Let’s break down some of the brands that have been adopted by law-breaking subcultures and the influence that these tastemakers have had on the wider world of music and fashion.
No matter how much they set prices and create distribution channels to attract a certain type of customer, at the end of the day brands cannot control who will buy their product. While they will often court musicians, artists and celebrities in order to improve their public perception, very few companies wish to be associated with criminals. However, given that so many musical subcultures are ingrained with anti-establishment feelings, from cop killing gangster rappers to church-burning black metal bands and riot inciting punks, it is unsurprising that in the past many have looked to glamorous outlaws for style tips. One only needs to look at the plethora of Mafioso-styled rappers or Snoop Dogg’s pimp outfits to see the impact criminals have made on style and fashion.
While the 6” wheat boot will forever be associated with the early '90s hip-hop scene, it wasn't always this way. Timberland have prided themselves on designing rugged, waterproof footwear for workers and laborers since 1918. However, in the late '80s Timbs became popular amongst New York’s hustlers and drug dealers as they were tough, waterproof and the chunky sole meant you could climb over barbed wire and broken glass-topped walls with ease. The city’s nascent hip-hop scene took notice and soon enough the 6” work boots were seen on the feet of every rapper and DJ around. Timberland, who thought their credibility as a workwear brand would be ruined, pulled their product from all inner-city retailers, which only served to increase hype as New Yorkers would go on pilgrimage to obscure towns in order to get their fix.
Polo Ralph Lauren
Polo has been an aspirational brand since day one. As the son of impoverished Polish immigrants, Ralph Lifshitz couldn’t afford the life of luxury that he dreamed of, but the clothing he designed represented his hopes of one day ascending to upper class prep. This message also resonated with New York’s impoverished black community and Polo has been a staple of hip-hop style ever since. As Raekwon put it, “if you was getting your money, or you was a criminal, or you was a notorious thug in the hood, you definitely had, you some Polo pieces,” while hip-hop journalist Dallas Penn describes Polo as “the most hip-hop brand of all time...the brand embodies aspiration, and hip hop at its core is about aspiration." The Lo-Life crew from the city’s projects would become legendary for not only dressing in head to toe Polo, but for terrorizing the streets and proudly wearing clothes they had robbed as a show of bravado.
Stone Island is so adored by the hooligans of England’s football culture that it is usually just referred to as "Stoney." While the high-end Italian menswear line prides itself on technical innovation, in the UK it is more commonly associated with match day fights and riots than thermo-sensitive fabrics. When "firms" (the hardcore section of a football club’s supporters) followed their teams to European matches in the 1980s, they were exposed to sportswear labels which they often stole from high-end foreign boutiques. While Fila, Lacoste and Sergio Tacchini were popular, it was Stone Island which received legendary status due to its high price tag and recognizable arm patch. This association has crossed over to the UK’s drug dealers as well, who love to splash their cash on something that is expensive but doesn't draw too much attention.
Clarks’ desert boots have been a favorite amongst Jamaica's gangsters since they were first introduced in the 1940s. Rude boys loved them because they were imported, expensive and made your footsteps quiet – “They’re so silent when you a walk – cheese bottom dem call it." The timeless suede boots became so associated with criminals that people risked being beaten by police just for wearing a pair. As ever, Jamaica’s musicians took influence from their rude boy peers and Clarks has been referenced in countless Jamaican dancehall and pop tracks ever since. Similarly to Timberland, Clarks never sought to attract this audience, showing once again no matter how hard they try, brands simply cannot control who buys their product.
While Doc Martens were originally worn by factory workers, when The Who’s Pete Townshend began wearing them in 1966 they were catapulted into the world of fashion, and by the 1970s the air-cushioned leather boots were the height of style. While DMs were popular with subcultures from mods to punks to goths, it was the emerging skinhead movement that Doc Martens became so infamously associated with. The hardwearing boots symbolized the movement’s working class origins and the steel-toed variety were particularly useful in fights – many skins cut off the leather at the front to reveal the metal toes and took pride in keeping them blood stained. Ironically, the boots became so popular that soon the policemen who skinheads were clashing with would be wearing them.
Ultimately, these associations with criminals, outlaws and thugs are just one part of the picture. Try as they might to tell the story as they see it, brands mean different things to different people. Timberland boots are seen everywhere from street style galleries to construction sites; Ralph's Polo shirts are the height of prep when worn by upper class Ivy Leaguers; Stone Island is renowned for its cutting-edge approach to garment manufacturing and Doc Martens are worn by everyone from teenage hipsters to middle-aged mods. What makes the world of branded fashion so exciting is how these companies' products and messages get interpreted in such different ways by different people the world over.