Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Desert Boot by GQ

by Jake Gallagher

"Seventy years on, who would have ever thought that a young British soldier's wartime distraction would become the inspiration for one of the world's most recognizable shoes: Clarks Desert Boots. The year was 1941, and the soldier, well he wasn't just any infantryman, he was Nathan Clark, and he'd been sent to war with two missions. First and foremost to protect his country, and, secondly, to discover some new shoe designs for his family's company. As a member of the Eighth Army, Clark had been deployed to Burma, and it was here that he noticed that the officers in his formation were wearing these strange, sand colored chukkas during their downtime. Clark investigated the shoes and learned that they had originally been commissioned to Cairo cobblers by South African soldiers whose old-military issue boots had failed them out on the desert terrain. They wanted something that was both lightweight and grippy which led to creation of a boot with a suede upper on a crepe sole.

For the soldiers stationed in unfamiliar territory, the design made sense, it was comfortable, wouldn't bog them down, and it could take on any surface no matter how rough. Nathan thought he'd found exactly what the company needed, so he began sending sketches back to his brother Bancroft, at the Clarks headquarters in Somerset, England. Unfortunately for Nathan, the English footwear tradition had always leaned toward the formal, and a pair of suede chukkas was considered too lower-class for Bancroft's tastes, so the concept remained dormant until his return.

After the war Nathan made swift work with the company's pattern-makers, and by 1949 his pet project was complete. Instead of embracing the shoes, Clarks looked down on Nathan, delegating him to head of overseas production and moving him away from the homebase to take his mind off the design. Their plan quickly backfired. Just a year later, Nathan debuted the Desert Boots on his own at the Chicago Shoe Fair where the American market instantly became enamored with the Chukkas. They were drawn to what they believed was the inherent "Britishness" of the shoes, something fresh and worldly, but what really made the shoes take off was their accessibility - they were cheap, rarely had to be cared for, and perfectly straddled the line of casual and dressy. Clarks could no longer deny that Nathan had created something truly amazing, and they began mass-producing the shoes.

At first Desert Boots were for the youths. In England, the mods wore them, in Paris, it was the art students and in Americn the beatniks stomped around in them. Pretty soon high fashion began taking notes from these counter-culture kids, reappropriating Clarks for fashion shoots in magazines, and runway shows. From streetwear kids, to aging creatives, to young professionals, Nathan Clark's design that he just couldn't give up on has now become the shoe for everyone."

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