Timberland Takes Green Strides
Like the majestic tree silhouette permanently etched into their products, Timberland will forever be rooted in American heritage. Their hardwearing and even harder-working boots first entered the workforce almost 50 years ago, before burgeoning global appeal and an unexpected demographic tilt transformed ‘Timbs’ into genuine sub-cultural artefacts. Today, the latest GreenStride branch growing from Timberland’s broad canopy is dropping seeds that will help direct us all towards a greener future. Just like H-Town promised all those years ago, get ready to start ‘knockin’ boots’ with the bluest-collar in the workwear world!
Born in 1902 to three generations of shoemakers, Nathan Swartz’s destiny was affirmed when he emigrated from Russia to New York, where he honed his craft as a cobbler. After years of toil, the veteran shoemaker purchased a half stake in the Boston-based Abington Shoe Company for $500 in 1952. Three years later, he assumed complete control and enlisted his sons Herman and Sidney to overhaul the business, which involved relocating operations to a tiny New England town known as Newmarket.
Pioneering the way industrial footwear was manufactured, Abington started using direct injection in 1968, which significantly ramped up the process of seamlessly bonding soles to uppers to form an impermeable seal. For New England locals who endured wet and frosty winters, the waterproof boots were a godsend.
The Swartz brothers pressed on with the reforms, adapting and refining their father’s ideas. Some 39 different panels were now assembled using a painstaking 80-step process, all of which was locked down with four-row stitching and rustproof brass hardware located at major stress points. Impregnated with silicone and lined with insulating materials, the boots could now withstand the harshest conditions. The challenge of breaking in stiff leather was solved by specifying the use of nubuck, which was both pliable and durable. Swartz boots were built tough as nails but they also offered unparalleled comfort.
1973: The Yellow Boot is Born
To test out his theory of impermeability, Sidney retired to his high-tech laboratory where he submerged a pair of nubuck-clad boots in a spare toilet and filled them with rocks so they wouldn’t float. The next day he returned to find they were still bone dry on the inside, making this prototype the original ,‘Timberland’ yellow boot. Sidney stamped an unmistakable tree logo on the side and quietly ushered in a new era for the family business.
The success was immediate and paid handsome dividends. The rugged Timberland boot accounted for 80 per cent of Abington sales within five years. In recognition, the company was renamed after their best-seller in 1978. Once just a boot, Timberland the company was now officially in the game.
Boots were essential items through the colder months, but Sidney Swartz wanted his newly-christened Timberland company to maintain their manufacturing mojo right through summer. To find a solution, he looked towards his neighbours in Maine, which was home to a bustling cottage industry making hand-sewn moccasins.
In 1978/79, Timberland added a suite of casual styles and lug-soled boat shoes to a comprehensive four-season product range that catered for winter chills, blazing heat and life on the seven seas. The advertising department wasn’t afraid to make some noise, releasing mildly provocative statements that ignited a feud with several well-known boat shoe brands of the time. The tone was confident but never brash, as Timberland promised their lightweight casuals ‘should result in heavy sales’, which turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That newfound voice would underpin the brand’s success for years to come.
Masters of Marketing
As Timberland entered a new decade, they rounded out their footwear offering by introducing hand-sewn loafers, chukkas and boots for multiple disciplines. Technical fabrics like GORE-TEX were added to the line-up and are still in regular use today. The 1979 Super Boot now survived down to ‘40 below’ thanks to a hulking 10-inch ankle shaft and chainmail-tough D-ring eyelets, which prefaced the arrival of the Iditarod collection.
Road tests in the life-or-death situations faced by dog-sled racers in Alaska once again associated Timberland with exacting performance in extreme conditions.
By the mid 1980s, Timberland was more than just a mere ‘construction’ brand. That shift was part of a conscious push to cater for all walks of life in all conditions, as Timberland aspired to be the number one outfitter all the way from the building site to the boardroom. Superior quality remained at the core of their business, which was now physically represented by their first standalone store in Rhode Island. Product placements on TV shows including The Great Outdoors and Under Sail expanded Timberland’s exposure and customer base. Other marketing ploys included introducing New England radio listeners in 1987 to the newest endorsee – Popeye the Sailor Man!
