Our Research Archivist Tim Crumplin guides us through the cavernous Clarks archive - a purpose built facility at Clarks HQ in leafy Street, Somerset.
Why is it important to keep an archive?
Companies are beginning to appreciate the commercial value of corporate archives, particularly when they’re as old as Clarks. A good archive offers competitive advantage and 200 years of heritage is either something you have or don’t have – you’re not going to be able to go out and acquire it any time soon. Archives provide companies with strong brand identity – they’re a reference point that provides a corporate authenticity which isn’t easy to manufacture. They offer protection of the past and inspiration for the future.
What kind of items are housed in the archive?
We have over 500 shoe machines and approximately 22,000 single shoes.
How important is the archive to Clarks Originals today?
Pretty important; they’re back regular as clockwork with every new season! In recreating old products we’re invaluable. We can provide an original last, shoes, patterns and marketing material (swing tags, point of sale items, accessories). Technicians and designers can ensure they get the right leathers, threads, colours, laces, stitch detail – so that it looks and feels like an original. Plenty of brands talk about authentic heritage products – few have the archival resource to deliver it. And if you can’t deliver it accurately, why try to deliver it at all? Originals can also use the archive to inspire and create new products, knowing that they’re able to produce something that whilst new, is true to the brand and worthy of 200 years of heritage. What’s produced might be very different from what’s gone before, but it’ll always have something Clarks about it.
We’re in the process of digitising the collections.
Do you work with the design team on new silhouettes? If so, what’s the process?
We’re an intrinsic part of the development process for new products. The archive holds catalogues from 1848, but comprehensively, year on year from the 1880s. Using this resource the design team can identify key features, sometimes tracing them to distinct ranges of footwear. They’re able to request original footwear, lasts and marketing material that provides information and visuals. We’ll then work to assist marketing with campaigns that accurately depict historical and heritage associations with new product.
Do you have the last for the original Desert Boot that Nathan Clark designed?
We’ve recently taken delivery of thousands of historical lasts, and until they’ve been properly cleaned, repackaged and catalogued we’re not too sure what we have. The likelihood is that we have a 191 last – which is what the Guernsey was modeled on. We certainly have a 220 last, which the Desert Boot was moved on to in the 1950s. What’ll be interesting to discover is whether we have any of the Desert Boot derivative lasts that were used to produce boots to satisfy a specific demand over the years. Like the 090 last, which supplied a Desert Boot with a sharper toe for the West Indian market in the early 1960s – to compliment drainpipe trousers with turn-ups.
Why is the Clarks Desert Boot such a significant milestone in Clarks history?
It’s a timeless product – nothing has ever superseded the Desert Boot. I had the good fortune of communicating with one of the old marketing managers recently and he said that during the 1990s, when the boot was riding high on the popularity of Brit Pop, he’d been under some pressure to brand the outside of the boot. Taking his dilemma to Nathan, he’d asked him the question and after a thoughtful silence, Nathan retorted, “Branding is vulgar. The only person that needs to know it’s a Clarks Desert Boot is the wearer”. Good advice and something he subsequently applied. It’s understated, but self-assured.
Do you think it’ll be a classic shoe for another 65 years?
Of course it will.
What would you say are the most valuable items in the collection?
I couldn’t really discriminate. Most of what we have hasn’t got huge monetary value, but it is priceless to the brand because it’s irreplaceable. It defines what we are, where we’ve come from and should dictate to some degree where we’re going.
Do you archive everything? There are so many items right now, what’s your curation process?
Footwear is taken from all divisions, normally a selection of products that have been good sellers or have some other discerning feature: innovative construction, material, a collaboration. We’ll take interesting failures too, or things that have been hard to produce as they might be revisited in the future or circumstances might change.
What are your goals for the Clarks archive in the future?
We’re in the process of digitising the collections. The aim is to photograph the footwear collection, catalogues, point of sale material and factory newspapers (Clarks Courier). By attaching this to the archives database it’ll create a research resource that’ll enable Clarks employees to not only research single items, but also quickly determine the overall picture of available resource. It’ll encourage them to go off and discover parts of the collection they probably never intended to research. It’ll reduce handling of the collections too, and hopefully preserve them that bit better. It’d be good if we could increase the amount of research that’s done here.