Oi Polloi

Nathan Clark

Published: Tue Jul 05 2011

We usually leave the serious stuff to the serious blogs and newspapers like this but when we heard of the death of Clarks Desert Boot pioneer Nathan Clark last week we didn’t think we could let his passing go by without mentioning it.

We’ve been Clarks appreciators for many years. On any given day there will be two or three members of staff sporting a pair of Desert Boots or Wallabees. Indeed it was a mutual appreciation of (then) deadstock Wallabee Weavers that cemented the early friendship between our directors Steve and Nigel and eventually led to Oi Polloi opening in 2002.

We all know the story of Clarks and how they started, quaker James Clark and his brother Cyrus kicked things off in the 1820s. But it was only in the latter part of the 20th century that the modern day incarnation of Clarks came into being, and that is owed mostly to the work of Nathan Clark.

Nathan was the great-grandson of founder James Clark. He was a well educated man, studying in Germany and at Queen’s College, Oxford. Following this, he was expected to join the family business but he had other ideas. He made the rather radical decision to head to Spain in the midst of civil war, volunteering to drive in a Republican ambulance unit and spending two years there.

On his return he joined the Royal Army Service Corps as an officer and was sent to Burma during the second world war. He later served in North Africa where he observed his first desert boots. He noted how the locals would favour suede, minimal lacing and crepe soles aimed at comfort and durability over more conventional, rigid boots not necessarily suited to the arrid climate. Nathan was inspired to send back patterns of these shoes to the Clarks HQ in the hope he was onto something.

On his return, he picked up his project and with oversaw the first prototype Clarks desert boots. Playing safe, the company preferred to concentrate on school-approved children’s shoes. In any other circumstances, that would have been the end of that, but Nathan was put in charge of overseas sales soon after and refused to abandon his confidence in the desert boot design.

He took his designs to the Chicago shoe fair in 1947 and found a far more receptive audience than back home. Post-war USA seemed to appreciate the simple design and the desert boot began to gain popularity. This continued throughout the 1950s, although the British market wasn’t ready for such a comfortable shoe. Comfort wasn’t seen as cool. Eventually though, trendsetters like a certain Mr McQueen sparked interest in the desert boots and once fashion trends had caught up with the design they became a stylish staple and a timeless item of footwear that has never really gone out of fashion. Clarks have sold 12 million pairs of desert boots alone, with many similar, non-Clarks designs adding to that figure.

Nathan Clark left the family business before the desert boot had started to become popular but through his consultancy work on the Originals range, he kept his association with Clarks until his death on 23rd June, just a few weeks off his 95th birthday. Clarks remains in ownership of the Clarks family and its employees.