2016 sees Vans turn 50 years old! Just by writing the words ‘waffle sole’, ‘checkerboard’ and ‘Off The Wall’, it’s evident just how iconic this brand has become. But where did it all start and what does that logo mean? We track Vans through the decades to find out how this brand has transitioned from a functional shoe that found fans in the subculture sphere to a global brand who dominated the mainstream…
Choose your decade:
1960s – 1970s – 1977 ‘The Jazz Stripe’ – 1980s – 1990s – 2000s – 2016
California, March 16, 1966, and a man named Paul Van Doren launches Vans with his brother James Van Doren in a small shoe factory in Anaheim. Casually done, little did the Dorens know the impact that Vans would have on surfing, the skateboarding scene and beyond. Fast forward to today and the Vans logo is instantly recognisable, reflecting the trustworthiness and reliability of its products.
So, which shoe did they launch first? None other than the Vans #44 (now known as the Authentic shoe).
From left to right: Vans Surf Authentic Shoes, Vans Authentic Shoes (Tie Dye)
The Skateboard Scene
‘Man, you just went off the wall!’ – Skip Engblom, Zephyr Competition Team Founder.
The classic ‘Off the Wall’ logo is instantly associated with the Vans brand, but few non-skaters actually know where it originates from. Van Doren states that it’s from the skateboarders of the 1970s and their mission to ride empty pools. Although never officially confirmed, the myth is that it was actually said by Skip Engblom, founder of the Zephyr Competition Team that included Jay Adams, Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta – all who became known as the Z-Boys of course. Seeing that Tony Alva had gone airborne over the pool’s edge with his skateboard, Skip allegedly said, ‘Man, you just went off the wall!’ And so, Vans’ first official skateboarding shoes were released on March 18th, 1976, with the ‘Off the Wall’ logo making its debut, firmly stamped into the heels of each shoe.
Still from Lords of Dogtown, the Hollywood adaptation of Dogtown and Z-Boys
The ‘Off the Wall’ logo differentiates which styles are skate-specific. With legendary skaters like Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta wanting custom shoes, the pair collaborated with Vans and added padded backs and an outside heel counter to The Vans #95, (now known to you and me as ‘The Era‘). This ensured that when the board flew off the pool and back into their ankles, they were better protected.
Because of the great Vans ‘Waffle’ tread, supportive ankle cushions and rider-specific designs, skateboarders became loyal to the brand – and Stacy Peralta and Tony Alva became their first sponsored skaters.
From left to right: Vans Era Shoes, Vans Era 59 Trainers
‘Off the Wall is a state of mind. Thinking differently. Embracing creative self-expression, choosing your own line on your board and in your life” – Vans.com
The ‘Off the Wall’ logo now reflects the Vans image of being different and the desire to not conform to the mainstream, stick to creative boundaries, nor be stuck to any ‘fixed’, and restrictive wall.
The ‘Jazz Stripe’
And how about their infamous side strip along their shoes? It was actually created by Van Doren but developed by a design student at Portland State University in 1971. Originally called the ‘jazz stripe’, Van Doren’s doodle was attached to Vans #36 (the Old Skool) and the Sk8-Hi in 1978 (Style 38). The Sk8-Hi saw a whole new look brought to the park, protecting bones from skateboards catapulted at them.
The Old Skool…
From left to right: Vans Old Skool Shoes (Acid Denim), Vans Old Skool Shoes
From left to right: Vans Sk8-Hi Reissue Shoes (Twill & Gingham), Vans Sk8-Hi Reissue Shoes
Stills from Fast Times at Ridgemont High
The Vans Checkerboard is also infamous. Born in the 1970s Californian skate culture, it is now adopted by everyone around the globe, from rock stars to art students. The classic slip-on style first came to attention in the Sean Penn film ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’, (1982) after Penn told producers that he needed to wear them. Instantly, the shoes became wanted and worn worldwide, and today, the slip-on design shows no sign of going out of style any time soon.
From left to right: Vans Classic Slip-On Shoes, Vans Classic Slip-On Shoes (White Checker)
By creating shoes in any colour, pattern, shape and style imaginable, Van Doren and his team rooted themselves firmly in place as the go-to source for anything from laid-back surf-style to reliable and hard-wearing skate shoes. Yet, Vans had to file for bankruptcy in 1984 after sitting on product that, surprisingly, no one wanted… However, it wasn’t long before even bigger things came a’ knockin’.
Paul Van Doren and his partners retired when venture investment firm McCown De Leeuw & Co. bought the company in 1998 and took the brand public in 1991. Throughout the 90s, it was impossible to ignore the stamp of Vans’ presence in not only skateboarding happenings but also their wider involvement in the music scene when they launched the Vans Warped Tour in 1995.
Not one to be limited to just skateboarding and music, Vans introduced the Vans Snowboard Boot line in the 1990s.
By 2004, Vans had grown as a company to $300 million dollars from $60 million. They were also sold to VF Corp who guaranteed Vans executives that the brand would continue to operate on its own. The goal? To take Vans global!
Instead of just producing shoes, Vans moved to the ‘four pillars’: art, music, action sports and street culture. Within no time at all, Vans could be found in action sports and via association with athletes, musicians and worldwide events. As a brand, they extended outwards to the realms of snow sports, surfing, wakeboarding, freestyle motocross and BMX. They also embraced their Californian surfing roots by hosting the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing in Hawaii and the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach.
They also found a successful expansion through collaborations….
Collabs and going viral
Today, Vans sees itself collaborating with the likes of Disney and Star Wars in order to update and enhance the classic formula, but never lose their true roots. They also moved onto experiences, opening House of Vans in New York and London. Plus, who could have missed that 30-second video with a white pair of Vans that went viral? If the last 50 years have shown us anything, it’s that Vans are not only a retailer but a nationally-recognised brand that has successfully solidified itself in the worlds of streetwear, skateboarding and beyond.
And so, the Vans logo represents not only their affiliation with the skating world but also represents a unique style, culture and passion. This is a brand that crosses generations as well as genres, whether that is through cruising on a skateboard in 1977 to simply stepping out onto today’s streets in style. Since its birth in 1966, Vans has inspired skateboarders, snowboarders, musicians, artists and anyone who has that creative ‘jazz stripe’ streak.
Whatever pair of shoes or raglan tee you reach for, the Vans logo reflects a desire to live for the moment, to think outside the box and to live life a little on the edge, but always off the wall.
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