Nathan Clark understood what few did - that the fighting kit of the wartime allies could become popular as peacetime leisurewear.
A low boot laced at the ankle has been rustic wear for many centuries in Europe. Under the name "startup" it was such standard commoners' gear that it served as a model for the earliest industrially produced work boots. But the truest descendants of the startup, in shape and use, and the most familiar, are desert boots, which first bestrode the world in 1947, and were the work of Nathan Clark, who has died aged 94.
He was the great-grandson of James Clark, who with his brother Cyrus founded the Clarks family firm in Street, Somerset, in the 1820s, manufacturing slippers from the skins of local sheep. Nathan was a lifelong enthusiast for shoemaking, technically curious and inventive, with an eye for simplicity, so hard to achieve around the aesthetic-practical compromise that is the human foot. All his education – at the radical Odenwaldschule in Germany; at the Clarks factory in Street; and at Queen's College, Oxford – was intended to prepare him to join the firm.
However, on leaving university in 1937 Nathan responded to the Quaker traditions of the Clark family, and volunteered to drive in a Republican ambulance unit in the Spanish civil war for two years. There, he noticed that peasant espadrilles with jute rope soles were more easily replaceable, and comfortable, than official ammunition boots. He was briefly a civilian, then joined the Royal Army Service Corps as an officer during the second world war.
Clark was sent to Burma in 1941, before the declaration of war on Japan, to help supply Chinese nationalist forces via the Burma road. After the Japanese invaded Burma, supplies for China were instead airlifted from Assam in India. Clark served until the end of the war in an improvised force with Indian army soldiers, and allied officers drafted eastwards after the North Africa campaigns. The Indians favoured Pashtun chaplis (sandals) that came from the North-West Frontier provinces, robust, masculine footwear airily open at toe and heel, but double-wrapped across the foot for protection. The desert veterans affected cravats and scarves offduty, plus rough suede ankle boots with minimal lacing and crepe rubber soles.
The originals of these had been commissioned from cobblers in Cairo's Khan el-Khalili souk by South Africans among the desert army, to replace their worn-out veldtschoen, the old voortrekker wear – boots sewn from soft, flexible hides, with a reliable grip yet cushioned tread on sand or rocks; they shared aspects of construction with the chukka boots worn for polo in Egypt and India. Back in Britain, a gentleman avoided suede on his feet – something sly about it, strictly for lounge lizards and worse – but up at the sharp end it was acceptable. Clark, intrigued, scissored newspaper patterns of the pieces for sandal and boot while in his barracks. He had understood what few did, that the fighting kit of the allies – sweat shirts, field jackets and desert boots – could become peacetime leisurewear.
However, demobbed back to Street, Clark found that the patterns, which he had posted to his brother, had provoked no interest. With the pattern-cutter Bill Tuxhill, he turned them into proper prototypes, and still Clarks didn't like them: it was betting on the postwar baby boom's demand for its school-approved children's shoes. It seemed that Nathan Clark was too radical for Somerset, and, frustrated, he was put in charge of overseas sales in and out of the Commonwealth.
He didn't abandon his designs, but took them to the Chicago shoe fair of 1947. Their place and moment had come. The Americans loved their Britishness (the Britain of empire days, that is: an early US ad promoted the "authentic reproductions of British colonial footwear: the 'chupplee' sandal and the desert boot soled with genuine plantation rubber"), cheapness, and confident simplicity – the boots had only four lace- holes and never needed any polishing.
They were featured in Esquire magazine and suddenly Street had dollar- earning staples. Exported to western Europe, they became part of the young male uniform of the 1950s and 1960s: Clark was delighted to see on news footage that Parisian students in desert boots manned the barricades of May 68.
The sandals were on the domestic British market by the 1950s, in leather the colour of stewed tea – they evoke a 50s summer faster than a tin of Astral suncream or a Butlins poster – but the boots weren't available in Britain until the early 60s, when their relative ease around the ankles, and therefore comfort – which is never chic – had to contend with the sharper, tighter Chelsea boot (elastic-sided) and Beatle boot (side-zipped and heeled). It was as non-fashion, for those too cool to care, that the desert boots appealed for decades to stylish outsiders, including Bob Dylan, Steve McQueen, even Jon Pertwee's Doctor in Dr Who in his UNIT militarised phase, and later to Oasis and Jarvis Cocker.
Fashion editors cyclically rediscovered them, especially after Helmut Newton shot an ad campaign in which the male models wore the boots, and the women hardly anything. Clarks desert boots (there are many alternative brands) have sold more than 12m pairs, in burnt orange and powder blue as well as the definitive sand, and Street, now a "heritage village" where the designing is done, with manufacturing transferred to Vietnam, welcomes the boots' latest fans – Chinese discount shoppers.
Clark stayed faithful: "I wear the shoes myself and never doubted they were going to be a winner."
He had worked on improvements in technology, including Cema vulcanising that better bonded the crepe soles to the uppers, before leaving the company in 1951, although he was available until the end for consultation on the Clarks Originals range, revivals of sandal and boot, enthusiastically cutting paper patterns as he had always done.
Clark eventually settled in New York; besides his wardrobe of classic boots, he had a remarkable collection of classic cars.
• Nathan Clark, shoe manufacturer, born 16 July 1916; died 23 June 2011