With almost three decades of footwear industry experience under his belt, Ronnie Fieg has a deep devotion to classic shoes. For his just-launched Clarks Originals partnership, the Kith founder harkens back to the hugely influential energy of New York City’s shoe scene in the 1990s, something he witnessed first-hand.
In late March, Fieg unveiled 8th St, a partnership with Clarks Originals that will yield original silhouettes of his creation, highlighting the iconic shoemaker’s time-honored craftsmanship. The collection’s name plays off Fieg’s history in the shoe business — which began in the David Z shoe store on Manhattan’s legendary 8th Street — and his powerful connection to the Clarks name.
With the title of category creator, Fieg worked closely with the Clarks Originals team to develop two new silhouettes for the launch — the Lockhill and the Sandford — which are slated for an April 16 release, with more on the way in the seasons ahead.
Here, Fieg reveals the origins of the 8th Street name and why his love of Clarks Originals represents a full-circle moment after all these years.
How long have you been collaborating with Clarks Originals?
“Since I worked at David Z — in ’95. I saw David [Zaken] work on SMUs — special makeups — with Clarks on Wallabees. David had some exclusive colorways, but no one else was really doing that. I started to take over working on special projects in ’07 and my first Clarks project was a big collection with a bunch of styles and colors. Back then, it was the brown shoe and boot era in New York. My first passion in footwear was on that side of the fence — brown shoes and hikers — so Clarks was a big deal in my career, just understanding a brand that had something to offer all different types of people. It was the first brand I saw that did that. Wallabees became a big thing for me because I was selling them to these hip-hop stars and also wearing them in Queens, and I would get laughed at in the beginning but a year later everyone was wearing them. This was pre-internet, pre-social media. You had to find things by seeing them in person or in a magazine or hear about them in a song. In that era, Clarks were made in England, and I’ll never forget that people were coming in trying to get their hands on the ‘made in England’ pairs as they changed factories over to Asia. It was crazy to see how the fan base of the Wallabee understood how iconic and special those shoes were. Opening the box on a fresh pair of sand Wallabees is still a top five feeling for me.”
What is the first Clarks Originals shoe you ever owned?
“It was a sand Wallabee High. I wore them a lot until the crepe sole got dirty and then I had to re-up. I remember royal blue was my favorite color around that time — this was ’96 or ’97 — and I was trying to steer David into the royal blue color palette for some of the SMUs he was working on. There was one season where I got him to make a pair of Dolomites and a pair of Wallabees in royal blue, and those were my favorite two shoes.”
What are you hoping to say with the 8th Street collection?
“I’m going to be 40 next year. I started when I was 13, so it will be 26 years of retail this June. I included the evolution that I’ve been a part of in this collection. The idea was to bridge the gap. We’re always going to carry the heritage in the store — Wallabees, Desert Treks, Desert Boots — but what does the future look like for Clarks? I’m here to assert myself and my 26 years of experience, and apply sensibilities through the lens of how I see Clarks evolving into today’s world while keeping it true to their DNA and paying respect to what they’ve done best. It’s understanding the consumer — because I am one — and what I want to wear from the brand, what’s missing in my closet from the brand. I don’t think Clarks should only live in your closet as those three respected heritage silhouettes.”
How did this partnership come about?
“This really started two years ago, with a good friend of mine at Clarks: Joe Casagrande. I brought this idea to him and he was able to make it happen on the brand side. The first meeting was with him in my office, and then I had meetings with the product team, who came over twice, and we started to look at some of the things I wanted to do and to see if they liked it. It was important for me that Clarks felt like it was right for the brand, not just something new with me, that they felt there was a void [for it]. I think there is a void for the brown shoe guy who wants something a little more athletic — and for the athletic guy who wants something a little more brown shoe. The concept of crepe is what made this so intriguing. When you see crepe, you think of Clarks — it’s automatic. I didn’t think they had tried these evolved ideas with crepe, so it was an opportunity to go there. It’s funny, because when I met with Matteo Bellentani, [head of product and design], he and I think alike and he showed me some things that the brand was working on from a sneaker perspective, but it was very different from what I wanted to do. We were on the same page of where we wanted to see the brand go.”
