My Timberland Boots: The Story Behind the Brand and My Boots

When winter strikes in Toronto, many Torontonians are often found bustling through the sidewalks in fall or winter shoes to combat the snow and the sludge. For me this past winter season, those shoes were my new Timberland boots, bought on a whim and they have caused me no buyer’s remorse. As I watched the sidewalks and yellow-green grass emerge from melting ice, I was compelled to reflect on my Timberlands—what is the history behind them, and what do the boots mean to me?

Old marketing poster featuring the classic 6-inch Timberland workboots. Source:https://kith.com/pages/timberland-journal

The History of Timberland

Timberland produces both outdoor and action sports footwear, apparel, and accessories for men, women, and children (“VF Corporation 2016 Annual Report”). A lesser-mentioned footwear line, Timberland PRO, produces robust work-boots for the toughest job sites (“Timberland PRO”). Timberland is now owned by VF Corporation, owner of other well-known outdoor and action sports brands including Vans, North Face, and Jansport (“VF Corporation 2016 Annual Report”). However, Timberland carried a strong brand reputation even prior to VF Corporation’s acquisition (Encylopedia.com).

Founded in 1952, it began with father, sons, and half ownership of the Abington Shoe Company in Massachusetts, United States (“Yellow Boot”). There, they produced and sold handmade footwear for various discount outlet and store house brands (Encylopedia.com). After developing new crafting techniques, acquiring new machinery, and upgrading to a new rubber sole manufactured by Goodyear, the iconic Timberland boot was born in 1973 (“Yellow Boot”). Targeting blue-collar construction workers in New England, the boot was durable, waterproof, and had a complex manufacturing process (“Brands: Timberland”). It was one of the only boots of its kind in the market at the time, thus sold at a premium (“Yellow Boot”).  After the boot’s continuous success, and the family’s full ownership of the Abington Shoe Company, the business was renamed as “The Timberland Company” in 1978, representing durability and functionality (Encylopedia.com).

Within the following 20 years, Timberland exponentially rose in popularity, thus in sales (Encylopedia.com). Priced at $60 USD in the early 1980s (VintagePaperAds.com), the brand reached an unexpected international market—the Italian fashion accessory market—largely attributed to a well-recognized Italian goods distributer, Giuseppe Veronesi  (“Timberland Blog”). By the early 1990s, the iconic 6-inch work-boot was co-opted by the American hip-hop community (Encylopedia.com). As gangsta rap became glamourized, prominent hip-hop artists such as Boot Camp Clik and the Wu-Tang Clan began wearing the work-boot as early as 1993 (Encylopedia.com). They opened up a new market for Timberland, acting as “unauthorized endorsers” for the brand (Encylopedia.com). Despite initial resistance from management to expand the company’s market, artists continued to purchase the work-boots, their style eventually trickling up to the more welcomed mainstream market (Walker, 84). The Timberland brand was linked to authenticity, suggesting “an American aesthetic that combined physical labour with the great outdoors” (Semmelhack 154).

Boot Camp Clik wearing Timberlands in 1993. Source: http://www.complex.com/style/2012/09/the-25-best-dressed-crews-in-hip-hop-history/roc-a-fella

 

Hip-Hop and Timberland Boots as Fashion

The Nike Air Superdome 1991, bearing a similar aesthetic compared to Timberlands. Source: http://kicksdeals.com/gallery/15-nike-acg-models-wed-like-to-see-return/nike-air-revaderchi/

Hip-hop culture, unified in aesthetic, stood for self-expression through both music and fashion (Brantley 247).  By the 1990s, brands such as Nike, Adidas, and Reebok began producing various versions of footwear lines emulating the rugged hip-hop aesthetic (Price 38). According to Cova et al., consumers grapple and blend brands and products with their own lives, essentially altering them (4). Commercial culture becomes part of their cultural, social, and self-identity (4). Hip-hop artists perceived Timberlands as strong and durable, both functionally and representationally (Brantley 248). The boots, originally made for tough job sites (now fulfilled by Timberland PRO), were able to withstand urban concrete, barbed wire, and other varied urban terrain (Brantley 248). They also represented the authenticity, aggression, and resilience in the war between black youth and America (Encylopedia.com).

Erving Goffman, a sociologist and writer, suggests that identity is “a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented” (253). It is the result of repeated behaviour and actions understood within an interactive social process (Goffman 253). When hip-hop culture co-opted the 6-inch work boot into their outfits, it became part of self-expression and another building block to the group’s identity. Much like Cova et al. suggest, these artists incorporated Timberlands to their lived experiences (4), physically enclothing their bodies and becoming part of an iconic style and identity, as Goffman suggests (253).

