It's back to school mayhem in Clarks, the count down to rushed mornings begins with the pull of a single ticket as we wait patiently for feet to be measured. Our local branch is packed, every colourful square pouf taken by parents anxious at the inevitable bank balance hit, but with a patient determination for comfy shoes that may last a few terms, but probably not a full year.
Our sales adviser walks over with a big smile and I like the way she approaches my 8 year old daughter, I feel at this point she is as the advert suggests: Letting kids be kids. No worries.
First its all technology, choose a character (there are two, represented as a boy in blue or a girl in pink) and my daughter presses the girl on the pad and enters her age. Her feet are measured without fuss, and a neat "sizing scale" pops up showing she is now a 1.5 E fit.
Three shoes are available in her size: two pairs are slip-ons which with a knowing look from Grandma we dismiss immediately. After all, these are what Clarks describe as "sophisticated style" which makes me wonder how they could have missed the fact they are selling to kids, not office staff. When my daughter plunges over in a tangle of shoes and playground, I'll be sure to console her with how classy she looked doing it.
The third pair are the most common style in the girls range, with a bar across the middle. My daughter tries them on, but is not persuaded by the "you'll wear them in" pitch and points to how the back of the shoe is jabbing her in the heel. "That's all we have" we're told with raised hands, but what about the shoes over there I ask, pointing to a huge display of school shoes. Its Clark's boys section, but aren't these just shoes too? I get the "oh how quirky" look from a neighbouring parent, but the first pair our of the mysterious backroom are perfect. BINGO.
The back of the shoe is visibly wider with actual padding, despite the sizing being the same. The shoes are enclosed meaning the whole of my daughter's foot is covered from the elements - a style not offered to girls at all. They are a trainer style, which any podiatrist would swoon at, and as she races past mountains of shoe boxes and meandering children, my daughter is clearly very happy.
If you were to ask "are girls and boys feet different?" the question is quickly rendered irrelevant by the fact Clarks sells the same sizes and choice of widths across their range. They provide that choice to cater for the individuality of our children's feet, yet use targeted marketing to pitch specific products to girls or boys not based on their need, but on a very specific set of stereotypes. After all, what has sex or gender really got to do with school shoes, why have two ranges at all? They are part of a uniform and their primary function is comfortable, smart and durable.
I assume the adviser feel's she has the measure of me when she arrives with trainers under each arm, handing my daughter the first box with "don't worry, they're not too girly" at which point I hoped she would leap up, angered at the label and shout "I'm a girl!" like the rabbit in the picture book of the same name by Yasmeen Ismail. The boys section also makes me question if the designers had ever actually met any child, and did that child actually say leave out the bright colours, anything grey or navy will do me, cheers.
At some point in the last 30 years Clark's have changed their focus from comfortable and practical children's shoes, to shoes marred by gender stereotypes. Check out the latest Gloforms campaign, the strong and assertive boy characters, ready for action, opposite the dreamy eyed female ones with heart, floral bow or crown. The latest tagline "lasting comfort so kids can be kids" doesn't seem to apply to girls. Have they tried to kick a football in slip-on flats? Or walked to school in open bar shoes through mud and rain? Have they seen how girls climb, jump, swing and run too? As my daughter says when we leave, maybe its time Clarks went back to school and looked for themselves.