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Why Vans shoes are fashion for the everyman

Why Vans shoes are fashion for the everyman

Childhood family trips to Orlando for me meant three things: heart-racing rollercoasters, cacophonous food courts at outlet malls, and Vans.

I wasn’t a skater kid, and my only connection to the sport was hours spent on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, but every August my family would take an empty suitcase to the United States and bring it back stuffed with jeans, clothes and chunky skater shoes (strong pound-to-dollar ratio, how we miss thee). The shoes held a special allure for me: they were as American as apple pie, milkshakes and greasy hamburgers.

It’s hard – two decades or more on from my first pair – to piece together how my obsession with Vans started, but I know why it persists. The shoes are a comfort blanket, the equivalent of a slobby sweatshirt or a favourite pair of jeans. They fit in the middle ground between plain white trainers (too sporty, too difficult to keep clean) and formal shoes (too dressy, too boring). When I slip a foot into a size 9 Vans shoe I know it will fit snugly within, regardless of whether it’s an Era shoe or a slip-on. 

They’re the reason why, whichever city I’m in, I’ll step into a shoe store and browse their selection. I’ll stride past the New Balances and Nikes and hone in on the Vans. Like a heat-seeking missile, I can spot their curves from 100 yards. In one Montreal mall last year, I trooped around all the shoe shops in pursuit of a well-priced pair of dusty grey, suede Vans – and left a couple of careworn t-shirts behind in the Airbnb I was staying at to make room for them in my bag. When I met my family a few days later, their first question wasn’t “How was your trip?”. It was “Did you buy any Vans?”.

My fashion tastes have changed since my pre-teens (I’ll now happily wear a round-toed dress shoe with a suit and enjoy it) but unless the situation demands it, I’ll still default to a pair of Vans – one of around 30 pairs I’ve bought or been gifted in the years since my feet stopped growing. They’re no longer the giant moon boots of the early 2000s, but instead the light, close-cut silhouette of a board shoe. Slice through my heart and you’ll see the connective tissue marbled in the shape of the cresting Vans wave. 

I’m not alone. My uncle John, approaching his 70th birthday, is another Vans fan. Those operating the x-ray machines at airports when he travels back from my aunt’s family in Arkansas will see the instantly recognisable outline of a skate shoe if they care to pay attention. I imagine that when I’m his age, passing through customs on my way back from a holiday on some distant planet, they’ll spot the latest limited edition Vans x Neptune collaboration in my carry-on.

The reasons my uncle wears them are similar to my own. They’re comfortable lounge shoes: he wears them in place of slippers, since they’ve got sturdy enough soles that he doesn’t need to change out of them when one of his three sheepdogs wants a walk.

“Comfort is key to our daily attire and therefore the rise in trainer popularity has broadened, making Vans a multicultural and multigenerational shoe,” says Laura Arrowsmith of Birmingham City University’s fashion school. “People around the world are gravitating to functional workwear, mixing brands like Vans with their suits and high-end, trend-led pieces. 

“The footwear brand has been seen on the skate park to the red carpet, making Vans a versatile product catering to a breadth of consumers,” she adds. “The brand has proven the test of time for its longevity and therefore making a globally-renowned trusted retailer.” 

It wasn’t always this way. Paul Van Doren set up the company that would become Vans in 1966 as the Van Doren Rubber Company. While traditionally, shoe manufacturers would make their shoes, then ship them to retailers to sell on, Van Doren owned the shoe shop too. It was an ideal case of vertical integration, taking the entirety of the profits from every sale from the shoe.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. A dozen customers visited Van Doren’s shop in California on the first day of business – but there were no shoes to buy. A range of display models were visible in the shop, and customers had to order shoes to pick up later that day, after they had been produced at the nearby factory. When the customers came to pick up their shoes, they tried to pay with large denomination banknotes – and the shop had no change in their till. The customers got to take away the footwear, and were trusted to come back another day when they had the change.

Van Doren’s empire expanded across California, where skateboarding and surfing was leading the counterculture. By the 1980s, Vans was synonymous with skateboarding, and had built up massive brand loyalty within the community. However, there’s a ceiling to that group of customers. Skateboarding, even today, remains a niche pastime.

