A HISTORY OF VANS
A true authentics guide to Vans from the Era to the Half Cab
with East London based collector Henry Davies.
GH: What is it about Vans that attracted you to them in the first place?
HD: Part of it is that southern Californian thing, it just resonates everything that that time encapsulated; surf, skate, snow, bmx, everything about that. The sun, the beach. More than anything it’s the shoes, the quality, the shape and the integrity of the product.
GH: Tell us about the shape and that integrity, could you show us some?
HD: These were all vulcanized, all made by hand. Volcanisation is a method of bonding the rubber to the uppers. They cook the rubber in huge ovens and it creates this amazing bond, which creates like a tacky sticky rubber and an incredible bond between the upper and the sole. They still Vulcanize but the methods have changed a lot, the raw material has changed and so it's a different shoe, really. This is pure crepe rubber, whereas a lot of companies now add fillers which means it's a lot weaker and inflexible.
GH: And what about the shape?
HD: So the last that they used classically was slimmer, a bit more narrow with lots more tapering and a pointed toe. If you look at the shape of the sole and it’s the way the foot is shaped - back in the day if you had a problem cos they were too narrow you could get a custom fit. They've gone for one size fits all but by nature they've missed the curves. There's a bit of warping, I think they always came like that a little bit. I think it’s a by-product of the rubber compound, I like to think that the rubber has a life of its own, it's almost live. So it contracts and then when its warmed again when you wear them it’ll flatten out and really kind of shape to your foot... it’s a sign of quality. The one above is from '88 I think, and again was one of the first black options.
GH: Vans are no longer made in the USA. What do you define as the important factors of Vans being 'made in America'?
HD: So it's what we were talking about before, firstly the shape. It’s the look; it was very different, the pointed toe is really important, the instep for me defines the shoe. The old world volcanisaton, the quality of the product and of the materials. The canvas was much better and the suede was incredible. So it’s this hand made integrity that goes into it, and more than that it’s the family values that came with it when the company was still family owned by Van Doren, so it still had that small business mentality.
GH: When I look back to the vintage Vans, the designs are way more out there. I don’t know what the right word is...do you see a difference in the style of them now to what they were?
HD: Yeah, things were a lot more adventurous, people were more open minded. In the 80s there was this explosion and everything was big, hair was big, clothes were big, style was big, ideas were big, so the style was kind of anything goes whereas things are a bit more refined now. Back in the day you used to be able to rock up to Vans with your own fabric and get a pair made. This pair on the stool up there is a complete one off. You can tell by the feel of the fabric, it basically feels like a shirt. Really thin and often that is a tell tale sign but I’ve also come to know the spectrum of prints that they offered, so anything different. I kinda just know...
GH: What does Vans' slogan 'Off The Wall' mean and how did it come about?
HD: So 'Off The Wall' was initially about them literally ‘going off the wall’; getting air out of the bowl or pool. It was like a slang term for ‘going wild’ or ‘crazy’. Saying ‘oh man, that’s off the wall bro!’ but it was a direct reference about getting air from the bowl too. It was first introduced in '76 with the Era. It was the first to have the Off The Wall branding. Everything happened in that moment in '76. The first or second skate specific shoe ever was designed and the colours were pioneered.
HD: This is from '76. It was the first time Vans actually listened to the skaters. It was valuable; 'we’re gonna listen to what they want and make it for them'. They listened to the street culture and retained an integrity and are still regarded as cool. It was also about Van Doren doing whatever it took to survive as a family business. They were on the front line, their first store was in Anaheim I think. The interesting thing was they were doing ‘factory to you’. They would have the factory out the back, store at the front. They cut out the middle man in 1966 and people were like ‘they’re crazy man!’. It changed everything for them.
GH: What's your ultimate grail here?
HD: Of all the stuff for sale, it's the Madrid. This is like number 1 for the majority of people these days. It just represents that time in skating in like '87 when things started to shift into street, and like black was coming into style.
GH: What style is the Madrid shoe?
HD: It's a 137; they all had numbers back then and that was one of the first serious collaborations between a skateboard brand and Vans, and it became known as the Madrid fly. The fly was from the grip tape initially. Back in the 80s the raddest shit was you got a grip tape and it had the little cut out of a fly on it, and it was called fly paper.
GH: Does that era mark a particular shift in the direction of Vans?
HD: Yeah, it was the shift into street and I love that.
GH: So 87, that's when Streets of Fire came out? It was like the whole explosion of Powell, Santa Cruz and all the other skate labels that came out around that time?
