Are Vans Making a Comeback?

August 21, 2022 by Joey Birch

Are Vans Making a Comeback?

Vans has been a household name in both the sneaker and skateboarding industries for many years. Started by brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren alongside business partners Gordan Lee and Serge Delia in 1966 under the name ‘The Van Doren Rubber Company’, they created their first sneaker - the Vans #44 Deck Shoes, AKA the Vans Authentic. 

The shoe immediately caught the attention of skaters around South California, drawn in by the signature vulcanised waffle outsole and rubber wrap around on the midsole, The Van Doren Rubber Company were tapping into a market that few other brands were exploring with Nike only making its foray into skating around 30 years later. 

1976 saw Vans collaborate with their first pro skaters: Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta who created the Vans #95 AKA ‘Vans Era’. The silhouette further increased their popularity with skaters, coming in a variety of colourways for the first time as well as introducing the ‘Off The Wall’ logo on the back of the midsole.  

From 1977-1978, Vans released three of their most popular silhouettes in the Old Skool (#36), Classic Slip-Ons and Sk8-Hi (which was known as the style #38 at the time). Out of the three, the Old Skool was arguably the most innovative for the brand, introducing leather panels to their products for the first time as well as debuting the iconic Vans ‘Sidestripe’, originally known as the ‘Jazz Stripe’ which came from a random drawing doodle. 

Fast forward to 1988, Nike had released both the Air Jordan 1 and Nike Dunk under Peter Moore, with the Dunk beginning to become an increasingly popular choice for skaters and basketball players alike. Vans worked with Steve Caballero to create their first signature shoe, the ‘Half Cab’ which has also become one of the most iconic styles in skateboarding history. 

While not hitting the mainstream heights that an Air Jordan or New Balance collaboration reach, Vans is a serial collaborator; the first of which was released in 1996 with skateboarding turned streetwear brand, Supreme. 

At the time of the collaboration, Supreme had been in business for a short period, only opening its first store on Lafayette Street, New York in 1994. Catering to what was at the time a small crowd of hardcore skaters, Supreme were selling other brands as well as their own; little did they know the billion-dollar net worth it would reach. 

Vans x Supreme, 1996

Designed by Brendon Babenzien, who at the time was the newly appointed Design Director at Supreme, the partnership saw three iterations of the Old Skool, featuring two camo colourways in addition to a tonal grey pair. In the usual style of the Old Skool, the details were kept to a minimum with a small red Supreme woven tag being added to the upper.

Vans x Supreme (CANCELLED), 2022

The first collaboration with Supreme was just the tip of the iceberg for both parties, with the partnership between the two becoming a long-term deal with projects arriving as late as this year in the form of the Vans Skate Grosso Mid featuring a design by artist Nate Lowman.

In the following years, Vans’ reputation was still very much on the rise with the brand sponsoring Warped Tour, an annual rock festival which ran from 1995-2019, as well as launching its ‘The Triple Crown’ competition, featuring a myriad of sports including skateboarding, surfing, BMXing, amongst others which broadcasted on ESPN2, bringing Vans even further into the spotlight. 

The next big milestone for Vans came to fruition in 2003 with the introduction of their ‘Vault’ range. At the time, Vans was known as the West Coast skateboarding company that catered primarily to skaters and the surrounding community, which was widely seen as an ‘if you know you know’ type crowd. 

Looking to break the mould, Vans unveiled ‘Vault by Vans’, an initiative built to reinvigorate their classic silhouettes while bringing the brand to a high-end audience. By creating limited range collaborations, Vans began to approach people with little avail, as is suggested by Vans’ Director of Lifestyle Footwear, Steve Mills in a 2013 interview with HYPEBEAST

“You know, in the beginning, we were begging people. And then after a few years, we were having to say no to people”.

Vans x Takashi Murakami, 2015

Since the launch of Vault, Vans has released, and continues to release, collaborations with some of the biggest names in the industry including Takashi Murakami, Kenzo and Fear Of God in addition to a myriad of projects with Taka Hayashi. 

In the same interview, Mills goes on to discuss the challenges that Vans faced when ensuring that the brand continues to maintain its niche, and limited, distribution technique which they felt made the brand more desirable: 

 “The real challenge is more on keeping our promise, because we could very easily open up distribution. But, we’re not going to do that. We have no plans to ever do that.”

However, just a year later in 2004 Vans was bought by major conglomerate VF Corporation for $396 million in a move that saw Vans grow to a global scale. 

House of Vans, London

By the early 2010s, Vans had opened their ‘House of Vans’ venues in Brooklyn and Shanghai with the biggest one in London at 30,000 sq ft, each providing a venue for sporting and music events. Each location gave community surrounding the brand a place to connect and grow, further enriching the subculture that had begun to bubble up to the mainstream. 

It was also around this time, in 2013, that Vans signed a deal with Tyler The Creators brand ‘Golf Wang’. The partnership between the artist and Vans continued for three years, assisting the footwear brand in becoming a much larger entity in the market thanks to the addition of its new VF Corp ownership which allowed them to become the corporation's second largest brand at the time behind The North Face with an estimated $2 billion revenue by the end of 2014. 

