Breaking In: A Change of the Guard in the Bootmaking World

Shoe giant Timberland long stood as a bastion of quality within the throwaway world of fashion. As its standards have slipped, industry rivals refuse to pick up the slack. The mainstream of the shoe industry is banking on customers accepting a new normal. But durable, affordable and accessible boots are out there  if you know where to look.

Words: James Bates-Prince
Breaking In: A Change of the Guard in the Bootmaking World & 8 Sustainable Men's Boots Brands | buymeonce.com

It ain't like the good old days. Wasn't like this when I was a kid. They don't make 'em like they used to. This tired cry, exclaimed by generation after generation while demanding a return to an imagined past, is especially prosaic as 2016 draws to an end. Make America great again. Take back control. Squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube.

But sometimes the stereotype rings true. The forward march of technology has certainly made consumer goods cheaper, added bells and whistles and provided an attractive glossy sheen where there was once an ugly unkempt surface. And durability has been repeatedly, consciously squandered. We all know about this phenomenon with electronics – the light bulb conspiracy, irreparable washing machines. But it's happening in more traditional manufacturing too; it's happening right under our feet.

Photo: Rosan Harmens, Unsplash.

Photo: Rosan Harmens, Unsplash.

Ad run by Timberland in 1979.

Endurance has never been a niche concern in the shoe industry. While the fast-fashion major label shoe game perches capriciously atop a glitter ball, a myriad of honest and high quality boot makers have lain cosily away from the show, content only to peer at the eccentricities within. Spending hundreds of dollars on new shoes every year is a luxury most cannot afford, and boot makers used to be keenly aware of this fact. Companies that now stand as industry behemoths often started up solely on the back of one person's fiery will to improve on their own failing shoes.

For decades, the traditional American work boot was the reserve of the traditional American worker. Well built, affordable for the duration, effortlessly classic in look. Manufacturers that could only make their name locally in the 50s and 60s started to encounter interest from further afield as whispers began to seep out about these high quality, ingeniously designed and affordable leather boots. They found they had the opportunity to expand. Rapidly. Timberland is a classic example, the alpha male of the boot world that brusquely manoeuvred itself to the front of the litter. Now the name leaps off the tongue – that classic yellow boot immediately recognisable and associated with durability and style. An American icon.

The image isn’t really a lie, but it’s not the truth either. The story of Timberland is a mirror for the wider footwear industry. It was 1952 when the ambitious shoemaker Nathan Swartz bought a share in a Boston manufacturer, the Abington Shoe Company. The company grew – but the point of no return would come 20 years later.  "It all began in the early 70s when Sidney Swartz noticed that the American "working man" had a genuine need for durable leather boots that kept them dry while outdoors," says Chris Pawlus, Timberland's creative director. "So he made one with wheat-coloured waterproof leather… and it caught on pretty fast."

Don't take even the most expensive Timberlands on a hill walk. Photo: Jan, BuyMeOnce reader.

Chris’ words were spoken in 2013, but the aims he articulated aren’t a fanciful vision of the past. Timberlands were built to be a durable and waterproof boot for workers. Any shelf life beyond that may have been hoped for late at night, but it was unanticipated. The road to success was paved not with outrageous marketing campaigns or vacuous publicity stunts, but with the quality and elegance of design. The yellow boot bloomed and flourished, sales ballooning throughout the 80s in Europe before rising into the stratosphere in the early 90s. Customer service took a hit and production had to be moved, yet customers remained happy with the quality. But something was beginning to change.

The limited lifetime guarantee that once adorned the boots became a one-year guarantee. The majority of their manufacturing moved from the USA to factories in China and the Dominican Republic. Timberland began to reposition itself as a fashion brand that could lean on its reputation for durability and gamble on the company name, happy to be better than the worst rather than the best of the best. The materials could be switched out for more affordable, less refined alternatives. The stitching didn't need to be so careful, did it? By the time Timberland sold itself to international apparel conglomerate VFC in 2011, some of the quality was gone. Soon, high quality ceased to be a target at all. The new aim was laid out clearly by VFC: double Timberland’s revenue towards a projected £3.1 billion in 2019.


