In March 1966, the Van Doren Rubber Company opened its doors in Anaheim, California. The family-run business (founded by brothers Paul and James Van Doren), known for its rubber-soled shoes, eventually became Vans. As the well-documented story goes, the brand first garnered a following in the skate and surf worlds, later gaining popularity in the music, fashion, and art orbits over the course of half a century. It’s a pretty big birthday, and the brand is toasting its big 5-0 with an understandably big bang: influencer campaigns, parties happening simultaneously worldwide, an animated history series chronicling the brand's trajectory, commemorative capsules — they are doing the thing. And this flurry of birthday activity is centered on a single shoe: the Sk8-Hi. Yes, it’s one of Vans' most distinctive styles — but so are the Slip-On, Old Skool, and Authentic. Why put all that focus on the high-top style — so much focus that 50 new versions of the shoe have been created for the occasion? According to Steve Van Doren, son of Paul Van Doren and current vice president of events and promotions at Vans (where he’s been working basically his entire life), it’s more about what the Sk8-Hi represents in the history of the company. “It ties into all our tenets: art, music, skating, and street culture," he says.
The Sk8-Hi officially arrived in 1976 and was first called “Style 38,” as Vans used to number its shoes in lieu of properly naming them. (Its modern moniker was introduced in 1995.) But this particular style's story actually begins with the Old Skool, “Style 36,” and is deeply rooted in the company’s history with skateboarding. Skaters already loved Vans’ sneakers for the rubber soles, but these weren’t expressly designed for the sport. In 1977, that changed with Style 36, which featured a new leather-and-canvas construction that really lent itself to wear and tear. This came out around the same time as the Era, Vans’ first designated skate shoe. While these releases were a pretty big deal, skateboarders’ experiences with the shoes led the brand to realize there was an important element missing from them: ankle protection. Vans already made separate ankle guards that could be Velcro-ed around the ankles, Van Doren recalls, but there was a need for shoes that accomplished this protection, too. So the brand released its mid-top called Style 37, but that wasn't enough. “That’s where the Sk8-Hi comes in,” explains Van Doren. “[Skaters] liked the padding in the ankle guards [sold separately], so we took that material and designed a high-top with padding.” For Style 38, Vans kept the two features of the Old Skool that skaters loved: the brand’s signature waffle sole and its canvas-leather construction. The original Style 38 came in navy blue leather with light blue canvas, cinnamon-hued rust leather on rust canvas, and brown leather on beige canvas. But customization was huge for Vans in its early days — shoes were even sold individually instead of in pairs, so you could mix and match colors. This was especially useful for skaters, since they tend to wear out one shoe before the other. Since the brand's mid-'60s inception, customers could bring a print or fabric to the Vans warehouse and have it turned into a shoe. Others took a more DIY approach, taking advantage of the additional blank canvas on the Sk8-Hi’s side panels to doodle freely. "There is so much real estate on a Sk8-Hi that you can have a really beautiful print story; there's [a design] opportunity that you don’t get on a slip-on, because of how many panels there are [on the Sk8-Hi]," explains Dabney Lee, Vans’ senior director of merchandising for Classics footwear.
Meanwhile, brands like Converse, Adidas, and Nike emerged armed with athletic sneakers, and distinctive logos — both of which Vans had yet to officially introduce. When it came time to design a shoe that was hard-wearing, sportier-looking, and catering specifically to the skate crowd, Vans' founder also thought about the branding. “We knew Adidas had stripes, and we knew that Nike had the swoosh,” Van Doren explains. “My dad was doodling and he came up with what we call the jazz stripe.” (This slash of color, which came about in the mid-1970s, now adorns the side panels of every Sk8-Hi and Old Skool.) He took it to George Greenwood, Vans’ pattern maker, to incorporate it into the shoe that would become the Sk8-Hi. Around that time, Vans also began putting a logo featuring the now-signature skateboard with the phrase “Off The Wall” in it, inspired by skaters like Tony Alva and designed by Mark Van Doren (Steve’s cousin), on its shoes. Still, from a design perspective, the jazz stripe is what makes the Sk8-Hi distinctive from other high-tops. “It’s kind of like our iconic moniker,” Lee says. “When you’re out and about on the street, you can look down at someone’s feet and that’s the one thing you know — that’s a pair of Vans.” Over the decades, the Sk8-Hi's construction hasn't changed much. Vans has introduced different iterations of the style — a slim version, say, or an all-weather version — but it doesn’t mess with the original much. “We’re very protective over our classics,” says Lee. “We don’t touch them.” However, there have been a couple of structural tweaks since 1976, albeit changes that the average customer probably wouldn't notice. In the late ‘80s, for example, Vans widened the eye row (the panel running from the top of the collar to the toe that anchors the laces) at the base, because skateboarders wanted more coverage and durability in that specific spot, Lee says. (In the reissue, the shoes featured the original narrow eye row.) On the very first Sk8-Hi, the holes at the toe for ventilation were larger and closer together — which made them break apart more easily. Vans changed the perforation pattern accordingly, and now, that’s how to ID an older iteration, if you're really a Vans fanatic.