To build the line, you worked closely with the Clarks team. What was that design process like?
“A lot of refinement when it came to the tooling. It’s such a talented group that really knows and understands footwear. These guys get it. The leathers that are used and the thickness of the leathers that are right for specific silhouettes, tooling, comfort — there’s a lot of work. I’ve developed a lot of footwear in my lifetime, so seeing their process was rewarding to me because they’re so detailed when it comes to the remarks and the comments that are made — like, shaving off millimeters here and there is a big deal to them to get that right. My thought process was very much in line with theirs — the toe spring in the shoe can drive me crazy, the height of the tooling can drive me crazy, the weight of the shoe needs to be right. This is all that goes into it, and then the workmanship, the balance on an upper — these are things that come with time and experience, and they have that. It [was a matter of] being interested in one another’s opinion on what we can do to make this better. We would go back and forth, back and forth until the product was perfect, and I think we got there with these two silhouettes.”
How does this compare to some of your past partnerships?
“In 2010, I worked on something similar with Sebago. I went to [the Dominican Republic] to work on making shoes. I learned the shoemaking process with Gary Malamet, another shoe dog from back in the day. It was very different from what I’m doing now. It was putting different uppers on existing toolings; it was very small and very niche, and it was before I started Kith. But this is very different from a lot of the other projects, because this is not meant to mix with anything else. This is meant to be unique and live on its own. It is the extension, the evolution of what I did with World of Niché, and that’s the approach I took with this. I have this itch of wanting to present a new style of product or a new category of product that I believe is missing from the market. That’s what this ultimately is going to do.”
Will the collection grow moving forward?
“I don’t know. We will see. That’s what’s beautiful about this partnership, the understanding from both sides that we want to see where it can go, we want to see what will happen. All I know is that every season we’re going to create two new silhouettes and we’re going to introduce it exclusively through Kith.”
Will you keep this limited, or will there be broader access to 8th Street?
“There will always be an element of exclusivity, so people feel like the product they’re getting is special and they don’t have to worry about the person next to them having the same product. That’s an important part of the DNA of what we do as a brand and as a retailer. But we will see if this has the potential to become a bigger play. I’m not opposed to it, if we see there is a demand for the category. This is something that I feel there’s a void for in my closet, and I want to see if people feel the same way.”
Clarks is approaching its 200th birthday. What do you think is the secret to its longevity?
“Keeping the main thing the main thing and staying true to who they are. That’s really worked for them. They didn’t try to skip the alphabet, they didn’t jump from A to Z. They’re slowly progressing in categories that they want to explore. They dabble, they see the reaction and they try to understand the consumer.”
How does the Clarks brand story parallel to your own journey in the industry?
“The idea of making the world a better place with better footwear is a real concept — because product is important, product could make people happy. Product has been a major part of my life, and Clarks is one of the best shoemakers in the world.”
What does this mean for your legacy in footwear?
“Something I’m always conscious about is understanding the timeline of product and making sure that it shows evolution. That’s important in my career because when we archive all of this and tell a story, it’ll be important for me to do things that aren’t necessarily a layup. This is not a layup. This is not something we know people want. This is the hardest part of the job, creating product that I believe people want and don’t have yet or something that’s not built that I know they want. It’s important to challenge myself in these ways, especially 10 years later at Kith. Also, it’s important for me to do the best I can for the brands that raised me. I feel like I have a responsibility, especially with categories that have less awareness with the younger consumer today. I want Clarks to live in people’s closets on a wider spectrum than what they’re used to seeing. I think Clarks should be more than a Wallabee, a Desert Boot and a Desert Trek.”