Vans have gone from being an underground cult shoe company to one of the most omnipresent sights on Britain’s streets, their sneakers instantly recognisable. Whether sporting the signature side stripe, playing with their two-tone colour combinations or their checkerboard slip on styles, their funky style is unmistakeable. But how did Vans conquer Britain’s high streets, and, indeed, the world’s?
The story begins back in 1966, when brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren opened their shoe shop in Anaheim, California. The Van Doren Rubber Company was unique in that it manufactured the shoes on premises and sold them directly to the public.
On the first morning, 12 customers purchased shoes, which were made that day and were ready for pick-up in the afternoon. So unprepared were the brothers that they didn’t have any cash reserves, and asked the customers to return the next day to pay – which twelve satisfied customers were happy to do.
From these humbled beginnings, Vans would attain success with the skateboarding boom of the 1970s, as their rugged makeup and sticky rubber soles were a hit with skateboarders. As a drought hit California and drained swimming pools became makeshift skate parks, two of the top skateboarders, Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta of the legendary Z-Boys crew would design the Vans #95, now known as the Era, which with its distinctive two-tone design is still instantly recognisable and in production today.
In 1977, the Vans #36, popularly known as the Old Skool, would debut with the iconic Vans Sidestripe. Their first skate shoe to incorporate leather panels for increased durability, it would become most famous for its visual design. This was born from a random doodle by Paul Van Doren, originally referred to as the “jazz stripe”, and would go on to become the instantly recognisable signifier of the Vans brand.
The following year, another one of the brand’s most-loved designs would emerge – the checkerboard slipon that would rule Southern California in the late 70s, and has been prominently sported by the likes of Kristen Stewart more recently.
Vans final old skool classic was the Sk8-Hi, introduced in 1978 as “Style 38. The Sk8-Hi revolutionised skate shoes by taking them to the next level – in this case, above the ankle – where skateboarders took the most damage. The Sk8-Hi not only shielded bones but also looked very cool.
Vans would become the premium choice of a generation of skateboarders, one of whom Steve Caballero, would inspire a new design – the half cab. Vans Steve Caballero were the first signature skate shoe ever designed – however, street skaters would customise them by cutting off the collar to make them lighter and faster, a design the company would recreate in 1992.
Since then, Vans has gone from strength to strength, gaining mainstream recognition through their sponsorship of the Vans Warped Tour, and the Triple Crowns Series. Since then, they’ve worked with fashion designers like Marc Jacobs and rappers like the Odd Future crew, and the popularity sees no sign of stopping. As I write, a pair of Old Skool trainers with the colour of Scottish cult drink Irn Bru’s branding are exploding on social media.