Proper Interview: Matteo Bellentani, Clarks Originals

Given our profound love for Clarks footwear and the fact, the legendary British brand are currently celebrating the 70th year of the Desert boot. It was something of a no brainer that we dropped their head of product and design a line to see what’s up. So read on for a genuinely insightful conversation about the wonderful world of suede and crep with our new best mate Matteo.

Hi Matteo, first question: what have you got on your feet today and why did you choose that particular pair?

I’m wearing the Clarks Originals Gore Tex Wallabee boot in black suede. I wear them a lot at the moment, even when the weather’s awesome! I love them.

Most of our Clarks stories begin at school, how does your Clarks journey start and what did the brand mean to you prior to working with them?

I started my career in footwear in 2000, just after art school. I worked for a small company in the North of Italy, and started by pattern making and leather cutting, all by hand, they were great times. Back then, we had to conduct all of our market and consumer research on the streets. There was no Instagram, and the internet wasn’t what it is today. The only way you could get insights into what was going on was to read lots of magazines, visit new cities, check out new stores, and meet as many people within the industry as possible. I was lucky enough to work as an assistant to a designer 20 years older than me who freelanced for some really cool brands. He was a real shoedog and mentor. He knew a lot about footwear and brand history, especially casual and sport trainers. He always used to talk to me about Clarks, how influential it was, the quality of the suedes, the archive gems, and the subcultures that have adopted the brand. We spent a lot of time talking about clothes, footwear, music and the cultures represented by certain brands. He was also music obsessed, and listened to a lot of Afro Cosmic sounds, which was really popular in Northern Italy in the mid-late 80’s. Clarks was always a topic of conversation, and definitely where my passion and respect for the brand started.

So tell me, how did you become head of product & design at the world’s greatest shoe brand?

Firstly, agreed, Clarks is definitely the world’s greatest shoe brand. My career has a combination of continuing to challenge myself and making good connections. Before joining Clarks, I used to work at adidas originals, in the collaboration’s division. That’s where I developed a lot of the wider knowledge I have today. You learn to take accountability and understand the responsibility that comes with elevating a product and working on icons. You feel like you are making history every day, especially when you’re working alongside the most skilled individuals in the industry. When I found out Clarks Originals were expanding their team, I knew it was the perfect opportunity for me to invest my experience into a brand and product I already loved. Joining the team and working on some of the most iconic footwear was so exciting and inspiring. Myself and my family also love new experiences and new cities so the idea of moving from Germany to Somerset was definitely something I was keen to do!

What does your job actually entail, and which pieces are you most proud of being involved

with so far?

I’m responsible for brand collaborations and the inline collection for Clarks Originals (both men’s and women’s). I manage a team of eight people, which includes product managers, designers, and collaboration designers – we’re a small team with a great sense of teamwork. We also work really closely with the product development, marketing and sales force teams. I genuinely feel proud working on product designs for the OG archive pieces; the amount of critical detail needed is so high. The Clarks archive is something everyone that’s passionate about footwear should visit at least once in their lifetime. I also enjoy external meetings; you get to meet people with different insights, which is vital when you’re creating new collaborations and new concepts. It’s inspiring sitting down and discussing ideas with the best creatives and brand leaders in the world; It’s such a privilege. The pieces giving me a lot of joy at the moment are two new silhouettes for SS21. One is a brand DNA shoe, with crepe, suede and stitch down elements, it’s more of a sport retro approach. We’ve had some really positive feedback so far; we can’t wait to launch it. The second is OG archive inspired…which I know you guys will love!

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Nathan Clark’s legendary Desert Boot, what are Clarks doing product-wise to mark this momentous occasion and why do you think this silhouette has lasted so long and continues to be so well loved around the world?

