Words by Mikaila Brown, Photos by Jason Eric Hardwick for Brother Vellies—
“Everybody haffi ask weh mi get mi Clarks”
In his 2010 hit song “Clarks,” Vybz Kartel outlines the official outfit for an original “badman” down to the footwear. His shoes, the ubiquitous Clarks, are so attractive that everyone wants to know where he got them. The answer to this question might be more complicated than initially thought.
Clarks are a popular brand of shoe that originated in England in 1825. By the 1960’s, Clarks—and specifically the Desert Boot, a chukka shoe with a sole crepe developed by Nathan Clark after shoes worn by British troops in North Africa during World War II— had become the most sought-after footwear for young Jamaican men. Its continued popularity has since made it as Jamaican as mesh tops, bun and cheese, and kalooki.
Ask any Jamaican where they got their Clarks, and you’d expect to hear England or America. But the answer might actually be Namibia. In fact, Namibians created a shoe exactly like desert boots as far back as the 1600s. Called “Vellies”—short for “Velskeon”—these shoes, made from durable kudu skins, were originally worn by the Khoikhoi tribe before being adopted by the British.
How a traditional shoe from a small tribe in Southern Africa ends up becoming a shoe tradition in Jamaica brings new meaning to the term Triangular Trade. There’s no concrete proof that Clarks (which makes its desert boots from”hard” leather and “soft” suede, as noted by Kartel in “Clarks”) are the sartorial descendants of Vellies, but these pictures—taken by photographer Jason Eric Hardwick for Brother Vellies, a Brooklyn-based company that has begun importing “vellies” handmade in Swakopmund, Namibia—show a remarkable likeness, not only in the style of the shoe, but also the swagger of the wearer.
The Brother Vellies are a truly beautiful shoe. For Clarks enthusiasts, the African style additions of authentic fur details, animal prints and bright colors contribute to a new and edgier dimension to the shoe. Funny enough, Brother Vellies seem more contemporary than conservative, old-world Clarks. For a shoe with a deeper history, there is something new and fresh about Brother Vellies. Though they came first, they feel like desert boots with a fashion-forward twist.