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Desert Boot Genealogy

Words by
Calum Gordon

An icon in contemporary fashion, the desert boot has made its way through British Burma, Jamaican rudeboys and Kanye West’s Yeezy to become an essential of today’s desert aesthetics, while hitting a sweet-spot of the utilitarian-luxury market.

It’s likely the least-coveted piece of footwear Kanye West has ever created. Included in his Yeezy Season 1 collection was an elemental crepe-soled military boot that seemed revel in its own blandness. It’s a style that has seemed to incrementally evolve with each collection designed by West, going from the original—angular and insipid—to the layered, contoured and genuinely quite attractive tactical desert boots of seasons three through six. Hitting a sweet-spot of utilitarian-luxury—one you feel West so often aims for but misses—these shoes in turn appear to have heavily influenced the Yeezy Desert Rat 500 sneaker, one of the rapper-turned-designer’s most intriguing and refined shoes to date.

The original Desert Boot, closer in form to West’s crepe-soled iteration than his later, more technical offerings, was created in 1941 by Nathan Clark, great-grandson of the founder of the English shoe brands Clarks, while stationed in British Burma, which had been annexed by British forces at the time. It took the best part of a decade for the shoe to take hold in the UK, finding favor with the sharp-suited, parka-clad mods who, as the name suggests, appreciated the minimal, modern charm of Clark’s design. Like many of the stylistic nuances of the mods, an appreciation for the Desert Boot (and its crepe-soled cousins, the boxy Wallabee and the Desert Trek) spilled over into the wardrobes of the British football casuals that followed on from the mods. (The Wallabees themselves have had plenty of their own cultural “moments,” thanks to the likes of Wu Tang Clan’s custom-painted suede uppers in the ‘90s.)
Meanwhile, in Kingston Jamaica, rudeboys were dancing in front of booming sound systems with crepe underfoot. It’s almost amusing today to think that a shoe so genteel and inoffensive was once used by Kingston cops as an identifier of purported subversive troublemakers. The popularity of Clarks’ in Jamaica was immortalized in a 2012 book by Al Fingers.

As a desert essential in 2019, however, you would presume there would be better footwear options for an intrepid explorer. The tactical desert boots which inform so much of West’s footwear designs weren’t created for pure practicality (with their online product pages filled with jargon and “registered” trademark signs, so you know it’s the good stuff); surely, the Yeezy variation, with its plush leather lining, would be a poor imitation when put under the stress of actual desert conditions.
Under Armour, the US sportswear brand, makes a version intended for such use. Under the unintentionally brilliant title “Deployed and disappointed,” one reviewer wrote that they were “amazingly comfortable and lightweight. Out here in the desert, the boots have the breathability to ensure your feet don’t sweat and fatigue,” but he was forced to give these only a one star rating, adding “I just received these a week ago and now one of the eyelet pieces has broken off.” Seasoned YouTube sneaker reviewer Brad Hall, on the other hand, said of the desert-inspired Yeezy Season 4 Military Boot: “really durable.” No contest, really.

Calum Gordon is a Berlin-based writer who specializes in fashion and contemporary culture.

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