Timberland began in 1952, but it wasn’t until 1973 that the company introduced their first waterproof boot. It became an essential item for blue-collar workers, who favoured the sturdy boots for long days on site. The boot would go on to sell over a million pairs by 1985, but throughout the next decade Timberland’s sales would triple thanks to a lending hand from the world of hip-hop.
At that time, sportswear was also being introduced into mainstream fashion by hip-hop. Breakdancers favoured running shoes for their comfort, while also wearing matching tracksuits to stay fresh at all times. Meanwhile, Rob Walker – consumer journalist and author of Buying In – states that New York hustlers were the first to give Timberland an audience outside of the boot’s target demographic of manual labourers. Braving the abrasive New York winters, they were “guys who had to stand on the street all night and needed the best possible footwear to keep them warm and dry.”
RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan also points to Mother Nature as the reason for the boot’s popularity. “There were some cold winters in those days. They had all the qualities of a good product and that’s why we continued to wear them. Timberlands became something that was cool and rugged at the same time,” he said. Wu-Tang Clan would go on to become just one of the groups who championed the shoe on songs like ‘Da Mystery of the Chessboxin’ – so much so that fans even brought Timberlands for the group to sign on their last Australian tour. Wu-Tang would also go on to design their own take on the Timberland, in the group’s signature black and yellow palette.
While Timberlands were perfect for New York emcees thanks to their durability for the wintertime, they also complimented the relentlessly raw sound that defined East Coast hip-hop during the Golden Era. The rustic and rugged boots were teamed with tough workwear, stacked denim and camoflauge items – a perfect accompaniment for the era’s no-holds-barred street narratives. It also served as a backlash against previous hip-hop trends which favoured bright colours and tighter clothing, while over on the West Coast, groups like N.W.A were also stripping back their aesthetic in favour of more assertive and simple clothing.
Many rappers from the Golden Era began weaving Timberland references into their lyrics. Biggie Smalls favoured a more ominous Timberland product on ‘Suicidal Thoughts’, when he rapped “It don’t make sense, going to heaven wit the goodie goodies, dressed in white, I like black Timbs and black hoodies.” On the classic ‘Survival of the Fittest’, Havoc of incoming Australian visitors Mobb Deep described their look by saying “Fuck looking cute, I’m strictly Timb boots and Army certified suits.” He also wore earthy Timberlands on the classic art for their album The Infamous. Nas also gave props on ‘The World Is Yours’ when he stated that “Suede Timbs on my feet makes my cypher complete.”
With Timberland referenced in so many classic rap lyrics, they became synonymous with New York in the 90s before becoming a general icon of hip-hop culture. There is an element of nostalgia in their appeal, with Drake rapping “I’ve been moving state to state, in my leather and my Timbs like it’s 1998” on his 2013 track ‘The Motion’. Now, they’re a staple worn all year round, no matter the weather – as pointed out by RZA. “Timberland boots used to be only be worn in the winter, but then people, such as myself, started wearing them all year ’round. I used to be one of the guys that other dudes would make jokes on when I would wear my Timberlands in the summer,” he said. Fellow Wu member Raekwon echoed such style choices, saying “that was like a fashion thing for us. We used to wear boots with shorts.”
In recent years, you can see the boots everywhere from Omarian’s music videos to Tinashe’s cover art. With Timberland also constantly collaborating with everyone from Stussy to BBC on revamped versions of their most famous product, we can’t see the six-inch boot disappearing from hip-hop or streetwear circles anytime soon – even in the relentless Australian summer.