How Clarks Originals Became Hip-Hop’s Footwear of Choice
In an interview last year, rapper Slick Rick recalled when he first arrived in New York during the mid-1980s, and how he felt surrounded by Jamaicans wearing Clarks. Migrating from Surrey, England, the London-born wordsmith may have, quite rightly, expected to see less of the Somerset brand on the streets of The Bronx, yet such was the label’s unparalleled cultural significance, it wasn’t to be the case.
This influx of Clarks was mainly down to a new stream of Jamaican immigrants arriving along the east coast of America during the 1980s, which saw its streets suddenly awash with a refreshed sense of British-infused style and panache. At the time, the brand had enjoyed a cult status for decades and had been dressing the dancehalls of Kingston for some time, the shoes’ popularity was so high that they were experiencing a counterfeit problem on the island that saw imitations mass-produced in China, Mexico and Colombia.
The Jamaican “rude boys” had adopted the Desert Boot as their unofficial uniform, with the newer Wallabee silhouette starting to make tracks that would soon see it become the look for the “Brooklyn Jamaicans” subculture and its epochal b-boy uniform.
“Like most iconic Clarks shoes, the Wallabee is simple, comfortable, and totally unique in shape,” explains Tara McRae, Clarks CMO, on why the silhouette found unrivalled popularity. “It’s a style that sits between sneakers and casual dress shoes – and people can style it so many different ways. The Clarks Wallabee is a badge of honor and a signifier of belonging to your chosen group.”
As the burgeoning b-boy scene across the city grew, so did Clarks’ popularity. Groups of b-boys would be seen clad in brightly-coloured, loose-fitting pieces that would sit atop a well-worn pair of Wallabees. This soon led to its introduction into the world of hip-hop, too. At the time, Notorious BIG and Slick Rick were regularly seen wearing Wallabees, while Ghostface Killah described himself as the “Wallabee Kingpin”, and MF Doom was gifted a custom Knicks-inspired pair in the mid-90s. Both the culture and the label were on an upwards trajectory together.
“Hip-hop introduced Clarks to the world on a global scale,” said Slick Rick. “For me, the shoes are personal, and my canvas feeds off the shoe. Clarks symbolizes comfort, yet at the same time they represent class and style — synonymous to the energy of what real hip-hop is all about.”
By the time Method Man rapped “Wu-Tang gotta be the best thing since Starks and Clark Wallabees” in the Staten Island groups’s 2000 hit Gravel Pit (00:57 seconds in), Clarks had already been waxed lyrical by the likes of Foxy Brown in Nas’ Affirmative Action, Slick Rick on Frozen and Method Man’s own If Time Is Money, and even appeared on the cover of Ghostface Killah’s 1996 Ironman album.
After countless mentions of the Wallabee throughout the nineties, Wu-Tang Clan’s love affair with Clarks was cemented in 2019 when it dropped a trio of limited-edition Wallabees under its “Wu Wear” label alongside the brand to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its 36 Chambers album. Collaborations on the whole have played a big part in the brand’s ongoing success amongst hip-hop and streetwear culture, with partnerships with Supreme, Patta, Stüssy and BAPE keeping the brand firmly on the map. The first of its two link-ups with Teddy Santis’ Aimé Leon Dore in 2020 even saw Queens native Nas front the accompanying campaign, while he discussed life growing up in New York City while wearing a vibrant pair of orange Wallabees.
[Wu Wear x Clarks Originals Wallabee, 2019.
[Aimé Leon Dore x Clarks Originals, 2020.
[Supreme x Clarks Originals, SS19.
[BAPE x Clarks Originals, 2020.
“As a brand we are humbled by the love and support that our brand and especially the Wallabee has enjoyed from the hiphop community and subcultures around the world,” continues McRae. “It’s a story we have only begun to scratch the surface of and we plan to pay homage to hiphop and NY in particular in huge ways starting this summer – watch this space.”
Clarks’ cultural significance has long surpassed the label’s roots in Street, Somerset, and has seen it become a natural alternative to sneakers. Whether it’s about comfort and simplicity or what the shoes themselves represent, the feeling, passion and relevance of Clarks and the culture around remains as strong now, as it ever has.
