With almost 200 years of footwear history behind him, chief brand officer Jason Beckley is taking Clarks Originals in a new direction, maintaining the brand’s legacy while simultaneously feeding it with innovative technology
There are a few brands that, almost per definition, transcend fashion. Often it’s reserved for the ones that have become synonymous with one type of product. Some of them find it a bit restricting and rebel against the pigeonholing. Others, the clever ones, build on it and cherish their cultural status. The trick is to continuously base parts of what you do on that legacy while simultaneously pushing forward with innovation in mind. Stagnation, as we all know, is creativity’s biggest enemy.
Clarks, the British footwear brand launched by brothers Cyrus and James Clark in 1825, has had almost 200 years to pioneer and establish its very own design philosophy, one that is equally defined by function as it is by form. Since August 2015, it’s been down to chief brand officer Jason Beckley to steer the ship. Within the footwear industry, Clarks is like a gigantic cruise liner: it has to appeal to a wide array of customers, and it can sometimes be difficult to turn it around quickly when trying to react to changes in the market.
As a direct consequence Beckley quickly set his sight on Clarks Originals, the brand’s directional line and sub-cultural force, which is now calling time on history and catching up with the future. Within Clarks it sits alongside the commercial main line, which makes shoes as quintessentially British as Marks & Spencer, Burberry and Land Rover. Originals, therefore, needs to offer a spearheaded product defined by attitude and energy.
Having worked with the likes of Dunhill, Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent, Beckley knows how to make a product high-end, and he is aware there’s plenty of work to do with Clarks. But, importantly, the core product is there: the combination of quality and legacy means Clarks has all the necessary ingredients to ‘future-proof’ its image – and that, surely, is preciously the kind of challenge Beckley will rise to.
You’ve been with Clarks for a year and half, what are the biggest challenges facing the brand?
That yesterday informs tomorrow with more clarity than tomorrow does. The other day my four-year-old daughter asked me, “Daddy, what is history?” and I said that it’s everything that has already happened, and she then said, “So what is tomorrow?” and I said the future is tomorrow. My wife butted in saying that, in fact, tomorrow is opportunity! And I thinks she’s right about that…
Clarks is still based in Somerset, and there’s a design centre in Boston, none of which are ‘centres of the world’. Were you never tempted to move the whole operation to, say, London or New York?
Well, I live in London and the head office is in Somerset. I work there and in Boston. To be fair, I toyed with the idea of moving the HQ quite a lot actually. I grew up in Somerset, desperate to get out, and to be 6ft7, black, weigh 220 pounds, have 23 on my back and play for Chicago Bulls! But I realised that a lot of the pioneering brands I admire – Nike, Adidas, Quicksilver etc – all started outside of the city. The fact that these iconic brands come from the middle of nowhere is what makes them specific and unique and what makes them intense and focused, and that’s what drives the authenticity.
A brand like Clarks is authentic but it is authentic from a historic point of so to speak?
But there has never been a historic brand that started in the past, all of them started in the future. There was never a moment when Thomas Burberry or Alfred Dunhill was like, “Hmm, I wonder what we wore 108 years ago?” Instead they asked, I wonder what will happen 110 years from here? It’s more about asking yourself what will happen tomorrow, what will inform us and how will people live, rather than just investigating the past.
So even though Clarks is defined as a ‘heritage brand’ you don’t have a problem talking about the future as opposed to the past?
I’m happy to do an interview about the future as the past will really never inform us: the ‘code’ is about tomorrow and the ‘code’ is what makes a great pioneering product, but that comes from the very moment of perception and I think people really get historic brands a little bit confused. Am I going to drop to desert boot? No way! Do I think it one of the most beautiful products ever created? Absolutely! So the trick is to respect the past while pushing forward.
Products need to be kept contemporary, right? So take Originals, which is so anchored in history, how do you modernise that?
Essentially what you have in the Originals is the two streams; you have the protection of icons and you need to recognise that, so why don’t we make sure those things were made as perfect as they always were and why don’t we stop pushing them so hard for volume and why don’t we recognise that what they are, iconic and perfect boots and they should almost be seen as restorations. But you also need to be designing for now. I do still think you can pioneer innovation but you have to pioneer it with the same desire as before while protecting your icons – that is certainly the way that I’m going to do it!
When you look at Clarks Originals, the Trigenic Flex stands out because it’s quite futuristic in its look compared to the others one…
That’s the shoe that enticed me to join Clarks! I was in Harajuku in Tokyo during the time I was talking to the company about joining, and there was a girl who really just stood out to me as she walked down the street… I looked at the shoes she was wearing and it was the Trigenic in black, and when I got in I went to find out all about them. The Trigenic sole unit was developed 25 years ago in collaboration with Loughborough University. Clarks then developed the moccasin foot shape last with an added whipstitch, which is a simple way to attach the last on the moccasin. A moccasin is just a rolled piece of leather but the whipstitch changes both the look and purpose of the original shoe. So, yes, if there’s a shoe that represents the current state of Clarks Originals, it would definitely be the Trigenic Flex.
I think it’s definitely an interesting silhouette because of that. It really shows that there is this path forward for Clarks Originals… It goes back to the code you talked about, right?
I got into a BMW taxi the other day and I knew it was a BMW straight away even though I didn’t see the logo, but I had no doubt at all because the code was perfect! Or imagine if you put three fridges next to each other and one was a new Apple fridge… I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t be able to pick out the Apple one! It’s the same with the Trigenic, when you hold it you’re in no doubt that it’s a Clarks shoe. That’s what the code is about.