Let’s dive into a brand that needs no introductions. Vans has been around since 1966. Specializing in skateboarding shoes that became iconic and unified brand aficionados of all ages. Over the years, Vans has become synonymous with low-key California style, but at the heart of it all is self-expression and artistry that resonates with a variety of consumers.
This brief history of Vans shoes, includes how the brand got its start and how it became the iconic brand we know and wear today.
Who Founded Vans?
Vans was originally founded by two brothers, Paul Van Doren and James Van Doren, along with Gordon C. Lee. Their first store was located in Anaheim, California, & was called The Van Doren Rubber Company — where they manufactured and sold their own shoes directly to the public. Originally, they weren’t marketed as skateboarding shoes; they were just a comfortable canvas-topped shoe with a signature outsole that allowed for easy customization. This style would soon become known as The Authentic, and in the early days, customers could bring their old textiles in and have them recycled into a sneaker with the company’s signature outsole. (Talk about being ahead of the times).
The Authentic featured a rugged upper and a vulcanized outsole that gave skaters a suitable grip on their boards. It quickly became the shoe of choice for skaters — particularly the Zephyr Team from Venice Beach, California, also known as the Z-Boys, who helped shape the reckless and irreverent spirit of the brand.
The Z-Boys were the first to put Vans on the global map, and by 1976 Vans released their first signature skateboarding shoe called The Era. This model was donned by Z-Boys members Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta. This version was more padded and skater specific, and in the years that followed, Vans became a sponsor of both skateboarders and skateboarding events.
In the ’80s, Vans began creating a number of athletic shoes that started the brand’s trend toward collaboration. In 1996, they began a longstanding partnership with Supreme, and in 2003, it released Vault by Vans, which offered premium collaborations and footwear capsules that continue to this day. Each collaboration invented Vans classic styles with bold, graphic prints. Examples include a 2021 Supreme collaboration inspired by tribal tattoos and a four-piece collection with END. and Mastermind in a muted black and white color palette that celebrates minute styling.
Vans Logo History
The history of their logo dates back to the ’70s. The logo is a printed version of the word “Vans,” with a line hovering above the “ans” portion of the word. This iconic skateboarding shoe logo was originally created by co-president James Van Doren’s son, who designed the logo as a stencil that he wanted to spray paint onto his skateboard. This version has the iconic logo we know today but was a little more stylized with the text inside a skateboard silhouette. It also featured text that read “Off the Wall” — a reference to a popular skateboard trick.
Around the same time, the company decided that they wanted to shift their focus to skateboarding shoes and they began using the logo on the heel tab of their Style 95 shoe. The style and the logo are still synonymous with the brand today, although the logo has gone through several brand iterations.
How Did Vans Get Popular?
While the brand may have started off as a skateboarding shoe, it’s since become a popular shoe brand for an array of consumers.
Vans Sk8 Hi is introduced in 1978. Vans first became popular among skateboarders in California. Photo: Vans.com
Vans has been around for more than 50 years and originally saw a boom in popularity thanks to the Californian skateboarding team Z-Boys. Their popularity then exploded when the film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was released featuring their checkerboard slip-on.
However, in 1982, after a failed expansion into making athletic shoes for a variety of other sports drained the company’s resources, it needed to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Following those proceedings, they began to reconnect with what the brand was known for and what they did well — making a fashionable skateboarding shoe. By the time the company was up and running again, it was up against more tech-forward brands, but it quickly stood out as a no-frills shoe that could get the job done without a hefty price tag.
The brand also made advances in how they handle their business, including collaborating with a variety of brands like Supreme and Karl Lagerfeld. They’ve also released lines based on pop culture touchstones like Star Wars, Peanuts, and musical acts like Metallica and A Tribe Called Quest. These efforts have helped the brand reach new audiences.
Their popularity is due to more than just price & comfort. Vans’ connected to skating culture’s creativity and the idea of making something your own. They have actively been trying to play into the artistic parts of that identity with different initiatives, including sponsoring the skate-driven summer fest known as Vans Warped Tour, which was held annually between 1995 and 2018 and featured every genre of music.
In 2010, they also opened the House of Vans in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which functioned more as an event and community center for artists and skaters alike than a retail space. The facility offered everything from indoor half pipes to silk screening classes and open-mic nights. While the New York store closed in 2018, two more opened in Chicago and London, with pop-ups appearing all over the world.
The Vans Checkerboard Print
One of the brand’s most iconic sneakers is the checkerboard print slip-on that remains popular to this day. The design was born out of the brand’s original appeal as a skateboarding shoe. The print was originally conceived in the ’70s by Paul Van Doren’s son, Steve. Steve Van Doren noticed that skaters tended to color their canvas slip-ons in a checkerboard pattern, so Vans adopted the pattern, and the rest was history.
A Vans icon: the Classic Slip On, seen here in the Vans signature checkerboard print. Photo: Vans.com
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