Who’s Safari Now?

Spotted everywhere from the leafy pastures of Columbia’s campus to the Lacoste fall/winter 2009 runway, desert boots are the trendiest harbinger of a new recession aesthetic in which the clothes are minimal but not exactly, you know, cheap.

The original desert boot was invented by Nathan Clark in 1949, inspired by the shoe his chums in the British Army bought in Cairo’s Old Bazaar during World War II. They debuted at the Chicago Shoe Fair in 1950 and sold for a paltry 55 pence at English megastore Marks & Spencer as late as 1970.

Alas, no longer.

As with the moccasins and the duck shoe before it, one can now find variations on the classic suede Clarks desert boot at prices just scraping the $500 mark. Church’s Footwear of England peddles a $450 version—the Ryder III—sported by Daniel Craig in his role as James Bond in The Quantum of Solace. Phillip Lim is debuting a “Meaden” sneaker version for $275. Opening Ceremony, purveyor of all that is hip and expensive in downtown New York, sells its own version for $360, in lime, sky blue, red and patent leather. Common Projects, a N.Y.C.-based minimalist shoe company, released its $335 low-rise boot in spring 2008, and is bringing it back “by popular demand” for fall/winter 2009. Topman makes a $100 replica, Fred Perry sells a sneaker-boot version for $160 and John Fluevog has crafted a typically funky desert-esque boot for $189. J. Crew has created a Suede MacAlister variant for $135. Not to be outdone, John Varvatos sells a pair for $349.

Geoffrey Pedder, spokesperson for Clarks USA, said in a phone interview that the proliferation of knockoffs are “a compliment” and added that variants on the boot “have actually helped the original itself. We’ve been making the shoe since 1949, and the majority of consumers know that we made the original.” Mr. Pedder was also confident that copycats won’t be able to obtain the special plantation crepe material sourced from Malaysia and Sri Lanka that is used for the sole of the boot.

New Yorker David Sugarman, 21, who has been wearing some version of the Clarks shoe since he was in eighth grade, courageously told The Observer that he is standing by the brand. “I buy a new pair of Clarks every year, ” he said. Patrick Rockwell, 26, agreed. “Clarks is one of those things that’s just quality,” he said.

At Alife NYC, the Lower East Side mecca for shoe-crazed hip young things, manager Jesse Villanueva said he saw the desert boot trend as indicative of a larger trend in men’s fashion: a shift back to basics. “Everyone just OD’d on neon and orange,” he said.

“It’s saturated as far as sneakers goes,” agrees Larry Robinson of Reed Space, a high-end streetwear store on the Lower East.

But desert boots still, somehow, continue to seem like a style oasis. Projecting a 42 percent increase in the men’s style this year from last, Clarks is reintroducing a woman’s version in July.  Who’s Safari Now?