You’d be hard-pressed to rival the good vibes of a brand like Vans. It’s beloved of skaters, surfers, musicians of every stripe, and, yes, fashion. Vans is a heritage line that’s not overly precious about its considerable contributions to the zeitgeist. For 20 years the company has sponsored the sizable Warped Tour, regularly hosted skate clinics, and, indeed, even opened an impressive free public skate park in Huntington Beach, California. So: Is all that goodwill the result of so many years in business—or the special sauce behind its longevity?
Today, with the world’s most iconic skate shoe poised to celebrate its 50th anniversary, it’s hard to say—and maybe not necessary. What’s more germane is the long, rich path that has brought Vans here, from the company’s genesis to fame as the de facto footwear of the seminal Zephyr skate team and legendary Z-Boys like Stacy Peralta and Tony Alva—an inadvertent development that fast evolved into an integral part of the Vans DNA.
Recalls Steve Van Doren, whose father, Paul, and uncle, James, founded the company in 1966, and who has worked for the family business since its inception: “We were just trying to sell shoes, and on the East Coast—[our family] is from Boston—it’s sneakers. We’re trying to get anybody to know what our brand is, and all of a sudden these skaters are liking our shoes, and we started giving some away up in our Santa Monica store, the Muscle Beach area, and the word spreads: ‘Hey, we’re getting some free shoes at Vans!’ Tony Alva would come in, and if they wore down one shoe, we’d sell them [a single shoe]. At that time we were selling them for $6, and they could get the left foot for $3.”
Among the many varied and starry cameos since: D.C. hard-core legend Ian MacKaye sported Old Skools on the cover of Minor Threat’s Salad Days; The Pack recorded a breakout ode to the line (“We be sportin’ Vans and we throw away Nikes”); and most famously, Sean Penn’s slacker Jeff Spicoli wore the checkerboard slip-on in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. That pre–product placement appearance spurred a swift uptick in Vans sales, as teenagers everywhere scrambled to snag a pair.
Then there are the myriad collaborations: Murakami, Liberty, Supreme, Gosha Rubchinskiy, Kenzo, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Winnie the Pooh, Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Bad Brains. Vans weathered bankruptcy in the 1980s, but even as subcultures like skate and punk were subsumed by the mainstream, the relevance of the classic waffle-soled canvas shoe has never waned.
Ahead of the festivities, he headed into his archives and picked out 50 of his favorite pairs of all time, some of them well worn and well loved. Quoth Van Doren: “If I were a saver, I’d have all these [in] pristine boxes, but I like to wear them.” Amen.