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New Balance Equips the 1600 in Ivory
While many of New Balance’s initiatives and launches emphasize the brand’s native western market, several silhouettes have found success elsewhere in the world. Both the 237 and 1600 continue to see exclusive releases in Japan. In continuation of this, the 1600 has been outfitted in an ivory colorway for New Balance Japan.
In its newest look, the New Balance 1600 finds itself in various off-white shades with gray accents. Its upper favors a classic New Balance combination of smooth leather, nubuck and suede as its various colors blend seamlessly throughout the sneaker. Visible branding includes the iconic “N” logo embroidered on each side in white and ivory while the silhouette’s typical New Balance 1600 text can be spotted at the tongue. The heel shows off New Balance’s logo while ABZORB text on the sides nod to the sneaker’s sole unit that features ABZORB cushioning alongside ENCAP technology, focusing on shock absorption and comfort.
The initial release of this ivory-clad New Balance 1600 has taken place via New Balance Japan where pairs are available now at a price of ¥19,800 JPY (approx. $142 USD). As for an international release, New Balance has yet to indicate whether it will land on shelves in other regions.
For more New Balance news, another “Beef and Broccoli” colorway has been revealed for the fall, this time on the New Balance 580.
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Home, Heritage and Heat: How Walter’s Built Its Legacy
On the corner of Decateur and Peachtree, steps away from Georgia State University’s campus, stands a brick building with a welcoming white-and-red striped awning. It’s Walter’s, an Atlanta sneaker institution that’s been in business for seven decades.
The story of Walter’s begins with Walter Strauss, who fled to America to escape the brutality of Nazi Germany. During World War II, he enlisted in the military as a German map interpreter, and after the war, made a living by working in shoe warehouses in Atlanta. Eventually, he actualized his dream to open his own establishment — and Walter’s Clothing was born.
While Strauss’ operation opened its doors during the apex of the civil rights movement in 1952, he didn’t allow the pressures of segregation and discrimination to hinder his overall vision. His compassionate nature was a product of witnessing the cruelties of oppression first-hand in Nazi Germany. With a burning desire to create change in America, he refused to abide by the Jim Crow regulations that Southern states imposed and made his storefront a place of refuge by embracing the Black community both as clients and employees. Strauss and his wife Estelle even implemented a work-based learning program where they aligned with local high schools of the Atlanta, Fulton, and DeKalb counties to create job opportunities for African American students — a program that’s still running today. “Back then, Black people couldn’t just walk into any store to try on clothes, let alone find a retail job”, Leshaun Burke, who’s worked at Walter’s for 27 years, told Hypebeast. “Atlanta was at the center of that intense period in history, but Walter’s was always there for the people.”
As the ‘90s and early ‘00s rolled around, Walter’s influence amplified thanks to co-signs from high-profile customers. Outkast (“Slum Beautiful”), Young Jeezy (“I Got Money”) and Gucci Mane (“Both Eyes Closed”) name-dropped the store in songs, and footage of the store in Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta” music video catapulted it into mainstream media. “Future grew up not too far from here and would always pay us a visit”, Burke said. “Big Boi and Andre 3000 have dropped in to pick up adidas sweatsuits. Rick Ross, 21 Savage, Dave Chappelle, DJ Khaled and Migos have shopped here. Everybody has rolled through.“
“You had to find places that had that flavor, and we made sure to be that for the community.”
Walter’s was also one of the first retailers to pioneer a strategy that entailed supplying a versatile range of products that evolved to meet its clientele’s changing demands and tastes.. Initially, the offerings were workwear-centric. Brands like Dickies and Levi’s were consistently in stock, ensuring that construction workers who were redeveloping the city during the ‘50s and ‘60s had a go-to shopping hub. During the ‘80s, adidas sneakers and tracksuits spiked in popularity thanks to hip-hop collective Run–D.M.C. Walter’s was on top of that trend too, quickly becoming the only place in Atlanta to offer unique colorways. It also became one of the original retailers to have a Jordan Brand account in ‘85, and that relationship remains intact today. “Back then, you couldn’t just go to the mall and pick up an adidas tracksuit or a pair of Forums”, Burke said. “You had to find places that had that flavor, and we made sure to be that for the community.”