A year later, the Euro Hiker redefined the category by taking elements from continental hiking shoes, which had long been the industry standard, by employing a lightweight sole more akin to a fast-paced pair of sneakers. The experiment paid off and Timberland maintained their status as market leaders in tough adventure gear.
The extensive apparel collection was soon expanded to include silicone-treated leather jackets. Timberland sales reps were so confident in their wares they were renowned for theatrically opening a can of Coke and hosing the jackets down to illustrate the impressive waterproof capabilities.
The Italian Connection
Timberland’s first major international customer arrived in 1980 when an Italian gentleman approached Sidney Swartz to purchase some boots. The order immediately sold out and another 3000 pairs were dispatched, initiating a golden opportunity in a country that was serendipitously shaped like a boot. Meanwhile, American flight attendants effectively created a ‘grey market’ by routinely stuffing Timberlands into their luggage to resell during stopovers in Milan, one of the world’s foremost fashion capitals.
As legend has it, these deals inadvertently inspired the uniform adopted by the paninaro, a band of cheeky Milanese misfits turned sartorial seers. These aspirational youngsters rejected the stiff tailoring of their nonna and nonno’s generation. With precious Timberlands on their feet, the brand was unintentionally instrumental in kicking off the cosmopolitan head-to-toe ‘paninaro’ vibe. This was more than a style transplant sourced from the US of A. The trendiest Italian teens cobbled together a pastiche of Euro-chic and Western symbolism as they defiantly dreamed of guzzling Dr Pepper as they drove Jeep Wranglers.
The scene peaked in 1986 when the Pet Shop Boys wrote their hit ‘Paninaro’ and immortalised the movement in a music video. Ironically, Italy was now exporting the vibrant style they had initially imported, though the paninaro would have you believe it was all just sprezzatura – a nonchalant and effortless look. Decades later, those raw fashion ingredients remain ever-evolving staples in local youth trends across the globe.
‘Moncler winter coats, usually in bright colors like light blue or acid green, Americanino or Naj Oleari-branded sweaters, a pair of Armani or Diesel cropped ankle jeans and, of course, a pair of Timberland boots.’AMILLIONSTEPS.VELASCA.COM
Big In Japan
Italy had the paninaro on toast, Japan had Popeye in the newsstands. The seminal ‘Magazine For City Boys’ fashion title had piqued interest in American style since 1976 after its Made In U.S. predecessor shifted tastes towards rugged Americana, with Timberland’s Yellow Boot at the precipice. Harajuku mainstay retailer BEAMS was established that same year, primarily as a source of exotic US influences.
Japanese consumers had a more studied approach to their Western influences, poring over finer details like stitch counts and production years to accurately reproduce authenticity. And if local product didn’t pass muster, many Tokyo threadheads were ready to book tickets to faraway American towns to source deadstock Timbs and vintage Levi’s. Handsewn boat shoes and moccasins were just as popular in a continued commitment to Ivy League influences.
New York, New York
As Timberland flourished internationally, things were proving just as fruitful back home. The brand’s growth in popularity and magnified presence throughout the 1980s enabled them to align with an upmarket cohort that was miles removed from the backwoods of New England. Heavy advertising in The New Yorker, along with distribution via Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue, appealed to the nascent Yuppie (Young, Urban, Professionals) contingent.
In 1989, the affluent Upper East Side of New York City welcomed a new Timberland store in a bid to capture this emerging market. Savvy marketing throughout the 1980s had already begun steering city customers towards 6-Inch boots to ‘hike in city slush’ but they hadn’t necessarily predicted the clientele they would attract. The foot soldiers of New York’s gritty underground ventured uptown in search of hardwearing shoes. They weren’t specifically looking for boots designed for survival in the outdoors or life on a construction site, this was all about urban exploration in difficult man-made terrain. Once again, Timbs were perfect for the job.
