It began with a flash of inspiration. It was 1825 in the Somerset village of Street and James Clark was busy working at the tannery owned by his brother, Cyrus. Among the sheepskin rugs, the off-cuts and cast-offs were piling up when James had a brainwave: “Slippers!” And the rest, as they say, is history. A few stitches and a few years later, the sheepskin slipper was born.
It was the very first Clarks shoe and the opening chapter in a remarkable story that continues to unfold to this day. In the decades that have passed since the young Mr. Clark’s eureka moment our shoes have seen social, political and economic revolution. They’ve seen fashions in footwear come and go, and come again – everything from court shoes and winklepickers to wedge heels, sandals and sneakers. They’ve tapped to the beat of crooners, rockers, Britpoppers and hip hoppers. They’ve walked, marched, strode and sashayed through an ever-changing world.
Our feet, meanwhile, have stayed firmly rooted in Street. It’s where Clarks started. It’s where our heart lies. And still, as always, we put that heart into every pair of our shoes to create stylish footwear that protects and cares for our customers’ feet.
Britain was perhaps at its greatest in the 1800s. Queen Victoria was on the throne from 1837 to just beyond the end of the century and reigned over a time of phenomenal economic, colonial and industrial growth. And while Charles Dickens gripped the nation with his storytelling skills, engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel got it moving via his remarkable tunnels, bridges, railway lines and steam ships.
For Cyrus and James Clark business was booming. Their sheepskin slipper, named the ‘Brown Petersburgh’, was a huge success. Within years of its unveiling, its unique design graced feet the length and breadth of the country and by 1842 sales were averaging 1000 pairs a month.
The ‘Brown Petersburgh’ was made by hand in Street. There were no factories, so the brothers – now trading as C&J Clark Limited – relied on outworkers to meet the growing demand. The workers collected the leather from the tannery, along with a pattern, took the whole lot home and turned it into slippers. Production was often a family affair – everyone did their bit of cutting, sticking and sewing. Then, every Friday, all the finished footwear would be taken to Cyrus and James and swapped for wages.
The system worked well for many years. The good people of Street were happy in their work and the company prospered. In fact business was so brisk that in 1851 the Clark brothers won two awards at the Great Exhibition, an event organised by Prince Albert to showcase the achievements of British industry.
Then, in 1863, disaster. A recession hit business badly and, almost overnight, the Clarks needed help. Lifelong Quakers themselves, they turned to contacts in the Quaker community for financial support and managed to secure a loan. But it came with conditions: James and Cyrus were to step down and William – James’ youngest son – was to take the reins.
It was another turning point in the company’s fortunes. Something of a visionary, William modernised the manufacturing process by bringing in the factory system and investing in the Singer sewing machine – a ground-breaking piece of technology at the time. Under his watchful eye, C&J Clark was revitalised, the loan was paid back in full and the company continued to move forward with developments like the Hygienic range. Launched in 1883, it was the first ever shoe designed to fit the shape of the foot; an innovation that is still the bedrock of Clarks’ reputation.
Whilst developing the commercial side of the business, William remained true to the ideals of his Quaker roots. He invested in the community, looked after his workers and built them homes – many of which can still be seen in Street today.
What the latter days of the 19th Century had started, the new millennium carried on with a passion. Science and technology were the watchwords. Inventions came thick and fast and included everything from the telephone and the zip to assembly line automobiles. Meanwhile, mass production and inexpensive alternatives to fabrics like silk meant a nation increasingly interested in fashion could finally afford to indulge itself.
With John, Roger and Alice Clark now running the company, Clarks continued to expand. Emerging from the buttoned-up days of the Victorian era, women in particular were a major new consumer. The female ankle was suddenly on display and shoes that showed them at their best were a must-have for every elegant lady of the time. C&J Clark was happy to oblige.
With more and more product to promote, Clarks began advertising – our first press ad appeared in 1936. We opened our own chain of shops called Peter Lord, a name which remained on the high street until the 1990s. We also introduced a choice of width fittings to our children’s range, not forgetting the first ever Clarks foot gauge – two innovations which became a benchmark in the care of growing feet.
Before the 1900s were even half over, the world was plunged into two terrible wars. British industry stepped up to play its part in the war effort and during the Second World War the main Clarks factory was used to make torpedoes. On the home-front, meanwhile, the global conflict led to all sorts of shortages; raw materials became scarce, testing the ingenuity of manufacturers determined to meet the demand for everyday essentials. Clarks, for example, designed a unique, hinged wooden sole, so we could carry on supplying the nation with shoes even when leather was hard to come by.
As the world emerged from the dark days of war, the next four decades saw change beyond the wildest dreams of many. What began with a baby boom, rock ‘n’ roll, teenagers, television and sputniks boldly going into outer space would end with mobile phones, the music video, Live Aid and an obsession with working out at the gym.
For C&J Clark the end of the 1940s ushered in a period of rapid growth. The available workforce in Street was too small to meet demand so, under the guidance of chairman Bancroft Clark, the company opened 15 new factories in neighbouring towns and cities. New shops and stores were also opened, including, in 1957, Clarks’ first flagship store on London’s Regent Street.
In the decades to come, expansion at home and abroad, increased production and the introduction of new materials like polyurethane and trademark technologies like Active Air all helped Clarks become the world’s best-known name in footwear. There were innovative styles too. The Desert Boot for example, brainchild of Nathan Clark, made its debut in 1950, captured the imagination of millions and remaining a global icon to this day.
As the 90s became the noughties, the computer revolution that had started two decades earlier with the invention of the microprocessor continued to transform work and play. And it still does, with the worldwide web, uploading, downloading and emailing all very much a part of almost everyone’s daily routine.
The dawn of the 1990s found Clarks facing some tough decisions. Major changes in world trade meant the company could no longer stay competitive while manufacturing in the UK. Reluctantly, production was moved to the continent. We began in a small way in Portugal, but it wasn’t enough. In the end, we had little choice but to close our UK factory doors and move the entire production process overseas.
It was a change of location but our high standards remained, and remain to this day, the same. Overseas modern factories, many of them purpose-built for Clarks, are audited either by independent auditors or our own on-site teams in order to monitor conditions and promote the best working practices.
The decision to move overseas wasn’t taken lightly. However, coupled with our continuing commitment to quality, new marketing and ad campaigns – including ‘Act your shoe size, not your age’ and the current ‘Enjoy Every Step’ – plus a re-branding in the high street, it has helped us return to the success of the good old days.
We’re pleased to say that things are still going well. New technology, state-of the-art facilities and our love of shoes means we’re not only the number one shoe brand in the UK. With continuing growth in North America, Western and Eastern Europe, India and China, we’re also the world’s largest casual and smart shoe company and the fourth largest footwear company on the planet.
We’ve come a long way since Cyrus and James Clark and the ‘Brown Petersburgh’. But their vision and passion live on in our shoes. You could say we’re following in their footsteps.