Celebrating 70 years of such a legendary shoe is not something that falls into your average working day, especially when the shoe is the iconic Desert Boot. When we decided to introduce the Desert Boot 221, the pressure and responsibility that came with altering something so important was immense. The design is so simple but so easy to over-complicate. We started by revamping the shape of Desert Boot, improving its fit by incorporating a thicker OrthoLite® footbed (with recycled foam content) for added comfort. We have increased the crepe sole layers to make it thicker on the heel and forefoot, balancing the shoe’s overall proportions. We wanted to create a memorable colourway using our king materials. Working with our long-time tannery partner, Charles F. Stead, we opted for a chrome-free suede super white. The material is treated with a water repellent coating to keep the boots from getting stained in the rain. The decision to use chrome-free materials was first and foremost environmental but also added to the shoe’s overall aesthetic – a bright white tone on this type of suede is hard to achieve with a traditional tanning process.

Sustainability and a “made to last” approach is always our main objective when we create a new silhouette. The Desert Boot is an icon and has lasted so long because it represents an entirely new approach to design and the ways in which footwear is worn. It essentially birthed the casual footwear category – if you look at the shoe in the context of when it was launched. The 1950’s were full of formal oxfords, bluchers, wingtips etc. The desert boot represented something different, something fresh and a deviation from the norm. The shoe itself is full of details, its slightly curved side profile, its slanting top line, are all unashamed representations of its imperfection, and uniqueness. Shoes aren’t made like this today. This is why the shoe was originally adopted by the students of the Parisian protests in 1968, the mod scene and later the Britpop scene. It was a product that represented something vastly different in the market, and it became a massive success, going on today on the same wave and evolving.

Which is your personal favourite Clarks silhouette?

That’s such a difficult question. I can give you three at least – the Wallace Moc, Caravan OG (or Deep Country/Ridge depends on the year) and the Wallabee Boot.

I think it’s a crime that Clarks don’t have a permanent place where suede/crepe shoe geeks like me can come and look lovingly at your archive. Please can you make my ‘Clark-ive’ idea come to fruition as I’ve been banging on about it for many, many years and frankly it’s time that it happened?

I can totally relate! An archive is always the best resource for a brand, it helps you stay true to our roots. I’m also the kind of person that loves to browse through a pile of dusty shoes on a sunny day. The archive currently sits in a huge museum in Somerset with rooms full of perfectly preserved shoes inside white boxes. We have experts like Tim and Jacob (Jacob could write a novel on the Clarks Polyveldt) here who could talk for days about our archive gems and the evolution of the brand through the years. Watch this space for any announcements, and in the meantime I’ll see what I can do for you!

Speaking of the archive, are there any plans to bring back any more shoes that we may have forgotten about? Surely the Desert Rain is due a return?

The Desert Rain is always a consideration, it’s a beautiful shoe with that deep textured crepe

wrapped over. We’re always carefully studying each archive OG piece to bring back for the inline season. We have a dedicated range designed especially for that reason. All I can say for now is, watch this space.

Clarks seem keen to make their products as sustainably as possible, what moves have Clarks made to make their shoes responsibly?

Clarks is a 200-year-old family business. Our business was founded on principles of caring for our employees and partners. So naturally we care about protecting the environment for future generations as well. That’s why we’re taking steps to tread lightly on the environment, while giving back to communities around the world and looking to innovate in our approach to responsible business. We put all of our shoemaking expertise into every shoe we create. Made with premium materials and durable constructions they’re made to endure. Because we believe sustainability starts with buying less and buying better. Over 90% of all leather we use is Leather Working Group Medal Rated. This means its sourced from tanneries which have achieved industry leading environmental standards. Most of our footbed cushioning foams contain bio-based oil and recycled manufacturing waste. From AW20 we’ll be phasing in the use of FSC approved Crepe Rubber. Our long-term ambition is to hit 100% sustainably sourced rubber. We are doing everything in our power to be as sustainable, conscientious and responsible as possible.

What do you think is the greatest Clarks shoe of all?

For me, the Desert Boot is the GOAT.

What does the future look like for Clarks?

As you said, we are the world’s greatest shoe brand. We are evolving and elevating the brand so that future generations can the same again in 200 years’ time. Who knows, hopefully a future gen Proper writer will have the same love for Clarks as you do.

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