The Timberland work boot has never truly gone out of style, whether with the physical laborers who actually utilize its waterproof outer, steel-or-soft toe, and ankle support in their day-to-day; or with the rappers and rap-lovers who popularized them as everyday streetwear more than 20 years ago. (And often, the twain have met.)
But with the apparently never-ending lionization of the 1990s—and the fetishization of black style, and hip-hop culture—along with the concurrent rise of streetwear, the Timb has found new popularity with an audience that, for the most part, has previously not ever given it a second look. Three years ago, variations on the silhouette, made by different companies, became available at popular retailers like Solestruck, and in more avant-garde, downtown-cool shops like V-Files. They nabbed the shape of the shoe, and offered them in shades like baby pink, or all white, sometimes with altered platform soles.
And last year, high fashion began catching on, part and parcel with its newfound interest in appropriating black American styles, along with baby hairs and cornrows, as signifiers of "cool." (It's no coincidence that the kinds of cultural styles that have long caused problems for black women in the workplace are now seen as chic by whites, at the same time that we are witnessing the Azalea-fication of hip-hop.) Fashion rags went Amerigo Vespucci on that ass; in October 2014, for instance, Elle called Timberlands "the new Birkenstocks," and applauded itself for "calling it now," as though it had suddenly and presciently uncovered a new trend. (Presumably the writer had never seen a Smif-N-Wesson video.)
These days, knockoff Timberlands are sold at Forever 21, and real Timberlands are sold at Urban Outfitters; what used to represent hip-hop streetwear is now the visual language of anybody who wants it. On Wednesday evening, Khloe Kardashian, consort of known Timb wearer French Montana, Instagram'd her own collection with the caption, "I have a tiny obsession with @timberland boots! Think I need to go to a shoe shoppers anonymous!!! But I guess it's not that anonymous if I'm telling everyone that I need to go. I swear my feet aren't that big! hehe"
Interesting timing: earlier this week, Jean Touitou, designer for bourgeois-preppy French clothing line A.P.C., showed his new menswear collection complete with models in an official A.P.C./Timberland collaboration. During the presentation, Touitou, who is a 64-year-old white French man, held up a sign that read, "LAST N*GGAS IN PARIS." (Not that it really mitigates his intent, but it does reflect Touitou's mindset and entitlement that every one of the models cast was white.) During the show, Touitou explained,
"I call this one look Last N*ggas in Paris. Why? Because it's the sweet spot when the hood—the 'hood—meets Bertolucci's movie Last Tango in Paris. So that's 'N*ggas in Paris' and Last N*ggas in Paris. [Nervous laughter from audience.] Oh, I am glad some people laughed with me. Yes, I mean, it's nice to play with the strong signifiers. The Timberland here is a very strong ghetto signifier. In the ghetto, it is all the Timberlands, all the big chain. Not at the same time—never; it's bad taste. So we designed Timberlands with Timberland…"
Later, Touitou told Style.com that it was fine, because he is friends with Kanye West.
"One hip-hop song is called 'N***** in Paris.' One movie is called 'Last Tango in Paris.'I made looks which are a cross-over of those two references: the Timberland shoes and the sweat pants are iconic of hip-hop, and the camel hair color coat, worn with nothing under it, is iconic of that precise movie. I am friends with Kanye [West, who recorded "N*ggas in Paris" with Jay Z], and he and I presented a joint collection at the same place, one year ago, and that this thing is only a homage to our friendship. As a matter of fact, when I came up with this idea, I wrote to him, with the picture of the look and the name I was giving to it, and he wrote back immediately saying something like, 'I love this vibe.'"
(Last year, West designed a capsule line for A.P.C. that notoriously included the cheekily named "Hip-Hop T-Shirt"—the type of long white tee made famous by rappers—for $120.)
Almost immediately, Timberland cancelled its APC collaboration, issuing a rebuke that stated, in part, "this kind of language and approach is in complete contrast with our values. Timberland seeks to collaborate with designers and brands who are at the forefront of lifestyle trends; equally important, they must also share our values. We will not tolerate offensive language or racial slurs of any kind being associated with the Timberland brand."
And by Thursday, Touitou had issued a statement and an apology. "When describing our brand's latest collaboration, I spoke recklessly using terms that were both ignorant and offensive. I apologize and am deeply regretful for my poor choice of words, which are in no way a reflection of my personal views."
There are a few issues at play here, not least of which is Touitou's own racist assumptions and brain-breaking stupidity. Timberland absolutely did the right thing by severing ties, although it seems unlikely that someone at the company didn't know about Touitou's "style inspiration" before it made it to the runway. Why didn't anyone, least of Touitou's own employees, stop this from happening?
Further, the cynic might imagine that Timberland's reaction had just a little bit to do with the long-standing notion in hip-hop that it is racist company. Some have reported that was a false assumption—"in the early 1990s, [Timberland] funded an anti-racism advertising campaign"—though a 1993 New York Times trend piece on the rise of the Timberland among black youth and in rap culture led many to believe otherwise.
In that piece, Julia Chance, then-fashion editor for "hip-hop bible" The Source, said "she thought the manufacturers were aware of their products' newfound popularity in the inner city, but they wanted to keep it a secret":
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," she said. "I see the stuff on the runways, and I know they are inspired by black folk, and now some of these companies are saying our dollars don't count.
The quote "I see the stuff on the runways, and I know they are inspired by black folk" is a statement that is just as relevant today as it was 22 years ago—but there is a slight difference.
Back then, hip-hop publications such as The Source and VIBE were created to fill the void for magazines covering hip-hop culture, which the "mainstream" (read: white) largely ignored. And Chance's observation that mainstream fashion brands similarly wanted to dissociate themselves from black people (often proffered in the coded language that they really just didn't want to be associated with hip-hop) still strikes a nerve. The most public example of this happened as recently as 2006, when Cristal managing director Frédéric Rouzaud tried to disassociate the brand from rappers (code for déclassé black people), telling The Economist, "What can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business." (Jay-Z's subsequent purchase of Ace of Spades was a savvy investment, but don't think it didn't have anything to do with hitting back where it hurt.)
These days, though, when fashions that originated with or created by black and brown people show up on the runways, it is very specifically because high fashion is trying to glom on to some of the the "cool cachet" for which hip-hop is recognized around the world. Often, this doesn't actually mean consorting with actual black and brown people—with few exceptions, the runways are notoriously white—but it shows how powerfully white people want to associate with black culture, after having shunned it for years. We're only just seeing the start of it now—note how both pop stars and high fashion seem to have recently discovered baby hair, cornrows, and box braids. As my colleague Kara Brown put it in September:
It's not the fact that they've been inspired by (or stolen, depending on how you look at it) black culture in the first place, it's that there is absolutely no acknowledgment of where these looks originated. Saying "urban" is just them trying their hardest not to say black. Like it would just fucking kill them to admit that black culture has a direct influence on high fashion. Calling these looks urban is not the same as crediting black people. It's nothing more them doing linguistic gymnasts to completely erase black people from black culture.
Touitou's racism and ignorance are inexcusable, and his willingness to use the n-word, appalling. His defense that he can because he is "friends with Kanye," even more so. And his use of the word "ghetto" is just as coded and teeming with problems as other designers' use of the word "urban." But in a strange and fucked-up, complicated way, I appreciate the whole fracas. At least he was being honest, with a giant sign. Because you know that's what most of these other designers are thinking anyway.
Image via Getty