 

Timberland Boots in Today’s Fashion

Serayah McNeill sporting denim overalls and light blue Timberlands. Source: http://www.instyle.com/news/celebrities-wearing-timberland-boots-coachella

Now, celebrities and everyday streetwalkers alike wear Timberlands and all their variations as items of popular fashion. Much like Dr. Martens in the 1990s, Timberlands are now offering more colours and patterns (“Yellow Boot”), positioning the brand and its boots as a component of urban fashion “costumes” within the boot marketplace. (Semmelhack 154).  Cova et al. suggest that consumers “work within the staging that brands and companies have built” (10), ultimately interpreting and creating their own meanings of the brand. To a certain degree, each person is using the shoe and brand to express and communicate a certain aspect of their visual identity. At Coachella last year, celebrities such as Hailey Baldwin and Josephine Skriver, were seen wearing Timberlands to the outdoor spring music festival (Bahou, “The Unexpected Shoe Trend”). Here, Serayah McNeill pairs a half-buttoned jean overall short with a light blue 6-inch Timberland boot. Far from the historically intended worksite use, this celebrity incorporates the outdoorsy yet urban essence of the boots with her individual urban flare. She is merging her individual brand interpretations with her personal sense of style to construct a deliberate image and aesthetic at the music festival. In my opinion, she looks tough, adventurous, yet feminine.

 

My Timberland Boots

Side view of my Timberlands. Source: Emilie Chan

Inspired by Mida and Kim’s The Dress Detective, I set out to perform a closer reading of my boots to further enhance my research. I own a pair of women’s 6-inch black Timberland boots. They are made of nubuck (a type of leather), and have padded leather collars similar to most classic Timberlands. This one in particular, the “Joslin,” has low-profile outsoles, leaving a less robust appearance that most would describe as more feminine. Contrary to assumption, this particular boot is not advertised as waterproof. A special spray was later applied to provide water resistance.

I wore these boots through snowstorms and sludgy days. Some of this year’s scuffs, salt stains, and dirt still stick to the surface of each boot. A few crinkles have formed on the vamp of my boots, a form of physical proof of the steps I have taken this winter season. Since I have only owned these boots for less than one season, the condition of the heels remain in good condition.

 

Front view of my Timberlands. Source: Emilie Chan

The crinkles on my Timberlands. Source: Emilie Chan

The bottom of my Timberlands. Source: Emilie Chan

 

The Timberland Brand

Timberland describes itself as a brand that “outfits consumers for everyday adventure in the city, countryside, and everywhere in between” (“Brands: Timberland”). It boasts stylish, finely crafted products that are durable and functional. VF Corporation is committed to being a consumer and retail centric organization, their efforts reflected in a 15 percent growth in B2C (business-to-consumer) sales in the last few quarters of 2017 (“Fourth Quarter 2017”). This being said, overall sales figures for this brand were not particularly impressive in 2017, outshined by Vans. The company is now in the works of re-energizing the brand (“Fourth Quarter 2017”). Within the Toronto shoe market, direct competitors of the classic 6-inch Timberland boot include high tops and short boots from Sorel, UGG, Dr. Martens, and Blundstone. Sorel’s primary value proposition lies in its functionality—an insulated and waterproof shell (Sorelfootwear.com). UGG, producing a variation of styles, boasts functionality and its premium brand name (UGG.com). Perhaps the most similar in visual aesthetics compared to the 6-inch Timberland boot is the laced up, ankle high Dr. Martens boot, rich with cultural history (Semmelhack 152), quality materials, craftsmanship, and style (DrMartens.com). The widely popular Blundstone brand offers comfort and craftsmanship (Blundstone.ca). For a visual comparison between these boots, refer to Figure 1.

Figure 1: Toronto’s 2017 Popular Short Fall/Winter Boots. Source: Emilie Chan

In 2015, Timberland launched a marketing campaign titled “The Modern Trail.” It aimed to persuade customers that Timberland products are made for all adventures, big or small. The brand encouraged customers take and share pictures of their experiences while wearing Timberland footwear, through social media with the hashtag “#ModernTrail” as a form of documentation and community engagement (“Made for the Modern”).

Images from the #ModernTrail campaign, by Timberland. Source: https://www.instagram.com/timberland/

On a deeper level of analysis, customers were being encouraged to see and experience objects as things that contain memories and emotions—evocative objects, much like Sherry Turkle suggests (9). Objects, in this case Timberland gear, are not merely products with functional aspects, but can bring together thoughts and feelings. Products, like Timberland boots, are part of the wearer’s physical and emotional (modern trail) experience—this makes the boots “priceless.” Suggested by Igor Kopytoff, “its pricelessness makes it in some sense more valuable than the amount of money it can fetch” (82). This exemplifies Kopytoff’s theory of singularization, moving away from a Marxist view of commoditization where everything is defined by labour, profits, and how much one can buy an item for (Sullivan 38). Consumers eventually singularize Timberland boots because they are evocative objects that cannot simply be replaced by even an identical pair of boots.