Boots were suddenly an indelible component of NYC’s musical consciousness. Album covers like Mobb Deep’s The Infamous… and Redman’s Muddy Waters feature wheat boots front and centre, while lyrical name-checks such as ‘suede Timbs on my feet keep my cipher complete’ from Queensbridge prodigy Nas stepped to boom bap beats. The Brooklyn-based hip hop supergroup Boot Camp Clik also repped Timbs hard on the cover of The Last Stand.
Those shoutouts also birthed Timberland-specific nomenclature, ranging from straight-forward abbreviations to more esoteric references such as ‘Butters’ and ‘Beef ‘n’ Broccoli’, the latter referring to the brown and green Field Boot named after the popular Chinese takeaway dish.
Athletic brands, threatened by a blue-collar company that once marketed boots solely to construction workers, quickly responded with their own winterised versions to tempt the market, but Timberland could not be toppled.
Even though their distribution model tightened up throughout the decade, the streets still sourced pairs like coveted contraband, especially as new top-of-the-range models like the World Hiker entered the fray as instant status symbols.
Beyond New York, hustlers in Detroit and Chicago picked up Timberlands en route to California, where Tupac Shakur and the Outlawz rocked wheats in ‘Hit ‘Em Up’ as they fired verbal barbs at their NYC foe The Notorious B.I.G., who later decreed ‘Timbs for my hooligans in Brooklyn’. Blood-red Timberlands hit the world stage on DMX’s feet at Woodstock ‘99, a righteous pair for a seminal moment in hip hop history.
Timberland eventually made good on some missed connections years later by granting hip hop royalty Nas, Wu-Tang Clan and Pharrell official collaborations on the 6-Inch Boot. That DMX-Timberland connection was made whole when Japanese-American label Engineered Garments enlisted the original Ruff Ryder to model their Classic Lug collaboration in 2017.
Of course, it wasn’t just the New York underground that was hip to Timbs. Independent retailer David Z was the preferred plug for NBA stars like Chris Webber (who routinely picked up a reported 15 pairs at a time) and Allen Iverson to scoop up boots for out-of-hours action, simply because they stocked sizes that befitted ballers. Naturally, Timberland became a common sight in the front row at Madison Square Garden and New York Fashion Week thanks to cultural luminaries including Drake, Kanye West, and Jay-Z.
David Zaken is one of the original NYC retail mavens. His ingenious proposal to create a store-exclusive with Timberland in the late 1990s kicked off a new era of creative collaboration. Fields of wheat were cast aside for stony grey nubuck, which was the perfect sidekick for life in a concrete jungle. The Big Apple thought so too, as a reported 10,000 pairs were snapped up in the first month alone. A young Ronnie Fieg – who worked at David Z in his pre-Kith years – recalls selling ‘David Z’ Timbs to the who’s who of New York, including Jay-Z, Puff Daddy, Nas, and every single member of the Wu-Tang Clan.
The silver screen inevitably got a piece of the Timbs action too. The Timberland shoebox cameo in Baltimore hood drama The Wire was culturally simpatico. There was also a ridiculous Seinfeld plotline that involved George Costanza painting his height-boosting Timberlands black so he could wear them to a wedding. Even his sneaker-obsessed co-star Jerry couldn’t resist the wheat boot’s charms in later seasons. More recently, Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto rocks Timberlands in the revhead romp Fast & Furious 9.
The emergence of Timberland on the streets of New York inevitably resulted in imitators from both ends of the price spectrum. While a stiletto-heeled designer remix of the wheat boot may infamously be attributed to early-2000s music videos, the 2020 collaboration between designer Jimmy Choo and Timberland finally linked the bourgeoisie to the bluest of collars. As belated as this particular collaboration may have been, Timberland was once again ahead of the curve on the co-op front.
David Z had a prescient partnership with Timberland in 1998, a seemingly faraway time when collaborations were yet to make front page news. That original greyed-out release has since heralded an ongoing practice for Timberland, who have regularly worked with Lower East Side bonafides ALIFE and Supreme, cementing the boot’s historical cachet in New York City and beyond. Co-operations with the likes of Stussy, Off-White and The North Face, just to name a few, have kept Timberland top of mind.
