The world's ugliest shoe ...

... is now walking out of the shops. Darren Gough reports

As a pair of sharp-but-casual lads drool over a shoe named the Air Marsupial, the assistant in this Regent Street shop finds it hard to hide his mirth at his customers' enthusiasm. But then despite the "Air" prefix it's far from the latest state-of-the-art sneaker from Nike. And far from being a sports megastore, the location of this curious scene is The Clarks Shop.

Clarks, that purveyor of so-called "sensible shoes", is finding its men's styles dating back to the late Sixties and early Seventies in demand not only with twentysomething lads, but also as inspiration for the Spring/Summer collections of a brace of designers.

Most favoured is the Wallabee, a suede moccasin that resembles nothing so much as a Cornish pasty. A favourite of elderly folk the world over for 31 years now, it became a cult with ravers in the heady summer of 1989. Now it's back again, with the original design doing brisk business in London and Manchester while designers both fashion- and sports-orientated have drawn on its clean, curvy lines to create casual shoes that are the perfect antidote to the increasingly fussy direction trainer design is taking.

Shelly's has leapt on the Wallabee bandwagon with its similarly-styled boot. "A lot of blokes who buy them think they're really ugly at first," admits an assistant at its Covent Garden store.

So ugly, in fact, that the Los Angeles shop Blakes proudly advertises the Clarks Wallabee on the Internet as "the world's ugliest shoe". Always by far the largest market for the Wallabee, America is also seeing it undergo a renaissance. There, however, it's selling to a different kind of customer. While over here it appeals to neo-casuals and the less purist element of the latter-day mod movement, in the States it's constantly eulogised in the rhymes of East Coast rappers. Couplets like "Wallabees be the apparel / through the darkest tunnel" (from the current album by Fugees associate Nas) have ensured that it's much in demand with their fanbase. Having spent as much as $200 on a pair, the thing to do in NY right now is to paint them in two-tone colour schemes strangely reminiscent of the bowling shoes that our mods have thankfully forgotten this time around.

Noting this, Californian skate shoe manufacturer Vans recently launched the "Day Tripper", a Wallabee-inspired boot "to give skaters something more formal than skate sneakers," while our own Ben Sherman has just unveiled its debut footwear collection featuring, among the retro-tinged styles, the McQueen; a slip-on take on the Wallabee. And the Wallabee's influence isn't confined to street-level fashion: check the footwear sported in the current Hugo Boss ads.

But Clarks remains ahead of the game: another of its styles, launched in 1972 and still on sale, is an even hipper item than the Wallabee right now. Like a desert boot with a seam stitched down its middle, the Desert Trek has existed for all this time, without ever becoming fashionable. It might look like the sort of thing your ageing geography teacher wore, but recently it's been spied on the feet of Damon Albarn, Liam Gallagher and various Beastie Boys.

This, predicts Red or Dead head honcho - and Clarks wearer - Wayne Hemingway, is the shape of things to come: "There'll be a huge move towards a geography teacher look," he predicts, "with beards and everything."

Maybe we'll soon see young and old united for once by a love of classic functional footwear. Or perhaps not. But it's surely time we stopped referring to these designs as "sensible". There's nothing sensible about a shoe that looks like a traditional pastry snack, is there?

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