In 2016, I saw Kylie Jenner wear a pair of Checkerboard Classic Slip-on Vans, so I went out and bought a pair of Checkerboard Classic Slip-on Vans. And this, ladies and gentlemen, was the death of the brand in the skater community (kidding, but let’s investigate).
Skaters, as a global sub-culture, possess a set of values that make up a key ideology within the community. Creativity, humbleness, fun and loyalty are the most important things to them, so how do they feel when millionaire shoe dogs like Phil Knight and Herbert Hainer capitalise on their activity? Well, nothing quite compares to how they feel about the shift in the Vans’ corporation.
Once an understated little shack in Southern Cali, the Vans corporation now turns over billions of dollars courtesy of its shift from ‘grunger’ skater brand to fashion powerhouse. Thanks to A-listers like Kylie Jenner, A$AP Rocky and Bella Hadid (a very different listing to the old school line-up of Bam Margera, Tony Hawk and Dave Grohl) the brand’s monochrome Old Skool silhouette sits in the shoedrobe of school girls, city bankers and everyone in between – most of whom have never stepped on a skateboard in their life.
This poses the question, is Vans still a skater brand? Or have they sold their soul to the devil for a hefty price?
With modest origins and cult appeal, Vans launched its very first design in 1966. Using revolutionary techniques, Vans sneakers had unbeatable grip, unrivalled attitude and a following that was loyal to the bone. As demand grew among the skater community, the brand asked skaters to share what they thought would give them the best ride. And so, the classic Slip-on silhouette was born. Easy to get on and off and durable enough to take fall after fall, the slip-on became as essential as baggy jeans and Thrasher tees.
Continuously evolving their designs to meet the needs of skaters, in 1978 Vans released a high-top silhouette that was padded to shield the ankle bones from flying boards. Now durable, protective and edgy enough to p*ss off parents, Vans had perfected the design of their sneakers but was yet to receive global recognition. Cue… Hollywood.
In 1982, Vans’ Checkerboard Slip-on silhouette became an overnight sensation thanks to Sean Penn’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Penn’s grunge-esque character – Sean Piccoli – was rarely seen in the film without his beloved pair of slip-ons and thanks to their difficult-to-miss pattern, Vans became a mascot for skaters worldwide.
The turning point for the brand came in 2004 when, in celebration of design, Vans launched their Customs programme which allowed budding fashion designers to create their own classic slip ons. The following year, the brand teamed up with Marc Jacobs and Karl Lagerfeld for high-end collections which secured the brand’s place in the fashion industry.
Over the next 15 years, Vans were not only spotted on the red carpet and donned on the front row of fashion week, but in 2016 when Kylie Jenner stepped out in her very own pair of Checkerboard Slip-on Vans their profits skyrocketed and the power of the fashion community became evident.
Although Vans shifted its priorities and started to focus on marketing to a different audience, they never fully left the skater community behind. To this day, the brand still sponsors skating events, supports up-and-coming talent and explores new ways to give the customer the best grip for their board. A lesson in entrepreneurship, the brand increased its profit from $330 million a year to $2.3 billion by making smart decisions and inviting everyone to be a part of the skater community. Although this perhaps isn’t what the community wanted, 2019 is the year of inclusivity, right?
In the view of the skaters, the brand that they had built from the bottom up, represented in their careers and welcomed into their community had left them behind. To them, your pair of Classic Slip-ons aren’t meant to be kept squeaky clean. They’re supposed to be battered, bruised and torn until they’re a love-worn pair of smelly old shoes that could tell a thousand stories. But in the midst of throwing their toys out of the pram, they seem to have forgotten everything the brand has done for them. Vans put skating on the mainstage and helped turn it into the global phenomenon it is today. It staged events, provided skate parks and invited the community to be a part of the creative process of the sneakers.
All built by a specific sub-culture, Vans sits alongside Supreme, Thrasher and Palace as a brand that’s been ditched by the skater community and adopted by the fashion industry. Because of the evolution of streetwear and the never-ending athleisurewear trend, people are opting for comfy clothes and welcoming all sportswear from Nike and adidas to Fila and Converse into their wardrobe. Are Nike’s loyal runners and Converse’s basketball players kicking up a fuss and making ‘cultural appropriation’ claims? No. The skater community appears to be the only group adding resistance to its favourite brand’s success. Possessive over the brand and hateful towards non-skaters who represent it, they’re redefining the sub-culture and giving it a snobby reputation.
Whether you believe that Vans should do more for the community that put it on the map or you think skaters should be more welcoming to other’s who want to don the brand’s sneakers, one thing’s for sure: the Old Skool classics and brand collaborations aren’t going anywhere any time soon.