Clarks in Jamaica: Al Fingers revisits the Caribbean island’s obsession with the British shoes

A report by Katy Cowan for Creative Boom.

Clarks shoes might not be the epitome of cool here in the UK, but in Jamaica, they hold a special place in Jamiacans’ hearts. Referenced in hundreds of reggae and dancehall songs, the “champion shoes” are the preferred footwear of gangsters, school children, Rastas, government officials and everybody in between, and it’s been that way for as long as anybody can remember.

Now One Love Books is releasing the long-awaited second edition of Al Fingers‘ cult classic, Clarks in Jamaica, updated with new interviews, photographs and previously unseen archive material.

With a focus on the Jamaican singers and DJs who have worn and sung about Clarks over the decades, this classic style reference explores how footwear made by a Quaker firm in the quiet English village of Street in Somerset from 1825 became the “baddest” shoes in Jamaica and an essential part of the island’s culture.

Featured interviews include Ninjaman, Chronixx and Jahvillani who all provide insight into Jamaica’s favourite styles of Clarks from those involved in their creation, and an expanded chapter on Jamaican style detailing the histories of fashion staples such as the string vest, Arrow shirt, knits ganzie and beaver hat.

In interviewing veteran dancehall artist Ninjaman, who is currently incarcerated in Jamaica, Al ‘Fingers’ Newman discovered that the Clarks connoisseur was first inspired to get a pair after seeing neighbourhood dons such as Claudie Massop, Bucky Marshall and Curly Locks wearing them on the streets. “He recalled the time he bought his first pair of Desert Boots, which he paired with a matching Arrow shirt and tailor-made Terylene-and-wool ‘pants length’ (trousers),” Al tells Creative Boom.

“If you look at footage through the years of Ninjaman at the Jamaican dancehall stage show Sting, he is mostly wearing Clarks. He spoke about how he used to come to the UK during the 1980s and travel up to Blackburn to visit Tommy Ball’s Shoe Store, one of the best places in England to buy cut-price Clarks. The shop was run by Tommy Ball, a local Blackburn legend who began as a rag-and-bone man and went on to build a shoe retailing empire, buying seconds direct from British shoe manufacturers all over the country.

“A lot of Jamaicans, including other musicians and producers such as Jah Thomas and Henry Junjo Lawes, would go to Tommy Ball’s, as well as to the village of Street in Somerset, where Clarks is based, to find cheap Clarks. Ninjaman remembers smoking being banned in Tommy Ball’s because Jamaicans were going into the back of the shop out of view and stubbing out their cigarettes out on the bottom of the crepe soles to inflict some damage before requesting further discounts.”

One of Al’s favourite photographs in the new edition is of Jamaican cricketer Courtney Walsh outside the Clarks seconds shop on Cranhill Road in Street, close to the Clarks HQ. “The shop was called the ‘job cage’ (‘job’ was the name for a slightly imperfect shoe) and most of the Clarks staff would go there to buy cheap Clarks. It’s the late 1980s and Courtney is standing next to a car with his name on the doors, carrying bags full of Clarks shoes to take home to friends and family in Jamaica. He later became an ambassador for Clarks and would often go to Street to stock up on Clarks, having first been introduced to the village by Barbadian and Somerset cricketer Joel Garner. It’s one of various previously unpublished photographs in the book, a lot of them found in the depths of the Clarks archive.

“Another photograph from the archive features Haile Selassie’s grandson, Prince Paul Wossen-Seged Makonnen, wearing Clarks Play-Up sandals in London in 1949, aged two. Haile Selassie himself actually travelled to Street numerous times during his time in exile in the UK and was acquainted with various members of the Clark family. I can only assume that he must have worn Clarks too.”

Does Al have any favourite stories? “One of the people I spoke to was criminologist and journalist Dr Jason McKay whose father was a policeman in the Jamaican Constabulary Force in the early 1980s – part of the Eradication Squad led by infamous police superintendent Joe Williams. The squad would raid dances, cinemas and other gatherings, dividing people according to whether they were wearing Clarks or not. Those with Clarks on were often beaten or taken to the station for questioning. They must be into some sort of illegal activity, the police would say, how else could they afford such expensive shoes?”

Al ‘Fingers’ Newman is a cultural historian, DJ and curator based in London. His previous books include DPM: An Encyclopaedia of Camouflage with Hardy Blechman (Maharishi, 2004), Greensleeves: The First 100 Covers (Stüssy Deluxe, 2010), In Fine Style: The Dancehall Art of Wilfred Limonious with Christopher Bateman (One Love Books, 2016) and Covers: Retracing Reggae Record Sleeves in London with Alex Bartsch (One Love Books, 2018).

Fascinated by the Jamaican love of Clarks shoes and the hundreds of reggae and dancehall tunes that reference the brand, Newman began researching the subject in 2010, inspired by the Vybz Kartel song, ‘Clarks’. In 2011 he travelled to Jamaica with photographer Mark Read and reggae industry veteran Pierre Bost to document the story with portraits and interviews with reggae icons including Jah Stitch, Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee, Jah Thomas, Trinity and Little John, with the first edition of Clarks in Jamaica published in 2012.

Alongside Read’s stunning photographs, this updated second edition features archive images from Beth Lesser, Dave Hendley, David Corio and Adrian Boot among others, as well as new illustrations from artist Ben Dorado.

A percentage of proceeds from the sale of the first book was donated to Alpha Boys School for wayward boys in Kingston. During the making of this second edition, Al worked with Clarks to set up a community partnership with Maverley Primary & Infant School in Kingston, where 340 students received a new pair of shoes, donated by the shoe brand.

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