Timberland | Gary Aspden Interview

'The deck shoes,' says Gary Aspden, brand consultant, when asked about the first Timberland item to gain popularity in the UK. 'Timberland clothing was also a huge deal at the time - it was a super exclusive brand. To my knowledge there were no stockists in the UK, so the only way to pick it up was on trips to the continent.'

These trips were a key part of the casuals dress sense. “Whether it be Fila and Tacchini tracksuits, Ellesse ski jackets, Lacoste polo shirts or Giorgio Armani sweaters the casuals had an ongoing love affair with symbols of European affluence and sophistication,” says Gary. 'French Riviera style deck shoes were a regular fixture on the football terraces in the summer of 1984. At first in navy/white, red/white and then in split colours, a trend for that look was taking hold. That's when the subdued brown/khaki green neutral colours of the Timberland boating shoes appeared. They were premium and exclusive - very expensive and branded (which was always a bonus back then). Not readily available and definitely not cheap they were a definite indicator of being "in the know".'

The introduction of the summer boating shoe led to the discovery of the winter deck shoe once the weather took a turn. 'French Riviera style deck shoes were not appropriate for the notoriously rainy winter in the north west and that's where Timberland had it sewn up. I still remember the first time we saw Timberland winter deck shoes with the heavier sole in Hurleys Sports just off Piccadilly in Manchester. May seem strange to people now, as there are loads of brands that use heavy winter soles on their footwear these days, but at the time we were all blown away by the soles on them. We had not seen shoes before that had been able to blend that level of weightiness and maintain a smart look. The soles looked super chunky to us then - everyone wanted them.' Alongside the deck shoes, Timberland’s leather jackets also had a reputation. 'Their buck skin jackets were impeccable. They were premium currency amongst Blackburn Rovers fans around 86.'

Speaking of movements, the Timberland boot’s popularity within the Paninaro movement is well documented. But Gary says that the Paninaro influence didn’t trickle down to the way it was worn in the UK. 'I'm not sure I would go as far as to call Paninaro a movement. I don't think it had anywhere the impact that 'casual' fashion had here in the UK. I think revisionists (many of whom were not around back then) have made a lot more of the Paninaro thing than it actually was. I travelled around Europe a few times back then and saw groups of Italian youths who would fit the description of Paninaros. On the whole the Italian dressers at that time indisputably looked more stylish than the British which I believe is probably a big part of why they are still talked about with such reverence.' 

Die hard Timberland fans in the US were known to find out the style number of certain boots to showcase their superior knowledge. When Timberland arrived in the UK around 1984, it was appreciated in a way that differed from the US. 'Not sure we had die hards for Timberland in that way here in the UK. We always looked at and were often inspired by what was happening in the US things but have always been done differently here.'

'Outside of Hip Hop and Ralph Lauren I wasn't much interested in what the US wore and most Hip Hop fashion was not available here back then so it had to be appropriated. We were moving on from wearing flared and semi flared jeans and cords. Flares were great with corduroy shoes, desert boots or flat, suede adidas trainers but definitely not with deck shoes. Deck shoes were worn with loose fitting designer jeans with a narrow ankle (C17, Ball, etc) - usually stone washed. Ball did some dark denim I don't remember seeing anyone in unwashed denim in the 80s. Burlington socks were essential.' 

By 1989, Italy accounted for $30 million of Timberland’s overall footwear sales. In the UK, Timberland had over 300 accounts by the time they’d opened their first UK store. While they were primarily known as a brand for casuals when they first arrived in the UK, they became used in other subcultures as time went on. 'A lot of ravers got into those sand coloured Timberland boots - I remember my girlfriend in 89 used to wear them with brightly coloured jogging pants. There were a ton of snide copy versions of them came out in response to their popularity.' 

Despite this, Gary notes that it wasn’t because they chased any subculture. 'I don't recall any brands chasing subcultures in the 80s - to chase something you have to know that it is happening. Most brands had no idea about street fashion hence why people like Wade Smith and Hurleys Sports made a killing. Given how big it is nowadays it's amazing to think that JD Sports was born out of all that - unlike most of their competitors at the time their buyers were going to football and they tapped into what was going on. Maybe it's an urban myth but there's the story about Giorgio Armani's face lighting up at news of his increased sales and popularity in the UK in the 80s - to be later alarmed when he discovered exactly who the new clientele for his label was.' 

While the ‘80s are much maligned in fashion history, Gary notes that it was a forming decade for a number of styles that still persist to this day. Explaining why the Timberland boot has remained such a popular item he says 'Classic design, I'd guess. Most Hip Hop fashions (like football fashions) were born in the 80s and all we have seen since then is pretty much refinements of those looks.'

Which also explains the Timberland boots recent resurgence, which Gary says is 'another revision of something that took place nearly 30 years ago. Good product will always go through cycles where timeless design strikes a chord with new generations.' And some of these new generation may be designers themselves. 

Certain models of Nike’s ACG range was made as a direct response to the ubiquity of the Timberland boot and other labels have taken it upon themselves to create their own versions of classic Timberland styles. One such label is Visvim. 'The Americana Deck Shoes by Folk look like they have influenced by Timberland although I think Hiroki has refined and improved the pattern of the uppers.'

When asked about his peers perception of Timberland, he said 'It was rated back then.' With boutique brands like Visvim paying homage and mega-brands like Nike creating rival products, that’s a view shared by many.

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