The desert boot nearly didn’t happen. Stage set: Burma in the 1950s. While Nathan Clark, of the Clark’s shoe family, is on military duty, he spots the notoriously rowdy ‘Desert Rat’ platoon on tour from North Africa and the Middle East. But wait, what are those odd shoes they are wearing? ‘These things? Bought from a Cairo Bazaar, sir – comfy as hell’, an officer might reply. And before long, Nathan sets to work designing his own version, which is resisted by his family and the fashion-public until it appears in Esquire magazine, and later on the feet of British Mods.
The desert boot still looks fresh today; a footwear chameleon, fit for whatever fashions and styles you fancy, worn with favour by Hollywood film-stars and adventurers alike. After British Mods took to them in the sixties (paired with parka coats) they became a symbol of student rebellion in Paris – perhaps thanks to their casual appeal. The suede upper and crepe-soul make this a comfortable, hard-wearing shoe, although today you can find the shape in a variety of materials. For No Man Walks Alone, Buttero hand-makes these classic, military and worker-inspired shapes from their workshop in Italy, a more luxurious example of the original shape; while Vass makes a more dressed-up version usually called a chukka. Ranulph Fiennes wore a pair like these on active-duty for the SAS in Oman. Noel Gallagher of Oasis made them a Brit-Pop essential. Steve McQueen swore by them for, well, pretty much everything, and I’m not going to argue with Steve McQueen.
For me, the desert boot’s biggest appeal lies with its man’s-man, adventurer spirit. Like Fiennes, James Bond, or McQueen on a Triumph scrambler, the desert boot is the shoe that does: comfortable when tuning your car, it looks sartorially-savvy when worn with tailoring, too. Of all shoe shapes, it’s this one which appeals to me most - thanks to the versatility. I’d always advise friends to buy this shoe first, in a smarter iteration. They will never tire of pairing it with different outfits (after your first pair, you never stop buying them); I personally relish the chance to wear mine with soft-tailoring on a trip somewhere warm, in the hope I might appear like Mr. Peter Beard, or the late great Anthony Bourdain.
Not many people consider this, but Bourdain was a man who thought about his clothes. Toward the end of his life, he picked up a particular look that had much to do with the romantic notion of the adventurer. While travelling (and cooking) for television, his references were often the great travellers and essayists, built on romantic notions of the ‘wanderer’ (like Paul Bowles, whom he admired) drifting through deserts and diving into the sinews of seedy port towns. These wanderers were often photographed in desert boots, and, perhaps on purpose, so was he; whether dining with the President of the USA or chewing the fat in a tribal hut somewhere in Nagaland. In some ways, the desert boot helped build Bourdain’s legend as a ferociously hungry Hemingway (with good manners), and when asked, he described them as a travelling essential, ‘the most comfortable shoe on earth, you can kick them off in a second’, and that their benefit is in how, ‘cool they look… they’re great for anything.’ The desert boot has made it from the bazaars of Cairo to the boardrooms of Canary Wharf, while still – somehow - managing to retain its flavor for adventure. It is a shoe to fit all occasions.