 

My Perspective on the Timberland Brand

My father’s Timberlands. Source: Emilie Chan

Although my Timberland boots were bought without much thought, I had a subconscious trust for the Timberland brand. I grew up watching my father collect shoes, each pair now, on average, reaching 20 years old. Many of them are now worn in the soles and heels, materials tearing at the edges. Of all the shoes he owns, his black and brown 6-inch Timberlands are in the best shape and hold many childhood memories. In the harsh winters that Toronto once faced, I remember my father trekking through the snow in his Timberland boots. On camping trips, I remember him hiking in the muddy forests and on rocky cliff-sides in those very boots with ease as I struggled behind in whatever running shoe I owned at the time. Engrained in me from childhood is an understanding that Timberland boots are not only durable, but is a key tool for moving through rough terrains. My father’s boots, with a thicker heel and seemingly more durable construct, shows its wear and memories in the many crinkles of the smoother nubuck material.

Hajo Adam (a business professor) and Adam Galinsky (a social psychologist) suggest that the experience of wearing clothes can trigger associated abstract concepts and symbolic meanings, termed “enclothed cognition” (919). Since the 1970s, Timberland boots have always upheld their branded functionality, durability, and quality (“Yellow Boot”). Growing up, I learned to believe Timberlands can withstand any type of environmental challenge. Throughout the past winter season, I painstakingly trudged through ice, wet snow, and black sludge in my Timberlands. Perhaps it was the boot itself, but assessing the construction of the model, likely just my enclothed cognition, that made these journeys easier.

Although I am not particularly adventurous with my Timberlands, I know they represent more than simply black boots—they come with rich cultural history. My Timberland boots may not be as robust as my father’s boots, nor have they experienced the same amount of wear, but they hold my memories. Through time, my boots will continue to collect different physical reminders of my journeys via stains, rips, and crinkles. My Timberland boots are thought provoking and carry my memories.

 

Will learning new knowledge or historical understanding of an object affect the relationship between the owner of the object, and the object itself? If so, how will this affect the process of singularization?

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References

Bahou, Olivia. “The Unexpected Shoe Trend We’re Seeing All Over Coachella.” InStyle, 18 Apr, 2017, http://www.instyle.com/news/celebrities-wearing-timberland-boots-coachella. Accessed 16 Feb 2018.

Blundstone. Blundstone Canada, 2018, https://www.blundstone.ca/. Accessed 16 Feb. 2018.

Brantley, Vanessa T. Hip-Hop Clothing: The Meaning of Subcultural Style, The Florida State University, Ann Arbor, 1999, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/304510440?accountid=13631.

Cova, Bernard, et al. Consumer Tribes. Elsevier, 2007.

Dr. Martens. The Originals, 2018, http://www.drmartens.com/ca/. Accessed 16 Feb. 2018.

Encyclopedia.com. The Timberland Company, 2006, https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/economics-business-and-labor/businesses-and-occupations/timberland-company. Accessed 18 Feb. 2018.

“Fourth Quarter 2017 Earnings Conference Call.” Earnings Call from VF Corporation, 16 Feb. 2018,/https://78449.themediaframe.com/dataconf/productusers/vfc/mediaframe/22802/indexl.html

Adam, Hajo, and Adam D. Galinsky. “Enclothed Cognition,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 48, no. 4 2012, pp.918-925.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Penguin, 1990.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. 64-91.

Price, Emmett. Hip Hop Culture. ABC-CLIO, 2006.

Semmelhack, Elizabeth. Shoes: The Meaning of Style. Reaktion Books Ltd., 2017.

Sorel. Sorel Luxury Shoes and Boots, 2018, https://www.sorelfootwear.ca/. Accessed 15 Feb. 2018.

Sullivan, Anthony. “Karl Marx: Fashion and Capitalism.” Thinking Through Fashion, Ed. Agnes Rocamora, Anneke Smelik. London: I.B. Tauris, 2015. 28-45.

Timberland. Blog: Original Yellow Boot, https://www.timberland.com/blog/archive/original-yellow-boot.html. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.

—–Made for The Modern Trail, https://www.timberland.com/blog/archive/made-for-the-modern-trail.html

—–Timberland PRO Work Boots & Shoes, https://www.timberland.com/timberlandpro.html. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.

—–Yellow Boot, https://www.timberland.com/yellow-boot.html. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.

Turkle, Sherry. Evocative Objects: Things We Think Wwith. MIT Press, 2007.

UGG. UGG Official, 2018, https://www.ugg.com/. Accessed 16 Feb. 2018.

VF Corporation. VF Corporation 2016 Annual Report, 2016, https://d1io3yog0oux5.cloudfront.net/_dc5b9b7bf5394c2d2a6ee98af0a34bc5/vfc/db/74/40091/annual_report/VF_Annual_Report_2016-Digital.pdf. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.

—– Brands: Timberland, 2018, https://www.vfc.com/brands/outdoor-action-sports/timberland#direct-to-consumer. Accessed 18 Feb. 2018.

VintagePaperAds.com. 1980 Timberland Boots Ad, 2018, http://www.vintagepaperads.com/1980-Timberland-Boots-Ad–If-Your-Feet-Ever-Get-Cold-or-Wet_p_130607.html. Accessed 24 Mar. 2018.

Walker, Rob. Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. Random House Publishing Group, 2008.

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