Timberland’s 6? Work Boots – known as Style #10061 to the brand’s employees or by their street monicker “Timbs” – have come a long way since their release in 1973. Originally designed as a hard-wearing boot for New England construction workers, the six-inch high waterproof nubuck shoe has become synonymous with hip-hop style, appearing on the feet – and in the songs – of everyone from Notorious B.I.G. to Kanye West.
The story behind the brand’s popularity in hip-hop circles is a strange one; Timberland never intended for their boots to be worn by rappers, and found the association so far removed from their blue-collar roots that they at first tried to distance themselves from their new-found “urban” audience. But like so many brands who found popularity in places they didn’t know existed – Converse, Dr. Martens and Vans, to name a few – the subculture association has become such a large part of the brand’s identity that today that it’s hard to imagine them without it.
In the early ’90s, when Timberland was serving its core customer base of blue-collar workers – who adored the brand’s boots for their hard-as-nails construction and superior waterproofing – the company noticed a strange thing happening in New York City. The Big Apple’s hustlers, rappers and scoundrels, miles away from Timberland’s rural heartland and oblivious to the brand’s blue-collar reputation, had become obsessed with their boots.
As consumer journalist Rob Walker reports in his book Buying In, “the legend goes that the first ‘urban’ buyers of Timberland boots were New York drug dealers – guys who had to stand on the street all night and needed the best possible footwear to keep them warm and dry.” Ever keen to enhance their hustler credentials, the city’s rappers followed suit, and soon the boot was everywhere; on Tupac’s feet, in Biggie’s lyrics, on Wu-Tang’s feet and in Mobb Deep’s artwork. Rap magazine Vibe reported that “everyone from thugs to step teams were stalking, walking in their six-inch construction boot,” as they “stood up beautifully to urban elements like concrete, barbed wire, and broken glass.”
As a brand priding itself on its rugged, salt-of-the-earth roots, Timberland actively tried to distance itself from this new-found street cred. Timberland’s CEO Jeffrey Swartz (and grandson of the company’s founder Nathan Swarz) told The New York Times in the early ’90s that “If you want to buy us and you are not our target customer, we don’t have a point of distribution that speaks to your lifestyle.” That didn’t deter any of the boots’ fans though, as trekking to backwater New England towns to cop Timbs became part of the experience; a pilgrimage of sorts.
Of course, things are a little different today. Timberland, realizing that there was nothing it could do to deter a demographic hell-bent on appropriating the brand’s boots for themselves, soon embraced the hip-hop association. The brand has since hooked up countless rap artists with boots (like the ones worn by OutKat’s Big Boi on the cover of Speakerboxxx), expanded their collections to include more ‘urban’ oriented product (pink Timbs, anyone?) and collaborated with tons of streetwear brands; including Supreme, Black Scale, Ronnie Fieg, Billionaire Boys Club, Stussy and many more.
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