Meanwhile, international efforts with mastermind JAPAN and BEAMS, along with regular Japanese exclusives, have preserved the allure of Timberland for in-the-know collectors in the Far East. The rise and rise of the K-Pop genre and its commodified 90s aesthetics also introduced a new audience to the wheat boot. Over in Europe, high-end reworks by industry titans Colette and Marni harked back – perhaps subconsciously – to the ostentatious paninaro days.
Amid Timberland’s boom in the 1990s, Jeffrey Swartz took on leadership of the company founded by his grandfather. A chance encounter in 1988 with non-profit City Year spurred an ongoing pledge for Timberland to ‘give back’. As a result, the firm introduced The Path of Service program in 1992, granting employees 16 hours of paid leave a year to volunteer. In 1995, the allowance was upgraded to 40 hours. Today, the program has resulted in over 1.4 million hours of proud community service.,
With social issues rising to the surface that decade, Timberland’s ‘Give Racism the Boot’ campaign in 1993 was their most vocal commitment to corporate and community responsibility. The growing conversation around climate change also empowered Timberland to respond proactively in the 2000s. Promising increased transparency about their production methods, Timberland added ‘nutrition labels’ to their packaging to maintain ecological accountability.
In 2007, they introduced an environmentally friendlier boot aptly named the Earthkeeper. The lining and laces were made of recycled plastic, while the soles used a recycled rubber blend. Leather was now sourced from LWG Silver and Gold-Rated tanneries. Like Timberland marketing materials of old, the messaging was loud and direct as they called on consumers to ‘walk the talk’ because ‘Nature needs heroes’. The original Earthkeeper ethos has gone on to inform a huge chunk of Timberland’s products today.
After a decade of increasing recycled content in their products, Timberland launched the proprietary ReBOTL program in 2018. Since then, hundreds of millions of non-biodegradable plastic water bottles have skipped landfill and instead been woven into Timberland’s textiles to be used in shoes and garments. ReBOTL isn’t the sole outcome of Timberland’s eco goals. Given the recycled concept is the new norm, the updated aim is to increase the amount of renewable materials while maintaining the rugged design aesthetic the company is famous for. A 75 per cent mix of sugarcane and natural rubber has delivered the new GreenStride Comfort Sole system.
The overall strategy is now focused on achieving an ambitious ‘net positive’ result, which Timberland believes is very possible by 2030. Other lofty ambitions include planting at least 50 million trees by 2025 as part of a global reforestation project. With eco-designer Christopher Raeburn on board as creative director since 2019, the ‘REMADE, REUSED, RECYCLED’ vision will continue to evolve as his progressive design agenda continues to push boundaries.
Like the other models in the GreenStride range, the Ultra uses Comfort Soles, ReBOTL fabric linings and Better Leather, which is sourced from a tannery rated silver for its water, energy and waste management practices. This is an elegant and upright interpretation of the classic Timberland boot profile.
Greenstride Solar Ridge Waterproof Hiker
The Solar Ridge is a trail-ready hiker designed to be super lightweight but totally tough and 100 per cent waterproof. With 3M reflective panels, rubber lugs in contrasting colours and rustproof speed-lacing, the styling is modern meets traditional. Timberland’s GreenStride Comfort Soles, which are made from 75 per cent sugar cane and natural rubber, add eco-conscious credentials. TimberDry is a waterproof membrane made from 50 per cent recycled plastic.
Greenstride Edge Waterproof Boot
The Edge is a progressive design update that brings a dose of modern flair to Timberland’s classic Yellow Boot heritage. Lightweight, comfortable and still absolutely waterproof, this is pure Timberland, with all the added benefits of the unique materials developed as part of the GreenStride program.
The Next Branch
Timberland represents way more than just a tough pair of old boots. Branching out beyond their humble origins, the American brand with a tree for a logo has embraced an international fanbase and embedded itself in the creative fabric of multiple generations. More importantly, as the 50th anniversary of their eponymous icon draws closer, the brand’s commitment to a brighter future remains steadfast. There are significant human challenges for us all to overcome, but as Timberland have proclaimed for years, there’s no time like right now to ‘Do Right!’
To learn more about Timberland's past, present and future, explore their new 'Timbs Trail' interactive microsite now!