Handmaking a new member of the Redwing Heritage collection.

Handmaking a new member of the Redwing Heritage collection.

The news that Timberland is no longer a name in durability won’t be news to the canniest of you. Even without ever having bought a pair of their shoes, you tend to assume a drop in quality as a company grows. The road to success seems to be paved with broken morals and compromise in every walk of life. Boots are no exception.

Even the honourable brands have found their standards slipping. BuyMeOnce has received dozens of recommendations for Redwing, Minnesotan boot makers with a heritage that stretches into the 19th century. This time ten years ago, they were 100% manufactured in the USA using leather from the tannery that they privately own and carried a limited lifetime guarantee. Today? With the exception of their heritage collection, manufacturing has moved to China to cut costs and quality and hike up profits. The USA-made collection is still genuinely great for reliable casual wear, but you're paying fashion prices. You're getting a little less bang for your buck. The lifetime guarantee has been reduced to 12 months, and for every recommendation we receive, a warning isn't far behind.

R.M. Williams, an Australian icon in boot-making, has one of the richest and most genuine backstories anywhere in the manufacturing world. Reginald Murray was born in 1908 and left home for a life in the outback at age thirteen. He learned leather working with a saddle maker, and he learned boot making through trial and error. When you’re let down in the outback, it matters a good deal more than in suburban Adelaide. The soul was there and the company was built around it, piece by piece, becoming globally renowned and gained near legendary status for those who didn't live down under. A lifetime guarantee, free fixing, reliably outstanding quality. Amazing stuff – and Louis Vuitton thought so too when he purchased R.M. Williams in 2013. Now you’ll get a 6-month guarantee. They'll still fix your boots, but a full resole will set you back $150. Take a look at their website; it doesn’t take long to realise that you’re looking at a fashion brand.

Dr Marten's For Life Boots. Grab 'em while you can.

Dr Marten's For Life Boots. Grab 'em while you can.

Dr Martens remain a BuyMeOnce brand, and their “For Life” range is a proud beacon of lifetime assured quality in the shoe world. But even that isn’t safe. Where there once were eight shoes available in the range, only two options remain. Dr Martens have strongly denied to us that they’re gently phasing the brand out, but one wonders how long it will be before the last built for life boot disappears from the shelf. If you have a spare moment, give Dr Martens a ring or an email. Perhaps they'll tell you something different.


The BuyMeOnce Boots

The BuyMeOnce boot is out there - just don’t try to look for a long guarantee. In the last 10 years, company after company have shed their policy or reduced it to a year or less. It’s sad to say, but being a bit of a hipster often pays off – you need to find brands before they’re cool, companies that are still small enough to keep their manufacturing at home, their supply chain under their noses and the quality under control. In general, look for a Goodyear welt construction for toughness and easy repairs, while following the shoe care guide offered by the company. If your boot ever does break, your first port of call should be a local cobbler - it will probably be cheaper and cut unnecessary air miles.

Of course, there is the odd exceptional large company without a tainted reputation too. We may as well lead off with everyone's favourite:

These boots have sold out every winter since 2011 because LL Bean refuses to outsource production. Probably best to grab yours early!

These boots have sold out every winter since 2011 because LL Bean refuses to outsource production. Probably best to grab yours early!

LL Bean

LL Bean stands apart as an international company, with a reputed name, that hasn't felt the need to sell out or compromise. Founded in 1912, their history is as long and storied as any shoemaker out there; one key difference is that they're still privately owned, in touch with L.L.'s heritage.

The demand for Bean Boots has cycled up and down during the hundred years we’ve [been] making it. We don’t go out of our way to find those trends.

Their boot has become famous in it's own way. It's esoterically strange and functional look gradually forced itself into the public consciousness, and the ugly duck boot came of age at the beginning of this decade. It's still no swan mind you, but the comfort these things provide goes way beyond an insole. With an unmatchable, unconditional lifetime guarantee, LL Bean stand by their boots like no other manufacturer.


