Where the runway meets the street

Jason Beckley, the new Chief Brand Officer at Clarks, was always very familiar with the brand. “When I was seven years old my family moved from London to Somerset. I remember my mum dropping me off to go to a swimming club in the town where Clarks is based. Of course at the time I didn’t know it was a big global brand, I just knew it as my local shoe company. It’s very strange coming back here; feels a little like a destiny moment.”

We visited Beckley while he and his team were shooting their latest campaign. Beckley’s overseeing the images from the shoot and everyone appears to defer to him while they’re all huddled over a laptop. While he looks more than at home in these surroundings, it wasn’t the fashion studio where he started it all. “Actually I started my career as a tractor driver in Somerset!,” he says. “I didn’t really think or know anything about fashion at all.”

He later came to London and ended up working in fashion after originally wanting to study image and photography. During his gap year, he worked for Yves Saint Laurent and returned full time there as a designer after his studies. “For me personally I think it’s all about product, the heart of the entire thing are the products we make.”

Despite his love of product, he was always fascinated in the overall look of a brand. “I went from YSL to Nike, which was probably a weird transition but for me it was the opportunity to combine the creativity of product creation with the purity of perfect brand articulation. When you combine these two elements you get something super powerful.”

He saw his time at Nike as, “the greatest education in branding ever. It was the Ivy League for me.” It’s a time he sees as formative because Nike showed him that, “they really believe that what they stand for has more long-term value than what they sell. You can have a million dossiers on what brand means but if you respect the value in what you stand for more than the value in what you sell, you will have commercial sustainability.”

After five years Beckley left Nike to join Alexander McQueen. “McQueen was the God of fashion to me. I met him through a collaboration project and ended up working in his company. It was a real privilege to have time with a true genius and, if anything, it was him who helped me make sense of my career and what I wanted to achieve, he never pigeonholed me as designer, or a merchant, or a marketeer, but allowed me an opinion over all three. [There was] this methodology of putting it all together, this methodology that allowed for personal expression as well. He shot from the hip all the time. It was an unbelievable privilege to work with him.”

After McQueen, Beckley went on to Alfred Dunhill which he said, “was a great experience because Dunhill was so badly broken. It had fallen into the trap of pursuing a notion of ‘we wanna be a fashion brand,’ it shot fashion-y campaigns, recruited a Hollywood star, ticked all the boxes. But in doing so had alienated the consumer and lost its authenticity. My thing about Dunhill is to try and find the true consumer again.” Dunhill was also important for Beckley because it was his first pure marketing role. “It was interesting to push content marketing and to push what the brand message would be.”

For Beckley, the issue with Dunhill was that they were somewhat ashamed of their actual customer, “their true roots,” Beckley says. “If you’ve got a generalist-type brand then it’s very difficult to stand for something, you have to mean everything to everyone all the time. But at Dunhill it didn’t [need to do that] at all. It is a very specific brand for a very particular consumer group and that meant we could create image and message that would really appeal to them. And if you deliver it with the quality you learn at places like McQueen and Nike, suddenly you’re doing something rather alternative. You’re against the grain, standing out from the generalism and people start to take notice.”

Beckley’s time at Dunhill came to an end via a short stop at Ralph Lauren. “The world Ralph creates is one of the most beautiful worlds to live in and we all wanna live in it. I think that was quite an important time in a way, because you learn that there is real value in the intensity of the dream, Ralph has done that better than anyone.”

Communicating the dream is what Beckley is in charge of at Clarks, although he has no desire to copy what Ralph or anyone else has done. Beckley sees Clarks as, “a calling in a way.” For him, Clarks’ main issue is that, “it’s a really big business but everyone had forgotten about the brand. It needed someone to see the need for it in the world.”

When we ask what he wants to achieve at Clarks, Beckley says, “I think the perfection of Clarks is that it makes amazing product and it’s only shoes. You need to talk about the fact that the shoes are great, that there’s 190 years of shoemaking expertise and know-how. It about simplifying, peeling away historical process complexities, getting nimble and agile again [so you can] get back to making really great casual shoes properly. And that’s what I want to do. It has a uniquely instantly recognizable design code and value system, it’s one of Britain’s greatest brands, it’s unbelievably authentic and much needed in the world. We’d all slightly forgotten about it.”

Beckley points out that Clarks had slightly lost its way chasing the market. “I think at some point there’d obviously been a decision made to use the brand name on every conceivable product. I guess [the thinking was] that because the name Clarks is really well known, if you put it on every type of product, then that product will have value. when you do this without real consideration things get confused quickly and the value of authenticity can get lost.”

So how does Beckley intend to return the brand back to its original glory? “Saying fewer things. Being more confident with the image. Working with very high quality people. Making sure it looks amazing and doesn’t chase the market. Instead chase the truth of the brand. I love the way that Nike are uninterested in anything other than sport. That’s never prevented their growth – they define the category, so the category itself grows. I like the fact that when Apple launched, their category was all about corporate computing and corporate networking, but they didn’t chase it, they didn’t allow the current market dynamics to define them, and Apple stood for design, it understood how people lived, what people really wanted. Even though at the time that represented a tiny part of the market. So Clarks doesn’t need to chase the market, it should always work to define it. It has an amazing code and it should believe in that and articulate it. It needs to stand apart rather than hide in the pack.”

Goodhood x Clarks

We bring up a special time in history, when Vybz Kartel released “Clarks,” a song that paid homage to the brand. We pointed out that, at the time, it took an exceedingly long time for Clarks to even acknowledge the song existed, despite being a great reminder of just how important Clarks are worldwide. Beckley agrees, noting that “You’ve got Drake courtside wearing the Wallabees and the Desert Boot is one of the most iconic shoes of all time. Next to Nike and adidas, it’s only Clarks that make truly iconic shoes. For me it’s about bringing that spirit back. That pioneering, proud of the product, doing things the right way [feel] rather than watching what everyone else is doing and trying to keep up.”

To cap off the interview, we asked Beckley what his grand vision of Clarks was for the future. He responded that his grand vision was already reality. “I was looking at FW17, which is the first range we’ve fully realized as a new group. I showed a few people whose opinion I really trust to see the new range, the mock shops and brand image. What we all said was, ‘it feels like Clarks.’ I think for FW17, [the grand vision is] gonna be there. So that’s kind of exciting. It’s a huge business. So it takes time to cover it all. I see it starting to become a reality as of the next season.”

We’re looking forward to seeing the brand reach this new reality.

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