Jamaican reggae roots of Somerset’s famous Clarks boots
For decades, the Clarks brand has signified jobs for Somerset and sensible shoes for Britain’s schoolchildren and adults. But a new book has lifted the lid on a previously niche market for the famous Street-based shoe firm – Jamaican reggae stars.
Perhaps the first inkling Clarks customers and, indeed the firm’s employees, had that their shoes were all the rage in the dancehalls of the Caribbean was when Barbadian megastar Rihanna tweeted last year that she had stocked up on Clarks on the British leg of her world tour.
For unless you are connoisseurs of such reggae and dancehall stars as Dillinger, Trinity, Scorcher, Ranking Joe, Little John or even the super-cool Super Cat, then you would have little idea of the prestige that wearing Clarks shoes has in the Caribbean. For all those producers, DJs and singers have released records praising Clarks shoes, and after the biggest reggae tune of 2010, from MC Vybz Kartel, was called, simply, Clarks, London author Al Newman decided there was a story that needed telling.
His new book, Clarks in Jamaica, tells the bizarre story of how Somerset’s finest shoes became the must-wear footwear of the reggae scene. “It is kind of niche, but I thought it’s such a colourful story, it’s about time someone documented this,” he said.
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“I wanted to focus on the music and the Jamaican musicians who have sung about Clarks. So I went there to interview and photograph musicians, as well as other people on the street wearing the shoes,” he added.
Mr Newman went with photographer Mark Read and any doubts that he would not be taken seriously when revealing the subject of his book were soon eased.
“It seemed like a perfectly natural thing that someone would come from England to write a book about Clarks,” he said.
In a newly independent Jamaica in the 1960s, Clarks shoes were the most expensive shoes you could buy – so they became a status symbol.
Newman’s book recounts a story from DJ Dennis Alcapone of how, when a dance hall was raided by a notorious Kingston police chief called Joe Williams in the early 1970s, he turned the sound off and announced over the microphone: “All who’s wearing Clarks booty, stand on that side of the dance. And who’s not wearing Clarks booty stand on this side,” because he know that rude boys wear dem, so that is a way of identifying them,” said the DJ.
“In the early 1970s, the association became so strong that young males risked a beating by police simply for wearing a pair,” said Newman. “‘You must be a thief’, the police would say. ‘How else would you afford such expensive Clarks?’”