The Wallabee is a weird shoe. The square toe. The wedge sole. The two-eyelet closure. It all comes together to form something that looks distinctly different from, well, pretty much everything else. And yet, he is an icon. And nowhere is that status more evident than in New York, where it’s been tied to hip-hop since the earliest days. So how did a shoe – a quirky one, at that – become such a beloved part of a sneaker-dominated scene?
“I think it’s in the name, Clarks Originals. They have an original place in the world of footwear,” explains Set Free Richardson of the Wally. “They are between sneaker culture and they are not sneakers. They sit in the realm of hip-hop; I don’t think any other shoe is in the same space. Richardson is the creative director of Compound and the filmmaker behind the recent short documentary Clarks and New York: soles of the city, which traces the history of the Wallabee in the five boroughs over the past four decades. He’s also been “a Clarks chef and a Wallabee chef since I was young,” he explains. “It’s part of who I am, part of my culture, part of my history.”
That’s why Richardson – who got their first pair of all-black Wallys at the Colosseum in Jamaica, Queens in the late ’80s – decided to team up with the Somerset, England-based brand to put highlight the story of a man on the left. A central shoe introduced in the 60s that stood out from the Shell Toes and Cortezes of the young hip-hop scene and still managed to become a staple seen on the feet of everyone from Slick Rick to the Wu-Tang Clan. Moreover, he knew how to tell the whole story.
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“I said, ‘Look, let me take it a step further and really lay out the history of hip-hop and the right people to really paint this picture the right way,'” he explains. been a great ride in history ever since.”
“He really, really, really knows the culture,” says Tara McRae, director of marketing and digital at Clarks. “And that was a thing that was super genuine for us. So it was a very special thing. And from that moment on, he’s part of the family. He’s a partner and that was absolutely fantastic. He was not only the director of this, he was truly a partner in bringing it to life.
A big part of that was digging into the whole history of the Wallabee in New York from the beginning, to when he first infiltrated sneaker and hip-hop culture. “Every time I try to achieve something, it’s about the story,” says Richardson. “And history usually fits a timeline. So looking at Clarks and history, it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s start with early ’80s hip-hop, who wore them?’
There were the famous guys, of course. DMC. Slick Rick. But equally crucial to the rise of the Wallabee were the guys on the street – hustlers from the West Indies, notably Jamaica, where Clarks has a deeply devoted fanbase (one that Al Fingers explored in depth in his book Clark in Jamaicaand the one Clarks honored last year with its Jamaica Pack).
“When the crack first came, I see a bunch of West Indians there – Guyanese, Jamaicans – really come to my neighborhood and set up this criminal enterprise. Hustle. And they would rob,” Raekwon explained, founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan and himself an avowed bearer of Wallabee, during a panel discussion on the Clarks and New York documentary in which he appeared alongside bandmate Ghostface Killah. “They would be dressed on the block like Wall Street.” Eventually, he says, he and his friends ditched their sneakers, put on Wallabees and started dressing up. “Pants, button-up shirt. I’m 15, I wake up every day, faithfully iron pants and shirts, and go down Nassau Street.
Of course, the Wallys guys weren’t all hustlers. But no matter what side of the law they were on, kids who saw their shoes recognized something. “The Wallabee is in a class of its own,” said Jadakiss, who told Clarks and New York, explained to the panel. “No matter what’s going on, no matter what year, what time period we’re in, no matter what everyone around you is getting along with, if you have a pair of Wallos it completes your outfit. Know what I mean? You can have on this or that high-end design, it doesn’t matter. Wallos makes the cut of the list in all the ways you try to do it. And that’s what makes it beautiful. »
As for why hip-hop in particular chose this beauty, Richardson has an explanation. “A lot of other musical genres just do songs and maybe describe a moment or a time or a place,” he says. “But hip-hop has always been about products and how you wear something or how it looks. Hip-hop storytelling has always described it. When you look at Ghostface, he was called the Wallabee Champ on the album cover. I think hip-hop – from the chain of Jesus plays, to the Wallabees, to Air Force One, to “pass the Courvoisier” – hip-hop has always taken a product or a brand or an object and has kind of shines a light on it. And then after that light shone on it, it grew to an unexpected extent, and I think that’s what happened to the Wallabee.
There was the golden age when it was first discovered by New York hip-hop, and then again when the Wu-Tang Clan and their cohort adopted it as their own. And now it feels like we’re experiencing another climax. “A few years ago, everyone was talking about the 80s and 90s and the rise of hip-hop culture in Wallabee,” says McRae. “Years from now they’ll be talking about this moment and then they’ll be talking about the 2020s when it happens.”
Because yes. The Wallabee is weird. But as four decades of icon status in New York have shown, it’s a feature, not a bug. And right now, it looks like a whole new generation is spreading. “So many people have reached out to find out where to buy Wallys,” says Richardson. “They never looked at Wallys from that angle to dress, to disguise. A whole new batch of young kids are now, ‘Wallys that alternative shoe, man, I want to be different. I want to dare to be different but still fly.'”
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