At the time Golf and Vans collaborated, skateboarding was strengthening its grip on pop culture. Despite the popularity that surrounded the brand at the time, Vans ensured to keep to their alternative ethos. With Tyler The Creator beginning to make waves in the music industry with a controversial approach to his lyrics, the duo would create eight sneakers together, beginning with the classic Old Skool with the ‘Golf Wang’ logo on the heel, in additon to the ‘Donut Pack’ under his rap collective name ‘Odd Future’ utilising the Sk8-Hi and OG Vans Authentic models. 

However, around 2016, the artist decided to leave Vans to move to Converse, in an interview with Dazed at the time, he says:

"Vans just wouldn't let me grow," he says. "It was a ceiling... Converse is allowing me to bloom... and it's great."

Vans continued to stick to its USP of catering to a more hardcore skater/alternative scene, while the likes of Nike were creating slue of projects with a wide variety of artists and brands through their Nike SB Dunk line which was the key driving force for ensuring skate culture remained popular for a wider audience. 

Between 2016 and 2021 it felt that Vans’ influence had begun to dwindle somewhat. 

That was until A$AP Rocky came through wearing the iconic Old Skool in the music video for his song titled ‘Potato Salad’ featuring Tyler The Creator.

At the time, in 2018, the Harlem rapper and style icon known for pushing a wide variety of streetwear trends was officially in partnership with Under Amour during which time they released ‘SRLo’ which many immediately suggested looked like the Osiris D3, a classic skate shoe from 2001. 

While his Under Amour deal failed to cause a buzz and was seemingly forgotten about, his partnership with Vans was only just beginning; with various images of Rocky seen wearing the brand beginning to circulate leading up to what has since become an official collaboration featuring the classic Vans Slip On released earlier this year.

While A$AP is not the only proprietor to bring an entirely new wave of attention to Vans, there has been an evergrowing range of intriguing collaborations that have surfaced suggesting that Vans are breaking out of its usual lane and becoming a mainstay for a wider audience.

In August of 2021, it was announced that Montreal-based brand JJJJound would be collaborating with Vans on the Sk8-Mid. While Vans had worked with a variety of high-end fashion brands previously, their work with JJJJound was a refreshing change of pace. Releasing in three minimal colourways including green, brown and black - the ‘90s silhouette worked alongside JJJJounds’ utilitarian concepts perfectly. 

January 2022 saw yet another interesting collaboration from Vans, this time with Notre on the OG Style 36 LX, in which the duo took inspiration from popular cafe drinks including Matcha, Tea and Espresso. Each pair arrived in a minimal tonal colourway with the lookbook styled in a quaint cafe, a theme that is in complete contradiction to Vans’ roots. 

If Vans wasn’t already on people's minds, it was about to hit headlines. Just three months into the year, they found themselves in a legal battle with Brooklyn-based art collective MSCHF. Previously known for creating a custom Air Max 97 ‘Jesus Shoe’ in 2019 followed up by a ‘Satan Shoe’ in collaboration with Lil Nas X in 2021 which similarly resulted in a court case against the artists. 

Collaborating with Tyga, MSCHF released a shoe titled the ‘Wavy Baby’ which held a striking resemblance to the Vans Old Skool. Everything from the colourway to the design details looked similar enough that people began to think it was an official collaboration, which led to Vans entering a legal battle to get the shoe off the market, demanding a cease and desist in addition to any pairs that had been sold be returned. 

While it’s still uncertain as to whether the project was initially meant to be a collaboration between the two brands, with MSCHF’s Chief Creative Officer Lukas Bental going on to the Complex Sneakers Podcast and suggesting that Vans has asked to be sent pairs before the lawsuit, the spotlight being shone on Vans has certainly not tainted them in any way. 

Moving forward from the court case, Vans appear to be doing better than ever while continuing to expand its horizons, further drifting away from what people expect. In usual style, Joe Freshgoods took to Instagram in June to tease his latest project. Having seen incredible success off the back of his work with New Balance from the 992 in 2020 to his latest ‘Conversations Amongst Us’ project, the designer has now chosen to work with Vans. 

Utilising the Vans Vault Style 36, the collection features three different colourways from bright red to pastel pink. While details surrounding the release are yet to be confirmed, an inscription on the box stating “Everything Happens For a Reason”, fitting with JFG’s usual mantras that accompany his releases, suggests that we could be seeing a brand new lineage similar to his work with NB.

However, the collaborations don’t stop there. 

Vans are working with not one of the biggest designers at the moment, but two. Salahe Bembury, possibly the busiest man in the industry currently, took to Instagram to tease the partnership with his brand ‘Spunge’.

Despite already working with New Balance and Crocs, Bembury is projected to release three colourways of the Vans Authentic, each featuring his fingerprint similar to his aforementioned work with Crocs. 

Marking Spunge’s first official collaboration, it’s undoubtable the influence that both Bembury and Freshgoods have on the current discourse providing Crocs with a mass wave of popularity that no one could have imagined. 

Throughout the year, we have begun to see Vans make a change of pace, straying further from its roots. However, with all signs pointing towards a significant comeback, could Vans soon become the IT brand once again? Watch this space.

For more on Vans, Joe Freshgoods and more, keep it Kick Game.