How Clarks Originals Became Hip-Hop’s Footwear of Choice

A look into the Somerset-based label’s influence on the New York rap scene.

Footwear 
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In an interview last year, rapper Slick Rick recalled when he first arrived in New York during the mid-1980s, and how he felt surrounded by Jamaicans wearing Clarks. Migrating from Surrey, England, the London-born wordsmith may have, quite rightly, expected to see less of the Somerset brand on the streets of The Bronx, yet such was the label’s unparalleled cultural significance, it wasn’t to be the case.

This influx of Clarks was mainly down to a new stream of Jamaican immigrants arriving along the east coast of America during the 1980s, which saw its streets suddenly awash with a refreshed sense of British-infused style and panache. At the time, the brand had enjoyed a cult status for decades and had been dressing the dancehalls of Kingston for some time, the shoes’ popularity was so high that they were experiencing a counterfeit problem on the island that saw imitations mass-produced in China, Mexico and Colombia.

The Jamaican “rude boys” had adopted the Desert Boot as their unofficial uniform, with the newer Wallabee silhouette starting to make tracks that would soon see it become the look for the “Brooklyn Jamaicans” subculture and its epochal b-boy uniform.

“Like most iconic Clarks shoes, the Wallabee is simple, comfortable, and totally unique in shape,” explains Tara McRae, Clarks CMO, on why the silhouette found unrivalled popularity. “It’s a style that sits between sneakers and casual dress shoes – and people can style it so many different ways. The Clarks Wallabee is a badge of honor and a signifier of belonging to your chosen group.”

As the burgeoning b-boy scene across the city grew, so did Clarks’ popularity. Groups of b-boys would be seen clad in brightly-coloured, loose-fitting pieces that would sit atop a well-worn pair of Wallabees. This soon led to its introduction into the world of hip-hop, too. At the time, Notorious BIG and Slick Rick were regularly seen wearing Wallabees, while Ghostface Killah described himself as the “Wallabee Kingpin”, and MF Doom was gifted a custom Knicks-inspired pair in the mid-90s. Both the culture and the label were on an upwards trajectory together.

“Hip-hop introduced Clarks to the world on a global scale,” said Slick Rick. “For me, the shoes are personal, and my canvas feeds off the shoe. Clarks symbolizes comfort, yet at the same time they represent class and style — synonymous to the energy of what real hip-hop is all about.”

By the time Method Man rapped “Wu-Tang gotta be the best thing since Starks and Clark Wallabees” in the Staten Island groups’s 2000 hit Gravel Pit (00:57 seconds in), Clarks had already been waxed lyrical by the likes of Foxy Brown in Nas’ Affirmative Action, Slick Rick on Frozen and Method Man’s own If Time Is Money, and even appeared on the cover of Ghostface Killah’s 1996 Ironman album.

After countless mentions of the Wallabee throughout the nineties, Wu-Tang Clan’s love affair with Clarks was cemented in 2019 when it dropped a trio of limited-edition Wallabees under its “Wu Wear” label alongside the brand to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its 36 Chambers album. Collaborations on the whole have played a big part in the brand’s ongoing success amongst hip-hop and streetwear culture, with partnerships with Supreme, Patta, Stüssy and BAPE keeping the brand firmly on the map. The first of its two link-ups with Teddy Santis’ Aimé Leon Dore in 2020 even saw Queens native Nas front the accompanying campaign, while he discussed life growing up in New York City while wearing a vibrant pair of orange Wallabees.

“As a brand we are humbled by the love and support that our brand and especially the Wallabee has enjoyed from the hiphop community and subcultures around the world,” continues McRae. “It’s a story we have only begun to scratch the surface of and we plan to pay homage to hiphop and NY in particular in huge ways starting this summer – watch this space.”

Clarks’ cultural significance has long surpassed the label’s roots in Street, Somerset, and has seen it become a natural alternative to sneakers. Whether it’s about comfort and simplicity or what the shoes themselves represent, the feeling, passion and relevance of Clarks and the culture around remains as strong now, as it ever has.

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