New York

How Hip Hop's Love of the Iconic Yellow Workboot Helped Make Timberland a Billion-Dollar Company

Joshua Blanchard

In the early '90s, Daymond John was a budding designer, sewing hats to sell in his mother's Queens, New  York, neighborhood. It was during that time Daymond remembers reading something that redefined his mission as an entrepreneur.

An executive of the Timberland Company — at the time a rising brand whose nubuck leather boots were becoming synonymous with cool in New York City, especially among young African Americans — told The New York Times that the company was scaling back distribution to cater to its "target customer."

Like many of Timberland's Black customers, who took "target customer" to mean wealthy, white customers, John saw the statement as a sort of rejection. 

For John, who at the time, owned at least seven pairs of Timberlands and wore them with everything ("I would wear Timberlands with a bathing suit. Literally," John says), "I felt pissed off." That feeling was part of what ultimately led him to start his clothing brand FUBU, For Us By Us.  

Daymond John at the 2000 Essence awards with his FUBU team
Scott Gries
Daymond John at the 2000 Essence awards with his FUBU team

For Timberland, a company that had built its image around rugged, outdoorsy New Englanders and "the Wall street man," it provoked a reckoning with the influence and staying power of Black consumers, who had embraced the shoe as a fashion staple. And it changed the brand's identity. 

An American brand is born

The Timberland brand was birthed from a small, New England-based shoemaker, The Abington Shoe company. In 1973, Abington Shoe used an innovative molding technique to produce a waterproof, 6-inch Nubuck leather boot that could withstand harsh weather. The company called it the Timberland boot. By the late 1970s, 80% of all the products Abington Shoe sold were Timberland boots. So in 1978, the company changed its name to Timberland, according to a 1983 article from The Boston Globe. 

In the beginning, Timberlands were for "people who worked in factories or construction," says Rob Walker, Author of "Buying In: What We Buy and Who We Are." But as the boot rose in popularity, the Swartz family who owned the brand wanted to appeal to a "high-end" clientele "who wants to go away for the weekend and be comfortable," Timberland's then-principle store designer, Cebra Robusto, told The Boston Globe in 1988. The company took out ads in magazines like The New Yorker and sold the shoe at stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, according to a 1985 The New York Times

Teens in Milan wearing Timberland boots
Mondadori Portfolio
Teens in Milan wearing Timberland boots

By the late '80s, the boots' popularity was surging internationally. The New York Times reported that teens were robbing people for their Timberlands in fashion capital Milan and that American flight attendants were buying dozens of Timberlands to resell for double the price in Italy. The boot was a favorite in places like the UK and Japan too. It created a spike in sales: In 1988, The Boston Globe reported that Timberland sales had increased from $48 million to $138 million over the previous five year period.

By 1989, Timberland opened its second flagship store (the first was in New Hampshire, where the company is based) on New York's Upper East Side — peak real estate for pricey fashion brands. New York City residents with a taste for quality and prestige began purchasing the boot en masse. But the customers weren't who Timberland had expected.

How hip hop adopted Timbs

Timberland's emergence in "urban" markets is treated like folklore. According to Walker and John, Timberland boots were first adopted by drug dealers in New York City. "It really came from the initial people in the neighborhood who, unfortunately, were probably hustlers in some sense. They had more money to go uptown or downtown to look at the more prestigious brands," John says. 

According to Walker, young people in Harlem would travel to Midtown to purchase Timberland boots, which grew to have a signifier value in predominantly Black neighborhoods. "From what I'm told, these corner drug dealers were kind of style influencers and would have the cutting edge stuff," Walker  says.

At the same time, hip-hop was gaining traction in New York City and by the '90s was becoming more mainstream. Black artists were increasingly influential when it came to fashion trends. "I think when kids want to associate with specific brands, they had to first see it on somebody that they valued," says John. 

Notorious B.I.G in Brooklyn with Junior Mafia crew in 1995
New York Daily News Archive
Notorious B.I.G in Brooklyn with Junior Mafia crew in 1995

Throughout the '90s, New York rappers adopted Timberland in their style and in their music: Biggie Smalls was photographed wearing the boots during performances, and rapped about "Timbs for my hooligans in Brooklyn" in his 1997 song "Hypnotize," while Nas wore them throughout his 25-year career and rapped lyrics like "Suede Timbs on my feets makes my cipher complete" in his 1994 song "The World is Yours."

As Timberland grew throughout the '90s (between 1991 and 2000, Timberland's profits increased from $80 million to over $500 million, and by 2000, revenues passed $1 billion, according to the SEC), researchers took a serious look at Black consumer spending, which grew at a rapid pace in the '90s. The Black-owned news outlet the Los Angeles Sentinel reported that in 1993 Black Americans were outspending non-Blacks by 50% in footwear and by 4% in clothing purchases.

