Wallabee Champ: The Sneakerhead’s Gateway Non-Sneaker, Sneaker
Depending on which part of the world you’re from, the brand name Clarks might elicit associations with daggy black leather school shoes. And while this portion of the market is a key focus for the almost 200-year-old British shoemaker, the brand offers a lot more to the footwear industry than just Oxfords.
Having already been the subject of a brief retrospective, it’s time to properly exalt the Clarks Wallabee. After all, it’s the perfect gateway shoe for the impassioned sneakerhead looking to dip their toes into something a little different. It may take some open-mindedness and a bit of ‘sole searching’ to understand but, once you’ve heard the story, the reasons should be infallible.
A Brief History
Wallabees have been part of Clarks’ core offering since around 1967, but they didn’t actually invent the famous casual crepe creeper. German company Sioux had initially designed the moc-toed suede shoe three years earlier, known as ‘The Grasshopper’. Clarks acquired a license to manufacture their own version, originally carried out by Irish brand Padmore & Barnes for a couple of decades, until their in-house production today.
The Wallabee build is well worth a closer look, starting from the bottom with its full-length, crepe sole. Offering maximum comfort from naturally squishy rubber, the wedge design evenly distributes weight across its surface. More importantly, for any sceptics, this type of sole doesn’t look as ‘dressy’ as its heeled Desert Boot counterpart. While crepe rubber’s tacky surface can be prone to attracting dirt, it certainly adds patina and charm – much the same way that some sneakers look better scuffed up and broken in.
Above the sole is that distinct upper, usually built in suede. Whether in low- or boot-cut heights, the distinct two-piece construction is beautifully bound with a moccasin-stitched rolled edge vamp. This gives structure and a unique shape, while also making the fit deceptively comfortable: wide enough to wiggle toes, and a gentle taper at the heel counter. Thanks to the neutral last, the Wallabee suits feet of all shapes and sizes. Two pairs of eyelets are all that’s needed to secure the foot – though rocking loosely-laced Wallabees is certified street style.
Clarks in Jamaica
While some brands attempt to manufacture authenticity, Clarks have achieved that organically with silhouettes like the Wallabee. Al Fingers’ aptly-titled Clarks in Jamaica details the shoe’s significance in the island nation since the 60s, as the uniform of the ‘rude boy’ movement. It flexed street cred and social currency, along with its undeniably premium status.
The East Coast Connection
Soon after, Wallabees became immortalised in countless East Coast rappers’ bars. The shoe’s importance in hip-hop warrants its own essay but, to keep it brief, it’s unofficial standard-issue for New York’s boroughs. It appeared on the cover of Ironman, the solo debut of Ghostface Killah. The self-proclaimed Wallabee Champ went on to name a compilation album just that. Add belated colabs with MF DOOM, Drake’s OVO label, and official releases with the Wu-Tang Clan for the full effect. Regular appearances on Kanye West’s feet over the course of his career also helps impressionable youths appreciate a shoe from the late 60s.
The British Invasion
It wasn’t just Jamaicans and New Yorkers that were early adopters. Of course, being a British company, Clarks have always been a hit with their compatriots. At the same time as the Caribbean uptake, Britain’s ‘mod’ scene readily accepted the Wallabee as a complement to the Desert Boot. Furthermore, Berlin Trilogy–era David Bowie was snapped wearing a pair, and Richard Ashcroft followed suit 20 years later on the cover of The Verve’s Urban Hymns. During the same period, both Gallagher brothers from Oasis were also known to wear pairs. And with acid house music bolstering the shoe’s popularity, the accompanying contemporary streetwear wave in the 1990s and 2000s carried it into modernity.
Streetwear’s rightful infatuation with the Wallabee has made it the centrepiece of creative efforts from all corners of the globe. London’s Goodhood applied playful brushstrokes on classic maple tones, while Japan’s nanamica and BEAMS tapped into functional style by adding GORE-TEX liners and Vibram soles. So did Canada’s HAVEN. Man of the moment, Futura 2000, worked his paint-splattered style a decade ago. OG brand Stussy had an excellent rendition in 2015, and peak hype brand Supreme have released at least a couple of Wallabees every other season. It makes for quite a formidable back catalogue.
With the ubiquity of colabs in today’s sneaker scene, it may serve you well if your first taste of crepe is a joint effort. Most recently, Carhartt WIP released a duo resembling both their workwear- and military-inspired heritage. However, some of the best Wallabees are suede GRs in just about any colour you can think of. Your author once peaked at 25 different variations. If you’re still unsure about taking moc-toed ventures into a brave new world, just look up the #WallabeeWednesday hashtag on Instagram. It’s gathered countless Clarks fans devoted to wearing their favourite shoe in the middle of the working week. There are 52 Wednesdays in a year – so that makes 52 chances to get involved in the revolution.
Ignore the asinine scoffing from the unenlightened children still reaching for their gimmicky retro runners and umpteenth colourway of 80s basketball shoes. Put on some timeless suede Wallabees. It’s a whole new world of footwear. Keep your laces loose for that relaxed, street-strolling steez, or knot a perfectly symmetrical bow appropriate for your next black tie event. If there’s a shoe that flouts society’s conventions, it’s the Clarks Wallabee. Just try entering a ritzy gala in your white-on-whites.