Notable sportswear brands have also honored Walter’s cultural influence through collaborations on special roll outs. In 2008, Jordan Brand hand-picked 23 shops in the US to receive the Air Jordan 23 and Walter’s was one of them. It was also one of two retailers to receive the limited-to-700-pair Air Jordan 1 High “Satin Royal Blue” — the other being Active Athlete in Houston, Texas, another original Jordan Brand retailer. Additionally, New Balance linked up with the downtown ATL store and DJ Mars in 2012 to produce a Christmas-themed New Balance 574 “Holiday Pack.” Today, Walter’s stocks a plethora of offerings that cater to customers both old and new. Those that have been giving business to the store for decades can still come in to pick up a Kangol Bermuda Hat, FILA kicks or a full Three Stripes sweatsuit. Air Jordans, Nike Dunks, New Balance lifestyle models and Reebok Classics are available for the Gen-Z sneaker die-hards as well. There’s something for everybody, and all are welcome.
“People come to us all the time saying how they want to build a store like Walter’s, but it’s impossible because we’ve put in years of forging strong relationships and trust with our customers to come here.”
In a world where resell platforms, consignment shops and modern boutiques dominate the marketplace, you might not expect an older enterprise like Walter’s to stay afloat, let alone flourish. However, Walter’s prestige is earned: it comes from generations of relationship building that newer boutiques can’t match up with. Tier zero retailers can flex their state-of-the-art locations across the globe, receive every Jordan collab and have celebrities in their lookbooks, but at the end of the day, they can’t earn the kind of legacy Walter’s has as it can only be accrued with time. Its customers aren’t just the older heads that have been shopping there for years: it’s also their children and grandchildren, to whom they’ve passed down their stories, experiences and connections. “Times change,” said Burke. “We’ve understood the industry transitions, but we don’t worry about what everybody else does because we know what works for us. People come to us all the time saying how they want to build a store like Walter’s, but it’s impossible because we’ve put in years of forging strong relationships and trust with our customers to come here.”
Strauss’ passionate, “family first” mentality has allowed Walter’s to blossom in an ever-evolving market and will continue to be a calling card for its workers as it strives to remain a dominant industry staple for the next 70-years. It’s proof that mom-and-pop shops can still hold their charm and even outlast big box retailers when it places community and products at the fore.
Walter’s walked so that modern streetwear and footwear boutiques can run, and it’s not stopping any time soon.
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Nike Presents Collaborative SOULGOODS Dunk High Collection
First discovered in July, SOULGOODS has worked with Nike on not just one Dunk High, but a collection of three colorways for the legendary high-top. The Beijing-based retailer is no stranger to the Swoosh, having previously collaborated with its Converse subsidiary in 2021. Now, the duo pays tribute to culture, including basketball, from the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s with each of its collaborative Dunk High colorways.
The “’80s” look arrives in a primarily gray finish with a design that draws inspiration from what the SOULGOODS team thinks a Chinese national basketball team shoe would have looked like in the ’80s. As for its olive green “’90s” counterpart, the collaborative pairing revisited one of their favorite classic albums in Chinese rock history and paired it with an East Coast hip hop influence with details such as its embroidered tiger logo pulling from the Wu-Tang Clan Dunks from ’99. Lastly, the newly revealed “’00s” colorway arrives in a presentation packed with history as it recalls SOULGOODS co-founder Wu Yue’s childhood in Beijing, featuring personal and traditional symbols and talismans throughout its patchwork design.
For those interested in purchasing a pair, the first SOULGOODS x Nike Dunk High is set to release in November with the remaining colorways landing on shelves by the end of the year. Stay tuned as specific release dates are announced by the Swoosh ahead of the collection’s launch.
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In other footwear news, the much-anticipated Concepts x Nike SB Dunk Low “Orange Lobster” has been officially revealed by Nike.
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