When Vans cofounder Paul Van Doren died last week at age 90, one particular shoe — a slip-on sneaker with a waffle-bottom sole and a black-and-white-checkerboard canvas upper — took centerstage.
This is understandable; it’s the shoe that almost singlehandedly — make that singlefootedly — set the company on its way to becoming a multibillion-dollar action sports brand and it’s as instantly identifiable as a piece of branding as Nike’s swoosh is. It also does a disservice to the handful of silhouettes, and countless pop-culture collaborations in the last 55 years, that have earned the Costa Mesa-based, VF-owned brand a place in the hearts and shoe closets of millions of fans around the globe.
In homage to Van Doren and the company he cofounded, here’s a look at some of the brand’s most iconic styles and a roundup of some of its standout collaborations with the world of music, art and fashion.
The lace-up deck shoe that started it all: The Authentic (aka Style 44), with a canvas upper, is the first style put into production by the Van Doren Rubber Co. in 1966. The rest, as they say, is history.
After being embraced by SoCal skate culture, Vans tapped two of its standout stars — Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta — to help create the first shoe designed by skateboarders for skateboarders. Style 95, which dates to 1976, is a low-top skate shoe with a padded collar. It was originally offered with a variety of two-tone canvas uppers.
Added to the lineup in 1977 as Style 36, this shoe marks two firsts: It was the brand’s first skate shoe to incorporate leather panels as a way of improving durability, and it was the first style to bear the wavy sidestripe design (dubbed the jazz stripe), which began life as a random doodle drawn by Van Doren.
A slip-on introduced in 1977 as Style 98; a black-and-white checkerboard version appeared in the 1982 movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” as part of surfer/stoner Jeff Spicoli’s wardrobe (actor Sean Penn wore his own pair), and that changed everything. “‘Fast Times’ definitely put us on the map,” Van Doren’s son Steve told The Times in a 2016 interview. “We were about a $20-million company before the movie came out, and we were on track for $40 million to $45 million after that.”
Introduced in 1978 and originally known as Style 38, the Sk8-Hi was notable for continuing to use the sidestripe detail introduced the year before with the Old Skool and for its high-top silhouette, which added a layer of protection to the ankles of skate park-shredding athletes.
Vans shoes, especially the Classic Slip-On with its uncluttered vamp, are often treated as a canvas for expression. Therefore, it makes sense that artist and museum collaborations have been part of the mix.
Over the years, Vans has made it possible to step out with feet wrapped in artwork by underground comix pioneer R. Crumb (2009), Takashi Murakami (2015), Frida Kahlo (2019) and ink-splattering gonzo illustrator Ralph Steadman (2019). Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum got in on the action for a 2018 apparel, footwear and accessories collection that featured imagery plucked from a handful of the Dutch artist’s paintings such as “Skull,” “Sunflowers” and “Almond Blossom.” Another museum, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, jumped on the collab train too for a Vans X MoMA capsule collection (2020) that features the work of Edvard Munch, Jackson Pollock, Lyubov Popova and Faith Ringgold, among others.
Vans’ close ties with music community is thanks in part to the brand’s quarter century-long sponsorship of the Vans Warped Tour annual concert series, and its partnerships with musical acts over the years have spawned collaborative kicks with a who’s who of the recording industry including Judas Priest, Slayer, Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Tyler the Creator, Pearl Jam, Kiss and David Bowie. However, the bands don’t get much bigger than the Beatles, and a 2014 collection — timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four’s first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and using trippy imagery from “Yellow Submarine” — marks a highwater mark for the company’s musical partnerships. (And it may finally answer the decades-old question of why Paul McCartney was barefoot on the cover of “Abbey Road.” He was holding out for a pair of these shoes.)
Although Vans and New York-based streetwear brand Supreme are known for their serial collaborations (including several together), a 1996 collaborative Old Skool shoe — complete with the rectangular red and white Supreme box logo on a tab between the sidestripe and the eyestay — marks the very first partnership between the two. It turns out that the mashup wasn’t just cool but prescient as well; in late 2020, VF purchased Supreme for $2.1 billion, making both brands part of the same corporate family.
Other high-profile, covet-worthy fashion-brand collaborative kicks have come courtesy of London-based Liberty Fabrics, Pendleton Woolen Mills, Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, British heritage brand Barbour, Jerry Lorenzo’s L.A.-based Fear of God label, and multiple partnerships over the years with Opening Ceremony and Comme des Garçons — the latter of which included a mind-boggling, four-way collaboration with Parisian boutique Colette and Belgian fashion designer Raf Simons.
TV, film and video games
If it’s appeared on a screen — movie, TV or video-game console — it’s probably appeared on a pair of Vans at some point (or will in the not-too-distant future). The Peanuts gang has popped up on pairs (2014), as have Disney characters (2015) and Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants (in 2018; a second collection is set to drop next month). A 2016 collaboration with Nintendo mined the Japanese video-game maker’s early ‘80s catalog to create Donkey Kong kicks, Duck Hunt socks and tie-dyed backpacks and trucker caps depicting a mushroom-pouncing Mario.
A tie-in to “The Simpsons Movie” (2007) resulted in three-way collabs with graffiti artists Stash and Neckface, tattoo artist Mr. Cartoon and Gary Panter (known for his Emmy-winning set design work for “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”) serving up their versions of America’s favorite four-fingered family and their friends. A 2019 Harry Potter collection (themed around the houses of Hogwarts) was so popular out of the gate that it took nothing short of a magic wand to score a piece before the whole thing sold out.
Our hands-down favorite pop-culture pairing, though, was the first of several collaborative collections with the “Star Wars” film franchise. Dropping in June 2014, it featured half a dozen shoe styles ranging from the straightforward (slip-ons emblazoned with imagery from the original film’s 1977 movie poster) to unexpectedly delightful riffs on Vans’ heritage prints, including bandanna prints tweaked to include Stormtrooper helmets and a Hawaiian floral motif dubbed “Yoda Aloha” that featured the pointy-eared green one cavorting among the flowers.
Not all of Vans’ cool collabs have been with internationally known brands, bands or pop-culture properties. Over the years, the company has partnered with smaller, sometimes under-the-radar SoCal companies to create limited-edition collections.