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Desert Boots Are Back--and Walking Away With Sales

May 31, 2000|From Hartford Courant

These boots were made for walking. Serious walking. Walking over long, lonely stretches of African desert. The kind of boots T.E. Lawrence might have wished for to keep his tootsies free of Arabian sand.

They're the Clarks Desert Boot. Homely but utterly practical, the shoe was developed in 1950 by Nathan Clark for the English footwear company known for making European comfort shoes. It was modeled after the simple suede boots worn by Clark's World War II army buddies purchased in the bazaars of Cairo.

The Clarks board of directors said they'd never sell.

They were wrong.

The Clarks Desert Boot was an immediate success, finding favor throughout Europe, in American fashion pages and as the footwear for British Mods. Not bad for a dorky, crepe-soled lubber.

Today, 11 million pairs later, the Desert Boot is enjoying a fashion revival. Clarks shoes--the Desert Boot and its younger brother, the Wallabee--are the cool new footwear for a new generation embracing '60s and '70s kitsch culture. Rappers like Ghostface Killah, a member of Wu-Tang Clan who owns more than 100 pairs of Wallabees, featured the Clarks shoe in his video "Apollo Kids." Desert Boots have been used in Abercrombie & Fitch advertising campaigns. Barneys, New York's temple of chic, began selling Clarks last fall. Hugo Boss and Anna Sui have shown Desert Boots in their runway shows. Even the Backstreet Boys wear Clarks.

"Fashion is cyclical. What's old is new again," said Susan Dooley, director of marketing for Clarks North American division in Newton, Mass. The 175-year-old Clarks is headquartered in England.

Hip to fashion's growing interest in its footwear, Clarks has taken its older models and grouped them under a sub-brand called Clarks Originals (including the Desert Boot and the Wallabee). Sales of the classic models, which account for 15% of Clarks' total sales in the United States and Canada, have more than doubled since 1996.

Dooley said Clarks' growth can't be attributed solely to a retro hunger. There's a demand for authenticity in the marketplace, she said.

"People are sick of knockoffs," she said. "They're looking for the real thing and willing to spend money for it."

In the case of the Desert Boot, that will set you back $89. To celebrate the shoe's 50th birthday, Clarks is preparing a limited edition of Desert Boots of which only 10,000 pairs will be made for worldwide distribution. The shoes will go on sale in September.

"They're going to be collectibles," Dooley said. "There's really a cultlike following for Clarks."

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