Skate culture has always been counter-culture, against the mainstream, a phenomenon of authenticity. Of scoping out secret spots within your town and most likely getting chased away by an overweight security guard (well it always seemed to happen on Tony Hawks Pro Skater, right?)
One brand has managed to maintain its status, within an ever-evolving market, as one of the most prominent names in skate culture and this year they celebrate their 50th anniversary.
Vans is the product of two Californian brothers, Paul and James Van Doren, and friends Gordon Lee and Serge D’Elia. They opened their first store in Anaheim on March 16 1966 under the name, ‘The Van Doren Rubber Company’. The business originally sold deck shoes with rubber souls, meant to provide a firm grip underfoot for sailors on wet and slippery boat decks, but they quickly became popular with skaters for their grip and durability.
Since then the brand has evolved, changed, hit some low points (the Van Doren’s filed for bankruptcy in 1984), made an amazing comeback, and continued to thrive as one of, if not THE, most iconic skate brand of all time.
But how has a brand that is so prominent in a culture that rejects all things mainstream, been able to straddle the paradox of commercial and cultural success?
You don’t get ‘icon’ status without having a whole lotta history to back up your brand. In 1970s California, Vans sneakers were worn by the likes of Tony Alva and the rest of the Zephyr Team during one of the most quintessential periods of modern skateboard culture.
Other juggernauts within the skateboarding world such as Steve Caballero, Ray Barbee and Jeff Grosso have all worn Vans skate shoes over the years thus maintaining the brand’s place in the spotlight of skate culture.
In 1982, the classic checkerboard slip-ons gained international attention when they appeared on the feet of Sean Penn in the film, ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’. His character, Jeff Spicoli, was the epitome of a slacker, but also embodied the constant party lifestyle that was often the real life experience for ‘rebellious’ skateboarders and surfers of the time. Vans continued to thrive as a brand to be worn by those that rejected the mainstream.
Vans is a skate brand through and through. The shoes are purely manufactured to meet the needs of the skaters, from the rugged, vulcanised outsole of the sneaker to the iconic Sk8-Hi model which was designed to protect the ankles of skaters, these shoes are not merely produced to be aesthetically pleasing.
They sponsor skaters, contribute to skate films, open skate parks, create skate contests and have never once asked a celebrity to endorse their product. Instead, they choose to keep the focus on the most important element - the product itself, and they would rather use team riders or simply shoot the shoes themselves in advertising campaigns.
Huge Commercial Success
As previously mentioned, Vans is a brand that has been successful in the seemingly opposing realms of monetary success and the anti-commercialism of skateboard culture.
But Vans is a business, and a successful one at that (Vans Inc. surpassed the $2 billion-mark in sales last year for the first time, according to its parent, VF Corp. in Greensboro, N.C.)
More money means more income to spend on creating new products, events, competitions, quality films and many of the other avenues that the company has created. No money means bankruptcy. Simple as.
New Styles and Iconic Styles
Think of skate shoes circa 2002 and you’re probably conjuring up images of inhumanely chunky sneakers with thick laces, a padded tongue and a 3-inch sole. These shoes were relevant at the time, especially if partnered with baggy jeans and a Papa Roach hoodie, but fashion is a constantly evolving beast and many of the brands of that era have since been left behind because they refused to move on from this ‘moon boot’ phase of skate shoes.
Vans have their iconic models - the SK8-Hi, the Slip-On, the Lo-Pro - which will never lose their status as great skate shoes but Vans have sought to reimagine these models with fresh designs, colour combinations and new materials to keep them relevant. Their numerous collabs with other iconic brands such as Disney, Nintendo and most recently, Toy Story, have ensured that interest in the brand remains paramount.
A Constantly Evolving Brand
As mentioned before, Vans is primarily a skate brand. Over time, however, Vans has evolved into much more than simply skate shoes. The company has created a culture within itself of inclusion, creativity and exploration.
The House of Vans space epitomises such values acting as an epicentre for musicians, artists, filmmakers, skaters, political discussers, coffee drinkers, event organisers and whoever else bloody wants to join in to meet and thrive in an exciting environment.
The Warped Tour, Triple Crown Series, House of Vans, branching out into surf and snowboard goods, the vegan-friendly range of shoes, the quality film edits, the free skateparks etc are all testament to Vans’ ability to create its own sub-culture within a culture.
Happy Anniversary Vans - here’s to the next 50 Years!