan’s design and was convinced that it would never sell. Thankfully, Nathan defiantly took his prototype to the Chicago Shoe Fair in 1949, a risky move that would prove equally brilliant. Launched to the public in 1950, Nathan’s Desert Boot was the first casual shoe ever designed and was greatly received for the unprecedented simplicity and comfort it brought to the western shoe market – it was literally an overnight success.

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Clarks’ design sensibility and boundary pushing technologies led the brand to produce many more instant classics. In the 1960’s, they introduced the moccasin inspired Wallabee®, followed by the work-wear oriented Desert Trek® in the 1970’s. As with the Desert Boot, these styles transcended fashion trends and were instead designed with a practical vision, honest design and wearable style. Clarks’ unique knack for creating products so of their time, yet still timeless, is unparalleled in the footwear industry. It is this unique quality that has led widely varying sub-cultures like mods, rudeboys and brit-pop musicians to appropriate Clarks into their carefully curated visual DNA. Designed with simplicity and integrity, Clarks has continually provided a platform for creative individuals to express themselves. There is no denying a brand’s relevance to the human spirit when it has sustained nearly 20 decades of swinging fashion trends. Clarks is one of the few names out there to earn this claim and uphold it with such a humble air.

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Rightfully so, Clarks created one outlet to celebrate their success in 1994 with the launch of Clarks Originals®. Under the Originals moniker, the brand pays homage to the early classics that have made its name including the Desert Boot, Wallabee and Desert Trek. With respect for each style’s original roots, new re-interpretations are made that result in a unique mix of timelessness and progression. Through Clarks Originals, that romantic notion of the cobbler is alive and well, with skillful hands still playing a vital role in the creation of each shoe. Although they have pioneered and embraced cutting edge technologies, tools and machinery, to Clarks the intuition of hand-selecting, shaping and crafting is paramount to their process. Clarks remain to this day, the epitome of the English shoemaker, infusing soul, style and science into all that they do.

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Enjoyed ‘One Step Ahead’? Check back next week for the another instalment from The Journal, Issue Three. Or to find your own complimentary copy of The Journal, visit Herschel Supply stockists around the world.