HD: The game changers came along and started to bring those moves into the street and everything blew up and it was just revolutionary for my generation. I was pretty young, probably early teens.
GH: Finally, what's the best brand tie-in or collaboration you've seen?
HD: Again, Madrid was huge. I like the Coors beer ones personally. Early 90s, the prints were amazing. They did maybe four different prints. The campaign was cool, this was kinda when it was fleshed out a bit. It wasn’t completely raw. It was linked with spring break in Florida. It was just party vibes, it is a really cool one. They did MTV, also with the film Rad, super fresh!
The Vans Authentic started life as 'Style 44', and I think there was eight shoes when they opened in '66. I'm not sure on why they were given random style numbers. Paul Van Doren was a systems guys and gave them numbers rather than names. He was into cars, so maybe there is a link there. I've tried to find a link but it's kind of random! So it was available from '66 as a canvas, casual shoe. They were originally marketed towards boating and beach wear, as deck shoes until the mid 70s, when the skaters wanted them. Solid navy, Style 44. The Era was basically created by skaters. It came as a direct result of skaters wanting more padding around the ankle and heel, so it was a direct result of kids saying 'this is what we need'!
The Sk8-Hi was first introduced in '78. There’s a few here that are super popular. I'll grab one. This was the first, very few survived. I think it's sick, it's got this rusty, metallic suede tone to it. They have a really pointed toe with a twenty hole toe piece, so there was more breathability. I think it formed a flaw, where it would start to tear as there as so many holes right there - but that’s a sign of a really early edition. Plus, it was a two-piece toe, it has this stitching to the tongue, where as later on it became one piece. These are just identifying marks – but the jazz strap on the early ones are so sick. They have an amazing kick that curves up, they have kind of flattened it out now.
The first Slip-On was around the two-tone era. Dogtown was around, Era's came first and the Slip On followed, it was around '78 or '79. It followed suit in the evolution of two-tones, so we had blue & red colourways etc. The first Slips were blue/blue, similar to this one. That was the early pattern of a Slip On, it was a more casual vibe; beach wear. People didn't really skate Slip On's but for BMX it was an option. BMX Racing didn’t need quite the same protection as skating. On the bike it was fine, especially in freestyle BMX when it was about tricks and ramps. You could get away with wearing a slip on and it matched the style of their outfits at the time too.
The Slip On's legacy is with prints. It obviously offers a much bigger surface area for printing, and it was early 80’s when Vans started really pushing their prints. The first prints were Hawaiian style, florals like a Hawaiian shirt and I guess this linked with Surf. Prints were available from day one if you brought your own fabric, but it took them fifteen years until they produced there own print in around the late 70s. I'm not sure if they had a print designer in-house, I would love to know! It then became more Cali influenced, like Palm prints before checkerboard took over. That kind of cemented the link with prints. Vans introduced the checkerboard in 81 maybe? BMX was a big part of it. You see checkerboard on racing elements, flags etc., but it came from kids drawing on the sole of their shoes. Vans noticed kids drawing patterns on the rubber and started producing them in the factory like this. This actually pre-dated them printing on the uppers. So you could get checkerboard around the shoe before it was on the canvas, until they thought ‘we should be doing both!’. Then there were moments like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which was a pivotal moment for them.
The Era was a generic shoe shape that was available at the time in California. Pro Keds were making something similar, the term for it is CVO. It stands for circular vamp oxford, so anything with the circular pattern to the canvas was a CVO & the origins go way back. It’s almost impossible to trace who did this first. Converse were doing it, Keds, Randy, so Vans don’t own this, as such. They just dominated the market and it became a thing they were known for. The Era was basically created by skaters. It came from the Authentic and as a direct result of skaters wanting more padding around the ankle and heel; it came from kids saying 'this is what we need'!
That whole period in the early 90s when the Half Cab was born was super interesting. It all evolved from the Madrid we were talking about at the start. The full Caballero came shortly after, still this rugged high top. The graphic relates to the dragon he would have on his boards. As things got faster and more technical, people wanted a lower, lighter, more compact shoe. It’s pure marketing genius that the kids started to cut the shoe, literally decapitate a full cab and create a Half Cab. Again it is testament to this open-mindedness of Vans, they listened to the skaters and produced it as a Half Cab. They also featured double re-enforcement in the ollie area, but this changed shortly after '94. It just became one panel and kinda spoilt the shape. I hear it may be coming back though! Also it's often voted the best skate shoe of all time.
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