Lance Clark died a few weeks ago at the age of 81. Not only was Lance the man behind the Clarks Wallabee (as well as countless other comfort shoe gems), but he was a keen philanthropist dedicated to various causes throughout the world.
Whilst there are probably better obituaries out there, here's an interview we did with the great man a few years back that displays his ingenuity and humour. He was on fine form.
We started with the tale of the Desert Trek…
Lance: You know the story with this one? When I was running Padmore and Barnes in Ireland there was a potter there called Sonja who was teaching me to draw, and she had this funny shoe with this thick seam down the front. So I borrowed it, adapted it, and took it to America with a great name… the Six Toe.
They said they thought it was a great shoe, but they weren’t sure about the name. I thought it described the shape perfectly, but eventually we changed it to the Trek and drew that drawing on the back. In Jamaica they call it the bank robber.
Sam: Who did that drawing?
Lance: I claim I did, but everybody says that. Anyway, the potter’s boyfriend was an artist and he wanted royalties because we’d taken this shoe design. But we’d changed the shoes and ours was an original, so we commissioned him to do a painting for £500 instead. I remember I’d been away for a while, and when I came back I asked the guy who’d taken over the factory where the painting was. He’d put it in the cellar, so I said, “If you don’t like it, I’ll buy it back.” I’ve just been offered eight grand for it.
Nigel: Not a bad investment.
Lance: I should have been an art dealer rather than a shoe maker.
Sam: What’s the story with the Natalie? Where did that come from?
Lance: I was running Padmore and Barnes at the time, and we had the crepe and the last there and we needed to come up with a new shoe, so we came up with the Natalie. Have you been to Kilkenny?
Sam: No. I’ve never been to Ireland.
Lance: I remember I was going home from work one evening. I called into the pub and some of the operatives called me over and said, “Lance, come over and have a Guinness.” I thought I was a hero because before I went there, there was only two day’s work a week. But they said, “Lance, until you came here, we only had to go to work two days a week and we had five days to enjoy our Guinness. But now you’re here, you want us up there six and a half days, and we only have half a day for Guinness. It taught me a lot about Irish philosophy.
Sam: Where did the crepe sole come from?
Lance: Clarks had a massive children’s shoe business. There was a shoe called the Joyance, a children’s sandal. In those days crepe was very important for children’s summer sandals. Have you seen that little film, The Shoebox? I’m trying to get a copy of it. In those days there were no glues or anything, and all the shoes were hand-sewn in the worker’s houses. The pieces would be collected and they’d be paid for what they’d stitched. William (James’s son) didn’t like the fact that children were made to do it. So he brought in the first shoe making machinery and made the first shoemaking factory.
Nigel: When was that?
Lance: In the 1800s.
Sam: I know you were one of the main people who got Clarks making stuff in Ireland, making a lot of those classic shoes. How did that come about?
Lance: Up to then children’s shoes were all stitched on soles. They all fell to bits. But Clarks had heard of a Spaniard who had developed a process which involved vulcanising rubber onto a shoe. You made a mould, you put a piece of raw rubber in and under the heat and pressure it vulcanised. It meant you could make a shoe cheaper that lasted far longer. So Clarks built a whole engineering works to supply the machinery and that gave them the lead. Sorry, what was your question?
Sam: I was asking about your time in Ireland, making shoes at the Padmore and Barnes factory.
Well, Clarks had sold the machinery and technology to a company in Bristol who made this shoe called TUF. This was the first time a man’s shoe had this sole. It was a huge business and Clarks wanted to counter that. So we bought this little factory in Ireland. The idea was that we would develop a men’s shoe that was slightly more formal with a light polyurethane sole. So that’s what I went over to develop.
Polyurethane in those days was very revolutionary, and over in this place—Kilkenny—you had to set up the moulds, and then inject two chemicals at exactly the right temperature. But you never got control… the moulds would leak and the mixture would be wrong. So the idea was there, I’d come up with the shoe and we’d marketed them, but we could never make the shoes. The factory was going bust. And then the Wallabee took off.
Nigel: I like the thing about the Wallabee just being worn by priests two days a week. They were Father Ted shoes.
It’s crazy when you think about it. We had this little factory in Ireland that started out making welted boots, and then I had this idea and I was desperate to find a way to save the business. We spent a year just getting the materials right. I used to have to walk the factory twice a day. Every moccasin man had to have a hammer, because you had to have the toe shape right.
Sam: Where did the Wallabee come from? Wasn’t it something else before it was a Clarks shoe?
Lance: The Wallabee was actually called the Grasshopper originally, because that was what the shoe I based it on was called. It was German. But the Grasshopper name was registered in America. We were sat over a beer and I drew the wallaby tail on the back of an envelope and handed it to the design people.
There’s lot of stories. I was once with the man who launched them in America and the police came in said, “We’re arresting you.” We said, “What’s going on?” And they said, “You’ve been illegally importing animals into the country. You’ve got two big crates of wallabies outside.”
Sam: Haha that’s amazing. Maybe a tough question, but have you got a favourite Clarks shoe?
Lance: There was a thing called the… the name has gone out of my head. But it was a Derby shoe on a Desert Boot construction.
Nigel: The Khan?
Lance: Yeah that’s the one. That was a revolutionary shoe because at those times when people wore casual shoes they were just suede versions of normal shoes.
Nigel: Yeah, Goodyear welted shoes aren’t too casual.
Sam: What do you think makes a good shoe?
Lance: I remember when we developed the Polyveldt, the BBC came down and interviewed me. They wanted me to tell them the history of it. They said, “You must have done a lot of research?” I didn’t tell them that I was lying in the bath and just came up with the idea. If you read Steve Jobs’s book, he says to never use research groups because people can’t tell you what the next thing is going to be. His thing was that the only good development committee is a committee of one.
At Padmore and Barnes it was easy. You’d come up with an idea, you’d go into the little design office, you’d give it to a guy, and say, “Let me see your idea.” Then you’d take it round two or three retailers and see how they did with it.
Sam: It all sounds pretty straight forward. To round this off, what does the future of shoes look like?
In my view shoemaking is going to go through the same change as photography. Kodak stuck with celluloid and didn’t recognize digital cameras. In my day you had to fiddle around with darkrooms and chemicals. I think 3D printers and lasers are going to completely revolutionise shoemaking. We’re about ready now to make a shoe in a few hours.
In the foreseeable future you won’t have shoe-shops, you’ll go to a centre, they’ll scan your foot, you’ll see all the designs, you’ll choose a colour and press a button. The technology is just about there.
R.I.P. Lance Clark.