Clarks shoes are back in fashion, thanks to dancehall artist Vybz Kartel. Jesse Serwer charts a 30-year love affair between Jamaican rudeboys and Britain's premium sensible footwear
Back in the spring, the Jamaican dancehall artist Vybz Kartel released a single paying tribute to his favourite consumer goods. He was, he says, recognising a great Jamaican tradition. The song was a huge hit on the island, and stores across Jamaica reported selling out of the very thing Vybz Kartel was hymning. The big surprise, though – to English high-street shoppers at least – was the subject of the song: not Cristal champagne, or diamonds from De Beers, but a pair of shoes, made by a 185-year-old family-owned company based in the town of Street in Somerset. Vybz Kartel's single was called Clarks, and its cover carried pictures of his favourite Clarks shoes – the Wallabees, Desert Boots and Desert Trek shoes of the Original "heritage" range – of which he claims to have more than 50 pairs.
Clarks Originals have long been a staple of Jamaican fashion, but Kartel lifted them to another level. Vendors in Kingston doubled their prices. Thieves, the Jamaica Star reported, targeted stores that stocked them. Knock-off copies of the design started appearing and multiplying.
"Right now you can't go less than $10,000 Jamaican for Clarks," says Andre "Popcaan" Sutherland, one of two Kartel proteges, along with Vanessa Bling, who also appears on the single. "It was six or seven grand before the song. It's been a massive change, that. People feel dem haffi have 'em."
Kartel, a provocateur whose X-rated content has seen him banned in the past from several Caribbean nations, appears to have found a new, more airwave-friendly lyrical direction in the wake of the single. In a blatant attempt to milk his own fad, he's released follow-up records called Clarks Again and Clarks 3 (Wear Weh Yuh Have). His latest single, Jeans 'n Fitted, acts as yet another fashion manifesto.
To be sure, the unrest in Kingston that all but shut down business in the capital last month has tempered the phenomenon somewhat. But as Clarks has reverberated across the Caribbean and throughout the diaspora – it's currently receiving daytime spins on BBC's 1Xtra, after topping the station's dancehall chart – the trend is being echoed from Brooklyn to Brixton.
"I've gotten a few emails and texts where a young lady has said to me, 'Robbo, it's because of your show with this song that we're working overtime at Clarks,'" says BBC 1Xtra DJ Robbo Ranx. "Online, I went to order a pair of black ankle Deserts . . . sold out. You go out to find Clarks, you can't find Deserts. In my local in west London, there's none in there."
Michael Borge, marketing director for Clarks North America, confirms it has seen increased demand in Jamaica and many US markets in recent months; however, an "upswing in the Originals business overall" makes it difficult to quantify the song's effect. Likewise, Gemma Merchant, senior account manager for Clarks Originals in the UK, says the company has seen "increased interest and demand in particular areas of the UK, shortly after the song became big in Jamaica".
But while Clarks – with its chorus, "Everybody haffi ask weh mi get mi Clarks/ Di leather hard, di suede soft, toothbrush get out di dust fast" – has boosted enthusiasm for the brand among young Jamaicans, it is just the latest chapter in the country's lengthy embrace of the shoe brand. "Clarks is as much a part of the Jamaican culture as ackee and saltfish and roast breadfruit, I swear to you," says Kartel, whose real name is Adijah Palmer. "Policemen wear it, gangsters wear it. Big men wear it to their work. Schoolchildren wear it to school."
If Clarks have long been in Britain the shoes of schoolchildren and pensioners, in Jamaica they are a long-standing symbol of upward social mobility, valued for their versatility and – important in a tropical climate – their breathability.
"The generation who had immigrated to England to work in that period after the second world war would return to Jamaica wearing these Clarks, and people developed a fascination," Ranx says. "You go back to Jamaica on holiday, the first thing they ask you for is: 'Bring back a traditional Marks & Spencer string vest, or a pair of Clarks.'"
By the time reggae exploded internationally in the 1970s, Clarks were the preferred footwear for Rastafarians and "baldheads" alike. Rummage through LPs from reggae's golden era, and you're likely to turn up at least a few photos of rude boys with their trouser legs rolled up to reveal ankle-length desert boots. But it was in the 1980s, as the social consciousness of the Bob Marley era gave way to dancehall's rampant materialism, that the shoes gained iconic status. "The 80s was a hyper-materialistic time in Jamaica and Jamaican music," says Jason Panton, owner of the Kingston fashion boutique Base Kingston, and I&I Clothing, a Jamaican streetwear brand. "After the whole scare over Jamaica going socialist, a lot of importance was placed on brand names. People wanted other people to know him stepped up him life. Part of the way you show that is you have a Clarks, you have a gold chain around your neck, and you ain't afraid to wear it on road." The teenage toaster Little John (not to be confused with rapper/producer Lil' Jon) even scored a 1985 hit with Clarks Booty. "Hol' up yuh foot and show your Clarks Booty," went the song's chorus, a riff on Yellowman's Zungguzungguguzungguzeng, "Fling out your foot because your shoe's brand new."
In fact, Jamaica's love of Clarks spread through music beyond the Caribbean. In the mid 1990s, the New York hip-hop band the Wu-Tang Clan famously made Clarks Wallabees their preferred footwear. The cover of Ghostface Killah's 1995 solo debut, Ironman, depicted the "Wally Champ" (as Ghostface often calls himself) and Wu members Raekwon and Cappadonna surrounded by custom-dyed Wallabees. The Clan's own clothing brand, Wu Wear, was among several American brands that produced Wallabee derivatives in the following years.
Ghostface and his Wu-Tang associates had borrowed the style from the Caribbean immigrants who poured into New York City in the 1980s. "People had stopped wearing them, so Ghostface and Raekwon started rocking them for that reason," says hip-hop journalist Alvin Blanco, author of an upcoming book on the Wu-Tang Clan. "The idea was, 'Other rappers are rocking Timberlands and sneakers, we're going to stay ahead of the curve by going back and rocking Wallabees.' They also weren't that much. You could probably finagle a pair for $60 or $70 on Canal Street in Chinatown."
Wallys grew less prevalent in the States as the Wu-Tang's influence over hip-hop waned in the late 90s, but they never became unfashionable in Jamaica. There was already a bubbling resurgence even before Kartel released Clarks in March.
"At Sting [the annual Jamaican concert], all the top dancehall artists – Aidonia, Mavado, Assassin – were wearing Clarks," Ranx says, chalking the revival up to a broader return to classic fashion in dancehall. "A lot of the major artists aren't allowed to travel out of Jamaica now. Kartel's [US] visa has been revoked. So they've just got to go downtown to buy some footwear. Before, these guys would go out of the country and come back wearing foreign brands like Gucci."
Kartel offers a more basic explanation: "I personally have more than 50 pair of Clarks," he says. "I have more than there are states in America. The concept for the song came when Vanessa Bling saw my Clarks. She said, 'Every day you in a different Clarks, and a badder Clarks. Weh you get so much Clarks from?'"
Kartel is famed as a canny commercial operator. He already endorses rum and condoms. But he didn't receive a penny from Clarks for boosting sales of their shoes. Maybe he didn't need to, though: as the Jamaica Observer has reported, he has a new idea after the success of Clarks. It was inevitable, really: Kartel is to launch his own brand of shoes.