But while Timberland executives recognized that young, Black consumers had adopted their product, they did not immediately embrace it.  

The boot boycott

It was Timberland CEO Jeffery Swartz who gave the infamous "target customer" interview to The New York Times in 1993. When asked about "urban market share," he contended that Black consumers only made up 5% of Timberland's growing sales — a number that fashion editors at magazines like The Source refuted, telling The Times, "I think that they think that if their clothes are celebrated in the black, urban community, with all its ills, that it will cheapen their brand names."

Former Timberland CEO Jeffrey Swartz at Jewish Federation Leadership Forum in 2002
Robert Gauthier
Former Timberland CEO Jeffrey Swartz at Jewish Federation Leadership Forum in 2002

Swartz went on to tell the Times that, while Black consumers' money "spends good," he was not going to "build his business on smoke." "Part of this was that it was an explanation for why Timberland was not advertising in magazines like Vibe," Walker says.

The Times story reached Black readers across America, even prompting then-popular radio DJs like Wendy Williams to encourage Black consumers to boycott the brand. (Williams was seen placing her Timberland's in a garbage can, according to Newsday.)

Following the Times interview, Swartz wrote an op-ed for the New York Amsterdam News (a highly respected, Black-owned newspaper) titled, "The New York Times again: racism sells—don't buy it." Swartz called the Times article "character assasination" and an attempt to make Swartz and Timberland look racist. (Then-Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. stood by the original article, according to Newsday.) 

Swartz reminded readers of the brand's multi-million dollar investment in volunteer corp groups City Year, which served underprivileged groups in inner cities. Swartz also cited Timberland's 1993 "Give Racism the Boot" campaign as proof that the brand valued and respected Black consumers (though it's reported that multiple brands used race as part of marketing tactics after the beating of Rodney King in the early '90s). 

According to Walker, calls to boycott Timberland were short lived, and following Swartz's editorial blunder, Timberland realized that being popular among Black consumers was not a "fad" or a problem. "It was an opportunity, and it was the future," Walker says.

Swartz poured more resources into inner city investments and partnerships. In 1999, the company designed a custom red boot with volunteer corp City Year where they encouraged Philadelphia volunteers to assist in the design (the funds would be funneled back into City Year, which provides community  service training for underprivileged youth). 

The brand also tested community store concepts, which created distribution channels in underserved communities and functioned as non-profit partnerships (sales profits were put toward academic scholarships for neighborhood youth).

Eventually Timberland decided to channel its efforts into direct community service. The brand created a company-wide Path of Service program, providing paid community service hours to employees. (Timberland employees have served more than 1.2 million hours since 1992, according to the brand.)

While Timberland acknowledges it can't fix the missteps of the past, it knows the Black  community played a pivotal role in who the company is today. The global popularity of Timberland's Original Yellow Boot "is largely because the Black community adopted [it] and helped establish Timberland as a fashion staple," says the Timberland brand. "It's a great source of pride for us." 

A lasting legacy

There were positive ripples outside of the Timberland company too. Young entrepreneurs started to see demand for Black-owned brands in the fashion space.

"I thought to myself, who's ever going to love and value the people that they make and sell their boots to? So I went home and came up with a brand FUBU: For Us, By Us," FUBU founder Daymond John says. "I wasn't going to be a bigot the same way that Timberland was. It was about a culture — those who loved and valued hip hop."

Throughout the 2000s, Black-owned labels like Sean John, RocaWear and Baby Phat emerged. There was a renaissance in Black fashion, giving Black consumers the option to redistribute wealth in their own communities.

Timberland continued to see support from Black artists into the 2000s, but in 2005, the company began to lose traction. Today, "Timberland does not have the same kind of edge," says Walker, "but that's kind of inevitable. Brands have to weather the storm of crossing over from being the new thing to being the old thing."

Between 2006 and 2010, sales at Timberland were stagnant and the company saw an 8% loss in revenue during that period, according to SEC filings. 

In September of 2011, Jeff Swartz sold the brand for $2.3 billion to fashion conglomerate VF Corporation, which owns brands like The North Face and Vans, according to the VF press release.

VF has fully embraced Timberlands diverse consumer base, focusing heavily on collaborations with artists and designers. In 2017, the brand created a limited-edition Legends campaign with Nas, one of the it's early, unofficial hip-hop ambassadors. More recently, the brand has designed shoes with coveted street style brands like Off-White. And websites like Stock X frequently auction limited edition Timberland boots, with some bidding prices starting at $700.

Now, Timberland is also harkening back to its roots with environmentally focused initiatives like their Urban Greening project, which turns vacated plots of land into green spaces.  

"I think most brands are smarter now about ollowing where the consumer leads," Walker says. "There's much more interest in having a dialogue with the consumer and letting the consumer shake the brand, even if that means taking it places that you didn't think of originally."

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