How The Timberland Boot Became A Cultural Icon

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How The Timberland Boot Became A Cultural Icon

Words by Mr Gary Warnett

16 November 2016

Everything you need to know about the Original Yellow Boot, from its blue-collar beginnings to hip-hop styling.

Mention the Timberland name, and for most people a wheat-coloured, nubuck boot will spring to mind. Of course, the brand has other bestsellers – in particular the 3-Eye Lug shoe, which dates back to 1978 – but it’s the heft of its boot offerings that built the company as we know it. As Timberland arrives on MR PORTER this week, with a range that includes a new edition of its original 8in work boot, we thought it a good time to look into how this sturdy shoe has shaped pop culture over the past 60 years.

In its first incarnation, Timberland was The Abington Shoe Company, a Massachussets-based business. In the mid 1950s, it was bought by veteran shoemaker and salesman Mr Nathan Swartz, who proceeded to turn it into a family business, by bringing on his sons to work with him. In 1965, the Swartz family introduced an injection-moulding technique to footwear that allowed for a stitch-free union of sole and upper that was almost waterproof. After the company moved location to Newmarket, New Hampshire, in 1969, it began creating a new kind of boot using their progressive manufacturing technologies.

That boot premiered as the Timberland boot in 1973. Three different versions of this design were released that year: an 8in high boot with a padded collar, a 6in version and an 8in non-padded version. While the boot was available in a traditional brown leather and would go on to be released in a multitude of colours during its lifespan, it was the waterproof boot in a wheat coloured mini-buck that became a global icon. The colour and style became so ubiquitious that it is now trademarked as The Original Yellow Boot.

Intended for blue-collar workers, the Timberland boot was immediately popular. So popular in fact, that sales topping 400,000 led The Abington Shoe Company to rename itself as The Timberland Company in 1978. The products that followed, and built upon this success, were never cheap (one late 1970s advertisement declares them to be, “A whole line of fine leather boots that cost plenty, and should”) but renowned for their quality. By the close of the decade, chukkas and shearling-lined variants had entered the collection.

The 8in boot launched the brand, but the 6in Timberland (anyone who worked in retail for long enough would come to memorise that #10061 product code) would come to define it in the following years, thanks to its versatility. In Upstate New York, Timberland boots were sought out for their weather-proof qualities, but they soon made the transition to the inner city, where many already wore army boots as a non-sportswear staple. From 1980 onwards, the boot continued to move from borough to borough as the off-season shoe of choice. By the early 1990s, Timberlands (affectionately name-checked as “Timbs”) had become part of hip-hop’s unofficial dress code, matching tough, utilitarian gear and hard rock lyricism.

It’s easy to only associate the Timberland boot with its home country, but in Europe it also flourished during the 1980s. In the UK, boots were initially a tougher sell, but the brand’s apparel and boat shoes had their moment with discerning tribes of casuals. At the dawn of the 1990s, the yellow boots became popular with ravers.

In Italy, where the climate couldn’t be less like that of New England, the boots were nonetheless a bestseller. They could be found in Italian boutiques from 1979, and during the early 1980s, on the feet of the Paninaro – an optimistic, Yank-o-phile youth tribe who hung around outside Milan’s Panino cafè in Moncler jackets, Timberland boots and Ray-Ban shades. Timberland boots became such a craze, in fact, that even the usually semi-undressed Donald Duck was pictured in a local comic strip clad in denim, a Moncler vest and a familiar nubuck design on his feet.

Back in the US, the Timberland boot marched on to a different beat. Despite the easily scuffed properties of wheat nubuck — particularly challenging in a club setting — a pristine pair became a status symbol. Artists like a young Jay Z were buying a new pair a week, and even bootleg sweatshirts with a crude depiction of the boots on the chest were selling in spots on New York’s Canal Street and worn by some relatively high-profile artists like the Wu-Tang Clan’s wild man Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

The New York Times ran a 1993 profile of the brand, focusing on the footwear and reporting a near 50 per cent rise in net sales between 1992 and 1993, assisted by this booming market. Timberland’s then executive vice president and grandson of the founder, Mr Jeffrey Swartz, was intent on focusing on function above fashion, remarking, “We are not able to execute trendy.”

In subsequent years, that past reluctance to dwell on style has relaxed somewhat — witness Timberland’s collaborations with the likes of Supreme and White Mountaineering and Mr Pharrell Williams. But the it’s the subcultural mythology that sprang up organically around pieces like the 8” boot that gives them their distance from any competitors. Other boots that Timberland released after the 8” waterproof design became icons of their own, but somehow the company’s foundation remains a perennial seller — a masterclass in pricing, functionality, availability and, of course, timing — on the shelves when key cultures were deciding their uniforms.