Clarks in Jamaica

No matter how unlikely it may seem to many readers here in the UK, Clarks shoes have enjoyed cult status in Jamaica for around sixty years. A new book explores the relationship between the UK brand and Jamaican culture…

No matter how unlikely it may seem to many readers here in the UK, Clarks shoes have enjoyed cult status in Jamaica for around sixty years. In his new book, entitled Clarks in Jamaica, DJ and designer Al Fingers investigates the relationship between the Somerset shoe company and Jamaican culture…

This spread from the book displays a list of songs by Jamaican artists recorded between 1975 and 2012 that reference Clarks shoes in the lyrics

“I’ve always been intrigued by the Jamaican fascination with Clarks shoes and the way they are referenced within Jamaican music,” says Al Fingers of the book project. “Vybz Kartel’s song, Clarks, brought the phenomenon to many people’s attention in 2010, but the relationship goes back way further,” he continues, “and in compiling this book I wanted to bring attention to that, highlighting the work of artists such as Dillinger and Little John who had sung about Clarks many years before.”

The book tells how Clarks has come to be considered, if musician Vybz Kartel is to be believed, “as Jamaican as ackee and saltfish and roast breadfruit”.

From the birth of the company in 1825 in Street in Somerset to the arrival of the first 96 pairs of Clarks shoes in the Caribbean courtesy of Colonel Henry Emerson Smith, who was acting as an agent for Clarks in the West Indies in the early 1900s, through to Clarks promotional push in the 1940s which included ads produced specifically for the Jamaican press, the book is rich in historical detail.

It documents the creation of Clarks’ Desert Boot style, designed by Nathan Clark, the great-grandson of the company founder James Clark. Nathan went on to head up a dedicated export department set up in 1947 called Clarks Overseas. The last on which the Desert Boot (soon to become known in Jamaica as “Clarks booty”) was made was changed in the late 50s to appeal more, specifically, to West Indian men. And the design tweak worked. Along with the Wallabee, the Clarks booty was one of the most sought after shoe among young Jamaican men in the 60s and 70s.

Above, Dennis Alcapone wearing Clarks Wallabees for the cover of his 1971 LP, Guns Don’t Argue

Above, Hugh Mundell wears Strollers, better known as “L-stich” in Jamaica on account of the L-shape created by the stitching, 1982

The book cites numerous tales of how various Jamaicans remember the brand growing up, with stories of Dancehall recording artists coming back from recording sessions in London with suitcases full of Clarks to give to family and friends, and how police even leaned on Clarks-wearing youths believing them to be criminals simply for owning a pair. How else could they afford them, was the reasoning.

As well as images sourced from the Alfred Gillett Trust Archive (which is the official Clarks archive and is situated just down the road from Clarks’ HQ in Street), Al Fingers has filled the book with brand new photographs by Mark Read of DJs and producers and other Jamaicans he’s interviewed specially for the project, and dug out numerous album sleeves and other images of artists wearing Clarks throughout the last few decades. Above singer Little John wears Desert Boots, as does deejay and slelector Jah Stitch, below.

Above, the deejays General Leon (left) and Pompidou (right) wearing Desert Boots and Wallabees respectively, 1986

Above, a page devoted to the Wallabee, featuring a photo of singer Barry Brown from his 1986 LP More Vibes of Barry Brown Along With Stama Rank.

The book also highlights other popular Jamaican fashion items from the last few decades such as the mesh marina (string vest),  the Arrow shirt, Diamond (argyle) socks, and the knit ganzie (a knitted wool sweater or cardigan). There is even a section dedicated to knock-off Clarks produced by Caribbean counterfeiters looking to take advantage of the brand’s popularity.

Clarks in Jamaica by Al Fingers (One Love, £30) is due to be published later this month.

Later this month, to coincide with the launch of Clarks in Jamaica, we will present a selection of spreads from the book in our CR iPad November issue. More info about the CR iPad app, below.

CR for the iPad

Read in-depth features and analysis plus exclusive iPad-only content in the Creative Review iPad App. Longer, more in-depth features than we run on the blog, portfolios of great, full-screen images and hi-res video. If the blog is about news, comment and debate, the iPad is about inspiration, viewing and reading. As well as providing exclusive, iPad-only content, the app will also update with new content throughout each month. Try a free sample issue here.

CR In print

In our November issue we look at ad agency Wieden + Kennedy in a major feature as it celebrates its 30th anniversary; examine the practice of and a new monograph on M/M (Paris); investigate GOV.UK, the first major project from the Government Digital Service; explore why Kraftwerk appeals so much to designers; and ponder the future of Instagram. Rick Poynor reviews the Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design; Jeremy Leslie takes in a new exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery dedicated to experimental magazine, Aspen; Mark Sinclair explores Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery show of work by the late graphic designer, Tony Arefin; while Daniel Benneworth-Gray writes about going freelance; and Michael Evamy looks at new telecommunications brand EE’s identity. Plus, subscribers also receive Monograph in which Tim Sumner of dips into Preston Polytechnic’s ephemera archive to pick out a selection of printed paper retail bags from the 70s and 80s.

The issue also doubles up as the Photography Annual 2012 – our showcase of the best images in commercial photography produced over the last year. The work selected is as strong as ever, with photographs by the likes of Tim Flach (whose image of a hairless chimp adorns the front cover of the issue, above); Nadav Kander (whose shot of actor Mark Rylance is our Photography Annual cover); Martin Usborne; Peter Lippmann; Giles Revell and more.

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