How Skaters, Surfers and Punks Turned a Blank Canvas into a 50-Year-Old Footwear Icon

Not many things in fashion get better with age, let alone with good ol' wear and tear. But Vans, the sneaker brand known for its chameleon canvas material and waffled soles, is beloved for that very quality.

"A Vans shoe can be dirty and [still] be cool, and I think that's different from other iconic brands," Jürgen Blümlein, founder and curator of the Skateboardmuseum in Berlin, said in a Skype interview. "There's a story that comes with a shoe."

From its inception in March 1966, Vans has helped a variety of subcultures find and tell their stories. Its timeless design is a celebration of grit, authenticity and individuality, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator for the Bata Shoe Museum and "The Rise of Sneaker Culture," a 2015 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. "They speak to youth, to freedom, to speed — to a forward movement that is propelled by one's own efforts," Semmelhack said via email.

In the past 50 years, Vans has transcended functionality and transformed into a "brand community," according to Gary A. Fine, professor of sociology at Northwestern University. "The products come to have a particular cultural meaning," Fine said in a phone interview. "It's a form of identification."

Professional skateboarder Stacy Peralta shreds on his board in pair of Vans. Bones Bearings/Facebook

Sole meets board: Vans' success comes from being at the right place at the right time. Hailing from Boston, Paul Van Doren left his job at a shoe manufacturer and headed west to perform his own manifest destiny. He opened up his company in Anaheim, California, with his brother Jim Van Doren and friend Gordon Lee. A savvy businessman, Van Doren decided to cut out the middleman by both manufacturing and retailing the shoes.

Vans shoes were originally designed as boat shoes made specifically for the sun-and-surf lifestyle of beachy California. Their vulcanized leather soles had a no-slip grip so that people could safely maneuver wet boat decks.

The transformative moment occurred when a woman asked for brighter and lighter shades of yellow and pink. Instead of investing in multiple colors, Van Doren told her he would make shoes with whatever fabric she, or anyone else, brought in. Thus, Vans took its first steps to the forefront of customization.

Sk8-Hi shoes.Mic/Nordstrom

Serendipitously, skateboarding was on the rise in nearby Santa Monica and Venice Beach. It didn't take long for skaters to notice how well the Vans sole gripped their boards — and Vans responded to the demand. Inspired by skate pioneers Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta, Vans created a shoe specifically for skating. Aptly called the Sk8-Hi, the shoe had tall, padded sides to protect skaters' ankles. Peralta would also become the first skater sponsored by Vans. Throughout the '70s, the Vans brand dominated skateboarding magazines, contests and skateparks.

"Skateboarding is a sport that made its own shoes — [skateboarders] saw what they liked in Vans and Vans responded to their needs," Semmelhack said. "Skateboarding, by its nature, is an individual pursuit — body and board — it makes sense that making one's mark, literally, on a pair of Vans was part of the brand's history."

This affinity between skater and shoe spanned far beyond California's borders. Blümlein recalled how in Europe in the 1980s, rocking Vans was an identity statement: "You could approach [someone] and say, 'Hey, you wear Vans! Are you into skateboarding?'"

Sean Penn's character Jeff Spicoli helped make Vans' checkerboard print become iconic.Giphy

Hey, Bud, let's party! Vans had its pop-culture breakout moment in 1982, with the cult classic film Fast Times at Ridgemont High and its shaggy-haired stoner hero, Jeff Spicoli. Played by a young Sean Penn, Spicoli is the quintessential SoCal surfer — right down to the black-and-white-checkered Vans slip-ons, inspired by real Californian kids drawing checkerboard patterns on the rubber sides of the shoe. 

After the movie's release, millions of people went out to purchase the checkerboard Vans, Van Doren's son Steve Van Doren told Sneaker Freaker. Vans had hit the mainstream.

Classic Vans slip-on shoe.Mic/Nordstrom

Despite being popular on land, Vans has stayed true to its aquatic roots by attaching its name to some of the biggest surfing competitions of today. In 1997, Vans purchased the Triple Crown of Surfing, one of the biggest surfing contests in the world. Just three years ago in 2013, Vans became the title sponsor of Huntington Beach, California's U.S. Open of Surfing.

The reach of the Vans brand grew beyond skateboarding when Kevin Lyman of 4fini Productions approached Van Doren about sponsoring a punk music festival. Since a lot of skaters were also in rock bands, there was a natural overlap. Soon enough, Vans and its grungy durability became a fixture in the music scene. In 1995, the rowdy Vans Warped Tour was born. Today, it lives on as the longest-living touring music festival in the United States, according to Billboard, and wraps its 2016 outing on Aug. 13 in Portland, Oregon. 

Vans apparel. Mic/Nordstrom

Rock wasn't the only musical genre to embrace Vans. 

"The skateboard culture started loving rap music," rapper Nipsey Hussle said in an interview with Vibe magazine. "The two worlds ended up in the same space." Skaters who were also involved with hip-hop, such as Tyler the Creator and his Odd Future crew, helped introduce Vans to the scene. Soon enough, rappers like Kanye West, Tyga and Kendrick Lamar were sporting Vans on and offstage.

While these big influencers helped to sustain Vans' mainstream appeal, its simple design and silhouette has enabled it to be revamped, recolored and refreshed over the years.

"Sometimes success is achieved by not changing with every shift in fashion," Semmelbeck said, citing Vans' "if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it kind of vibe" as the secret to a longevity she doesn't expect to fade anytime soon.

Olivia Kim's limited-edition collection for Vans. Mic/Nordstrom

Asked what she would consider to be the peak moment in Vans history, Semmelbeck said: "Have we hit that yet?"

Blümlein echoed that faith in a future with Vans. "The whole lifestyle will go on: the casual lifestyle, the sneaker lifestyle."