A cameo appearance on the feet of Sean Penn, who played troublemaker and layabout Jeff Spicoli in the 1982 movie Fast Times and Ridgemont High, thrust Vans into the spotlight. Wearing the low-rise slip-on checkerboard shoes was a decision made by Sean Penn, who thought it best encapsulated the character he was playing in the film.

And yet two years later, Vans declared bankruptcy, a victim of its own success. It diversified its product line too widely, draining resources, the company claims. The company cast off some of its poorer performing lines, and refocused its business – echoing the same on-demand model that it inadvertently was forced to follow on its opening day in 1966. Buyers would order their own custom shoes, and Vans would make them in America within a few days. Doing so allowed them to wipe the debt from their business and get back on a firmer footing.

The company was sold to McCown De Leeuw & Co in 1988, before it was bought by VF Corporation, which owns clothing brands like The North Face and Timberland, for $396 million in cash in 2004. It has since grown even further: on an earnings call in July, Steven Rendle, the chairman and CEO of VF Corporation, said that he expected it to be a $5 billion brand by 2023. According to the company, there are 8.5 million sneakerheads (called “waffleheads” in Vans fandom terminology) who are members of a company-run loyalty group called Vans Family, which launched in February 2018.

Chief among them, perhaps, is Henry Davies, a collector and archivist who answers the phone by saying, “Welcome to the cool side of the pillow”. He reckons he owns close to 1,000 pairs of the shoes – “or thereabouts” – scattered all over the world. He has displays across the globe, including in Vans’s own London flagship store. 

Davies’s collection is focused on the shoes the company made between its founding in the 1960s and 1998, when Vans moved its manufacturing base outside the United States. His obsession was formed when he watched a different film to Fast Times at Ridgemont High: the 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, which follows the rise of a 1970s skateboarding group. “That was the moment for me when I was like, ‘That’s fucking cool. I want that’.”

As Davies remembers it, the film was a massive advertisement for Vans, but he’s since rewatched it and realised there’s no overt product placement. “They were all wearing Vans, but they didn’t really talk about it in the documentary,” he says. “It’s there in the background. That’s a big part of it. If you’re interested in BMX or skateboarding or that culture, everyone – at least on the west coast of the US – was wearing Vans. It was incidental. It was just cool.”

Now, Davies travels the world picking up the rarest shoes, which he sometimes manages to snag in bulk. While he’s fondest about the early days of the brand, he still admires what it has become today. “It was the internet that made them massive,” he says. “It went from being this family-owned, mom and pop shop that’s come good, to selling the company.

“They first sold it in 1988 and that’s when the changes were made,” he explains. ”They ushered in expansion and diversified into fashion. That was a big one: targeting fashion markets, not just skating or BMX.”

The same thing that caused Vans to tumble into bankruptcy in the 1980s is what makes it so strong today. Now, they come in every colour and pattern you can imagine: Van Doren’s diverse dream made a reality, now that the company has more money than it knows what to do with.

Collaborations with the likes of Supreme, Disney and Karl Lagerfeld have been a massive part of expanding the Vans brand beyond its original southern California skate demographic, says Arrowsmith. “Streetwear exploding in popularity over the past two decades has also increased the brands popularity and demand for products.” The company even recently had a highly successful tie-in with David Bowie.

And yet it continues to keep its connection with its humble origins. “It still has the feeling of how it started. Just casual shoes, grassroots, which everyone identifies with and wants to support. It still has that vibe, partly because Steve van Doren is still involved,” he says. “I think he’s a big part of it – to help and retain the integrity and the authenticity of the early days. It’s very corporate, like any other giant, but it’s got more feeling and substance, and I think it’s partly due to him.”

It’s hard to escape, even if the shoes are now more likely to be made in China or Vietnam than they are in a bespoke factory in California, that there’s history there. Whenever I slip on a pair, aside from the comfort, I think of The Beach Boys, of sand and shining convertibles. Even if they’re produced on the other side of the world, they’re unabashed Americana, a symbol for something bigger.

In the same way that Russians donned Levi’s jeans, drank Coke and ate McDonald’s when the Iron Curtain fell, Vans are icon of America’s contribution to the world – a chance for escapism through fashion, and a way to place yourself in a different time and a different place. Vans represent the best of us: the most idyllic and relaxed of us, a countercultural icon that’s become mainstream.

Words: Chris Stokel-Walker
Illustration: Calum Heath