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Family entrepreneur: Galahad Clark talks shoes

A next-gen member of the famous Clarks shoe dynasty felt the weight of responsibility of the family business. He’s met that head on by his own entrepreneurial efforts – making shoes.
Seventh-gen Galahad Clark was inspired by the family business, Clarks shoes

Galahad Clark, 36, is a seventh-generation member of the Clarks dynasty and the founder of Vivobarefoot.

The way I have built Vivobarefoot has been massively inspired by the way my family business [British shoe-maker Clarks] was built. It’s possible to say that I’ve done what I’ve done because I was born into a family business that I loved and admired and in many ways wanted to emulate. I’m the oldest child so I was always burdened with that sense of responsibility, but probably ended up doing my own business as a reaction to that and a sometimes-errant attitude to authority.

By the time I was of working age, Clarks was already run by outside management. My father had retired from Clarks and outside management had taken control, so there was less of an option of going straight into working for Clarks. I had some interest in pursuing an academic career, but my business instinct took over and I went to Hong Kong to work at Swires [a conglomerate controlled by the eponymous family]. Then my mother became ill, so I came back to England. But having left my work in Hong Kong I needed something to do in the UK.

Shoe-making was always in my blood. My dad [Lance Clark – the sixth generation of the founding family] bought a shoe company called Terra Plana in 2002, but he became distracted after my mother’s death. Maybe partly out of frustration with Terra Plana we launched United Nude in 2003 [with Rem Koolhaas, nephew of the famous architect of the same name] and it became a separate new business with new investment in 2009. We then launched Vivobarefoot a year later. It was one of my friends, Tim Brennan, who came up with the idea of Vivobarefoot shoes and we developed it together. Vivobarefoot kind of grew and grew and became the cuckoo in the Terra Plana nest. So today we are fully focused on Vivobarefoot, and United Nude is run as a completely separate business. They are both pretty much the same size – with revenues around $20 million (€15.5 million) each.

It’s not about the shoe; it’s about the foot. The essence of Vivobarefoot is very pure and very true to what the name means. Vivobarefoot means live barefoot [vivo is Latin for ‘I live’]. And the core of this kind of product is a patented, ultra-thin puncture-resistant sole. There are three principles to the concept. Principle one is that it’s foot-shaped so a Vivobarefoot shoe allows the foot to do its thing with maximum shock absorption. Number two is the sole is ultra-thin and allows for maximum sensory feedback. And number three is that there is total flexibility between the forefoot and rear foot. Every Vivobarefoot has these principles; it doesn’t restrict the foot’s natural movement. In a sort of Avatar-like way, Vivobarefoot uses modern technology to recreate ancient wisdom: that the foot is a masterpiece in evolutionary engineering and shoes should allow them to do their thing while offering protection.

Shoes do a hell of a lot more harm than good. My childhood friend, Tim, was into the Alexander technique – which is all about perfecting better posture and improving body movement. But in reality, it’s very hard to have correct posture and alignment except when barefoot. Tim had incurred multiple injuries playing sports in conventional footwear. He came to the conclusion that you need to have a kind of “barefoot shoe”. That sparked the idea and over the years we’ve learnt much more about the concept and perfected the design. But it also comes down to the idea that the less time people spend in conventional shoes the better.

Being in some ways “anti-shoe”, I am the black sheep of the family. But in reality, I’m not really against heels or conventional shoes. After all, I have a shoe brand [United Nude] that makes shoes with heels. And no one would want to stop women showing off their legs and wearing heels. But when you’re not being a peacock and showing off your best bits, the more time you spend barefoot, the better and healthier you are.

My father loves Vivobarefoot – he wears them a lot. He is the group chairman, our greatest supporter and our greatest critic. He’s probably the same with Clarks – its biggest fan and its biggest critic. When you care about something, that’s what you do. You love it and you hate it, and you’re passionate. He probably cares more about Clarks than Vivo – Clarks is like his life and Vivo is like an errant offspring that he loves. But he’s completely passionate about Clarks – after all he spent his entire life being part of building that business into the iconic international brand it is today.

Clarks is less of a force for good than it was before. We were actually about to do a Clarks barefoot collection as recently as 2011. But there was a change in management at Clarks and they weren’t as excited about the idea as the old management was. Their loss I guess. There’s no question that a lot of my values and my shoe-making inclinations are forged by Clarks – but these values are less of what the company is today and more about what Clarks was in the past. The best parts of Clarks are still there, but they are fading as a more mercenary, so to speak, management has taken over.

But I’m still really proud of Clarks. I think it’s an incredible business. My forefathers who built up the business were unbelievable people, having built a really meaningful, worldwide, iconic brand, with a lot of integrity and based on the best Quaker values – it’s really a special business. Everywhere you go in the world, Clarks is still revered as a very special company. So I could never ever take anything away from that. And Clarks was really founded on the values of foot health and fitness.

I like to be able to sleep well at night. Vivobarefoot uses recycled products to make shoes. Everyone in our generation should care about the environment. That’s sometimes difficult in the shoe industry, which is one of the most polluting industries in the world. So anything that you can do in the business that can alleviate and even eliminate this pollution the better. I don’t think I’m unique in that way.

There is a discussion going on between the Clark family and the management on values. It will stay as a family business especially if the family feels proud and inspired by the business. It’s one thing to have great financial results. Clarks is a financially healthy, successful business and you can’t argue with that. But it’s another thing to also feel proud about the business. As I said earlier, I think Clarks has lost a little bit of its original spirit and essence, but I suppose you could argue that’s just moving with modern times.

Portraits of Galahad Clark by Antonio Sansica; other images © Vivobarefoot and United Nude.

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