In the breakneck and high-octane world of ‘footwear’, most designs typically expire about as fast as a box of fruit. Plenty of brands have now settled into the role of court jester, whittling away their days embarrassing themselves in attempts to appease the fickle whims of the herd, soiling classic wares with naff gimmicks and moodboard-friendly designs in the process.
You don’t have to be a Nostradamus-type to know a fair chunk of this stuff is destined for the landfill, nor do you have to be some sort of genius to realise that lowering the heat and giving something time enough to simmer makes the wearable sauce all the sweeter.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the Clarks Desert Trek. These wide-toed beauties have pretty-much remained un-tinkered-with (aside from the odd material excursion) since their inception 50 years ago. Seeing as we forgot to put the champers in the fridge, a lowly write-up celebrating their half-century-long reign will have to suffice…
We’ve got the late-great comfort shoe connoisseur Lance Clark to thank for the Desert Trek (among countless other foot-based belters). The yarn goes that while Lance was running Padmore & Barnes in Ireland at the tail end of the 60s, he noticed his drawing instructor, a Dutch potter named Sonja Landweer, wearing a phat-centre-seamed pair of comfort shoes she’d brought over from the Motherland. Stricken by its uncanny resemblance to a Cornish pasty, Lance courteously borrowed a pair, tweaked them, and christened them with, in his words, “a great name” – the Six Toe.
Sensing he might just have struck gold, Lance Airbussed across the Atlantic with the Six Toe nestled firmly in his carry-on. The Yanks buzzed off the Beatnik flavour of the shoes, but they weren’t as enthusiastic about the name – much to Lance’s chagrin – and thus, the Six Toe was renamed the Trek. It was also during this trip that the iconic drawing of the rambling man strolled into the equation. Lance had previously commissioned the illustration from Sonja’s artist boyfriend, who apparently wasn’t too pleased that Clarks were making webs based on his girlfriend’s shoes without chucking the couple some wedge. Either out of goodwill or a cunning act of headache-swerving, Lance offered the mithering artist £500 to draw something to go on the back of the shoe. The royalty strongarming ended there, and the iconoclastic hiker was brushed into existence.
Launching stateside in 1971, the Trek made its way to Blighty a year later, under the sportier guise of the ‘Hike’. Greeted with little fanfare upon release, Clarks decided to yank the Desert Trek from their domestic range after only a few seasons. The book might’ve closed on our centre-seamed protagonist then and there if it wasn’t for an entire nation of dedicated fans on a small island in the Caribbean…
The ‘Clarks in Jamaica’ tale has been well-documented in the glossy pages of Al Fingers’ now-canonical tome of the same name, so those seeking a more comprehensive history should turn there, but for those pressed for time, here’s the abridged version. Even though they’d been knocking around as far back as 1911, Clarks mania didn’t reach fever pitch until the early 60s, as poor inner-city kids searched for sophisticated shoes that’d actually last longer than five minutes. Due to the fact that these English bulldogs were made in Blighty, Clarks fit the ultra-exotic, highly-exclusive bill perfectly, and their relatively simple construction meant they could be repaired without much hassle.
It wasn’t long until this blossomed into a fully-fledged subculture, which became known as ‘the rudeboys’. Amped up on a diet of showmanship and political discontent, fuelled the government’s economic bed-wetting in the wake of Jamaica’s independence, these lads earned their moniker thanks to their surly attitudes and flippant view of the law. Strangely enough, this propensity for crime helped cement Clarks as part of the uniform, as the spongey crepe soles wouldn’t make too much noise when you needed to creep up on someone and administer a bit of contact counselling. The Clarks/rudeboy association was so strong that in the early 70s, law-abiding, suede-loving Jamaicans ran the risk of a state-sanctioned smackdown from the rozzers just for wearing a pair.
Young lads appropriating something aspirational to one-up their peers and wind up the more traditionally-minded isn’t an unfamiliar narrative, but unlike many sartorial and cultural movements, Clarks’ power in Jamaica has yet to waver. From Rudeboys and Rastas to modern-day dancehall crooners like Vybz Kartel (who has a trilogy of tunes dedicated to his favourite shoemakers) and Popcaan, the crepe-soled power of Clarks still reigns supreme, with the Desert Trek (or the ‘Bank Robber’, as it’s known over there) still standing as one of the nation’s firm favourites.
Now, the Desert Trek is settling nicely into middle-age as one of the more discerning options on the Clarks shoe rack. While miles of the information superhighway has been exclusively cordoned off to Wallabee waffle, less lofty praise has been lapped upon the Desert Trek (well… until this article goes out at least), giving it the sort-of ‘if-you-know-you-know’ appeal of an obscure European comfort shoe.
Nestled firmly in the murky, hard-to-define zone known only as ‘smart-casual’, these have seen action on dancefloors, dirt paths and perhaps even your living room carpet, and unless the trajectory of human evolution takes a terrible, footless turn, we’re sure they’ll continue to pound pavements for another 50 years.