William Lennon work boots - only better with age. Photo: Stefano's Vintage and Retro.

William Lennon work boots - only better with age. Photo: Stefano's Vintage and Retro.

William Lennon and Co.

One of our favourite finds. Billed as the last workboot manufacturer in Britain, William Lennon & Co. have been handmaking boots since 1901. Rivalling their American counterparts, their constructions are just exquisite. Using full grain leather, the same kind of hardy stuff Saddleback's 100-year guaranteed bags use, the vegetable-natural tanned insole and throughsole mould to the individual foot and are extremely breathable.

They really are carefully handbuilt by a small family led team, so you'll have to wait a while; it's 8-10 weeks to build and deliver. But if you've the patience, you might be rewarded by a genuine built for life boot.


Gently worn in Katahdins. Photo: Pinterest.

Gently worn in Katahdins. Photo: Pinterest.

Chippewa

With a heritage going back to 1901, Chippewa’s have begun to escalate in popularity over the last ten or so years. Priced just above the Thorogoods, their range represents another great value option for some hardcore durability with a slightly different styling. Do check out Chippewa’s site proper for their full range – but we’re showcasing the LL Bean Katahdin below.

These beauties are actually built by Chippewa and outsourced. It’s the perfect combination; the quality and look of a heritage American bootmaker with the legendary customer service of LL Bean.


White's

If you're prepared to stump up a bit more cash for something to last you as long as any shoe reasonably can, White's USA-made boots are as solid as they come. You can find ready-to-order versions if you're not fussed on the fit, but we especially recommend taking advantage of their custom builds. It's an investment without a doubt. It's up to you to judge if you're going to get the use out of them, but for heavy wearers these beauts are unmatched.


You get what you pay for with Viberg. Photo: Pinterest

You get what you pay for with Viberg. Photo: Pinterest

Viberg

Tracing back their lineage to the Normandy landings of the Second World War, these Victorian made boots are an unmissable entry from Canada onto this list. The look has been updated, and they now find themselves at the apex of both style and durability. This updated brown leather pair is detailed with neat cap-toes and has Goodyear-welted rubber soles, which are famed for their superb traction, even on wet surfaces. Not for everybody – but if you’re looking to spend £600 on a stylish and hard-wearing boot, this is the one to go for.


The Vegan Options

It’s unfortunate that leather is the ultimate shoe material when it comes to durability. In the new year we’ll be publishing an in depth piece discussing the environmental impact of leather, and the clash of ethics that occasionally emerges when buying for life.

These options don’t hit the built-for-life heights of the aforementioned leather models (although we’d definitely still place them above Timberland). But they smash it out of the park on environmental credentials and business ethics.

Dr Martens vegan 1460 Boot. Photo: Pinterest

Dr Martens vegan 1460 Boot. Photo: Pinterest

DR MARTENS 1460 FOR LIFE

No lifetime guarantee here but these are as heavy duty as Vegan boots come. A BuyMeOnce brand with a great ethical offering, this unisex 1460 is a perfect addition to a conscientious chic wardrobe.

Wills Vegan Work Boot

Wills Vegan Work Boot

WILLS VEGAN SHOES WORK BOOT

British boot maker Wills Vegan Shoes have come up with this stunning faux-leather, water resistant boot. Unbeatable on looks, all reports we’ve heard suggest they’ll go the distance. At just £77 it's  an attractive price too - just be sure to look after them carefully to maximise that value.

Bourgeois Boheme Shaun Black

Bourgeois Boheme Shaun Black

BOURGEOIS BOHEME

Coming in a little more on the expensive side, Bourgeois Boheme offers a great alternative for a brogue, performing best in the city rather than every and anywhere. With split toe seam detailing, their Black Shaun is comfortable and waterproof. This vegetarian shoe is made of 100% animal-free materials and ethically produced in Portugal.