The Tribute

I’m A Vans Man

To celebrate half a century of the iconic Californian sneaker maker, MR PORTER canvasses some longtime lovers of the brand

  • A skateboarder wearing Vans Half-Cab sneakers. Photograph by Mr Alexandre Weinberger/Trunk Archive

Who doesn’t own a pair of Vans? In the 50 years since the brand was founded in California by its namesake brothers Messrs Paul and Jim Van Doren, its shoes have been worn by skaters, punks, rappers, movie stars and, well, pretty much everyone. Today, you’re as likely to see them on the feet of a pro skater such as Mr Anthony Van Engelen as on an off-duty Mr Zac Efron. And while models such as the lace-up Authentic plimsoll started out life as a youth phenomenon, now they’re just as common a sight in the offices of ad agencies on a weekday as down the mall on a Saturday afternoon. It’s true that the history of the company, like its most famous version, the Slip-On, introduced in the late 1970s, is somewhat checkered. There was a period in the 1980s, in particular, when the company over-expanded, producing a variety of ill-advised athletic shoes, which resulted in it filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1984. But its resurgence and continuing success is testimony to the timeless simplicity of those original designs, as well as the enduring appeal of Vans’ practice of creating custom fabrics and wild print designs for footwear. Now, as then, these shoes remain the ultimate symbol of laid-back, rebellious Californian cool, and continue to exert an influence on both pop culture and high-end style. And this has become particularly true in recent years, as the fashion-sneaker love-in has really taken off. Lanvin and Maison Margiela now make slip-on sneakers every season, while Common Projects, Filling Pieces and Saint Laurent are among the brands currently offering styles that clearly owe a debt to Vans’ Authentic lace-ups.

  • One of the first Vans stores opened in Redondo Beach, California, between 1966-1968. Photograph courtesy of Vans

Longtime Vans wearers have grown up alongside the company, taking the styles of their youth with them into adulthood. So, to celebrate the brand’s 50th anniversary (and a new book, Vans: Off The Wall (50th Anniversary Edition), out next month, MR PORTER thought it only proper that we talk to them. Here, prominent Vans fans, from menswear influencer Mr Nick Wooster to skateboarding legend Mr Steve Caballero, explain what the brand means to them and why its shoes remain a permanent fixture in their wardrobes.

Mr Steve Van Doren

The son of Vans cofounder Mr Paul Van Doren, Mr Steve Van Doren was instrumental in expanding Vans’ retail presence. He still works at the brand as vice president of events and promotions

As my father was one of the founders, Vans was everything to me growing up – and still is 50 years later. I was 10 when the company started and I often went to work with my brother and my dad. I had a great time growing up with the company, learning something new every day. I was so lucky to be able to work there as a teenager and see Vans evolve from every aspect. We lived near the Vans warehouse and I worked there before I could drive.

Creative self-expression transcends many different cultures and generations, and Vans allows individuality to shine, whether you love skating, surfing, music, art – you name it. My shoes of choice are the Vans classic Slip-On – they are easy to get on and off and have a timeless look. My favourite thing is to customise the patterns, colours and prints on the shoe. The Slip-Ons offer the most canvas to get really creative.

Mr Steve Caballero

Mr Steve Caballero is a skateboarding legend known for his vertical air technique innovations – he was named Thrasher magazine’s Skater of the Century in 1999. Vans has been one of his longtime sponsors

The first time I walked up to a skate park, I wore white Nikes, because that’s all I saw in the magazines. But when I got there I saw everyone was in Vans. I bought a pair of brown ones— high-tops with a side stripe – I think it was Style 138. I wore those for a while. When I got sponsored by Powell-Peralta in 1979, cofounder Mr Stacy Peralta was getting Vans from the company, so he would just distribute those to the amateur team he was building. 

Vans gave me an opportunity to have my own signature shoe, so I started drawing some stuff up. Someone there had actually drawn up the Caballero high-top, and I thought “Yeah, that’s perfect.” I noticed a trend of pro skaters cutting down the top. Some guys would use stickers, some guys would use duct tape. I remember doing it to two or three pairs and being over it, so I called Vans and said: “I think we should just make it like this and call it the Half-Cab.” My shoe was pretty much one of the very first mid-tops to come out.

Mr Frank Muytjens

Mr Muytjens is head of men’s design at J.Crew

The Slip-On has always been my favourite Vans silhouette. I love the clean, elegant shape, but it still has gutsiness to it. Vans feel and look masculine, and I think that speaks to a lot of guys. Many of Vans’ simpler styles have a timeless quality to them, which means they can be worn by men of all ages without looking inappropriate. Guys who grew up wearing Vans in their youth can still wear the same styles as men so it helps to maintain that long-term love affair.

We collaborated with Vans on a version of their Slip-Ons. We wanted to do something special with them, and they enhance what we do already, so the Vans blend in seamlessly.

Mr Nick Wooster

Mr Nick Wooster is the designer of Wooster + Lardini and a menswear consultant

My first pair of Vans sneakers were black and white check Slip-Ons. I've had them in my rotation continuously since 1982. For me, they’re the most iconic shoe. They can appear lazy, but I think style-wise, they pack the biggest punch. I rarely wear loafers, because I’ve always thought Vans were the cooler way to go. They’re also perfect for travelling when going through airport security or if your feet swell on a long-haul flight.

I think they work in a variety of style scenarios because they transcend fashion. Right now, they are a bit trendy, but I know they will always be there. And when I'm really old, I know they will still be the go-to shoe. I caught Nino Cerruti [of Italian fashion house Cerruti] wearing a pair of black canvas Slip-Ons at his retrospective this summer at Pitti Uomo. He must be in his eighties. And he was impeccably turned out in a three-piece suit and tie.

Mr Isaac Larose-Farmer

Mr Isaac Larose-Farmer is the founder and designer of Larose hats

Vans for me was strongly associated with skateboarding and punk music, two scenes I was really into – even if I was a kind of wannabe in both. I get the feeling that they’re somehow part of the uniform in North America, I see so many people with different styles wearing them. I see a lot of them in Europe, too, but it feels more associated to skate, hip-hop and fashion culture.

They’re light, comfortable, inexpensive, and so easy to wear. I always have a pair in my suitcase, and they’re my go-to shoes for my backpacking trips. My favorites are the Old Skool and the Slip-On. Two iconic models, they fit with everything – even a suit. And it’s hard to find a cooler branding detail than the Vans sidestripe.

Mr Pete Williams

Mr Pete Williams is the editor-in-chief of men’s style website Highsnobiety

Growing up skating, I always respected the brand, but it wasn’t until I was about 18 that I really started wearing them regularly. The first pair I can remember were a blue suede low top that I got for eighth grade graduation in 1999.

I think the simplicity of the classic Vans silhouettes allows them to work on all types of people. They look just as good with skinny jeans as they do with baggy work pants. Something such the Slip-On is easy to dress up, while a Sk8-Hi can be fully functional for riding motorcycles. They're super-versatile and look clean even when they're beat up. Sk8-His are my favourite. I like the height, the “jazz stripe”, and the variations on how it can change through different material and pattern make-ups.

shop the collection

Vans: Off the Wall (50th Anniversary Edition) by Doug Palladini (Abrams Books) is out 22 March. Buy your copy here.