And the Sk8-Hi was a hit since its inception, to the point that demand outpaced supply: “We held back our production in the old days because we couldn’t get stitchers to learn fast enough,” Van Doren says. Vans made all of its shoes in America until 1995, when it moved manufacturing to China. Compared to the Authentic or slip-on styles, the Sk8-Hi was much more time-intensive, thanks to the additional stitching, variety of materials, padding, and folding involved in making the style. Vans’ influence has certainly been felt far beyond the skate park. The brand found a following in the music scene in the ‘80s, too, thanks to the intersection between skate and punk culture. “A lot of great musicians also skateboarded,” Van Doren says. When artists like Steve Caballero of The Faction (also a member of the Bones Brigade) and Henry Rollins were photographed for magazines wearing their Sk8-Hi shoes, it expanded the brand’s reach. He credits the music industry for helping the Sk8-Hi grow in the ‘90s, too: That’s when the Warped Tour started (in 1995), which spread the Vans name outside of California.
The shoes have cropped up on the silver screen via the directorial efforts of original Vans skate team member Peralta (and, namely, the films Dog Town & Z-Boys and Bones Brigade). Vans got a big boost in 1982 thanks to Sean Penn’s kicks in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. “He came into the Santa Monica store and bought them himself,” Van Doren says of the checkerboard pair Penn's character Jeff Spicoli made famous. (The studio called asking for more pairs the next day, he recalls.)
Some of these distinctive silhouettes — most notably, the slip-on — have also gotten a boost from the fashion world, after designers come up with their own takes. Phoebe Philo, for example, has not only taken her end-of-show bow in sneakers, she's also introduced Céline-ified slip-ons with three-figure price tags. Aside from the flattering halo effect of Vans-like slip-ons cropping up on catwalks, Vans isn’t interested in ditching its roots (and its original skater audience) to court the fashion set. There's a team dedicated to innovating the technical aspects of the skate shoes under the brand’s Pro-Skate label. It also still owns skate parks and sponsors its own skate team, endorsing skateboarders at different points of their careers.
In the past five years, Vans has invested a lot in consumer research, Lee explains. A major takeaway: the brand apparently has a huge female fan base, “but we were building a lot of shoes for men,” she says. Since 2003, there have been a number of Sk8-Hi styles added to the inventory designed for a more fashion-focused and, perhaps, female customer: There’s the Zip (a 2003 addition to the Vault by Vans line), the Slim (2012, designed specifically for a woman’s foot), and the Lite (2014). There’s also the Sk8-Hi MTE (also introduced in 2014), an all-weather high-top with a reverse waffle sole and an extra heat-retention layer at the footbed. They've also re-released older silhouettes and patterns. Nowadays, you'll spot the brand's side stripe in a street style slideshow, or in an editorial spread. Vans has also collaborated with the likes of Kenzo, Eley Kishimoto, and & Other Stories over the years. Its parent company, VF Corporation, has also shifted its strategy to focus on retail and category expansion. “A lot of designers in fashion grew up wearing Vans,” Lee says, citing Southern California-bred Humberto Leon and Carol Lim of Opening Ceremony and Kenzo. “When they’re looking for inspiration, they tap into what they wore when they grew up.” For its big birthday kick-off, the brand's Sk8-Hi campaign has a diverse casting that includes skaters (legends like Caballero and new faces like Lizzie Armanto), musicians and artists, and models, like Natalie Westling, who walked in Marc Jacobs' and Louis Vuitton's fall 2016 shows and happens to have Vans' “Off the Wall” slogan tattooed on her forearm.
Vans' golden anniversary conveniently coincided with the Snapchat-spurred meme, "Damn, Daniel." Van Doren says his initial reaction to the viral sensation was, “I love this guy." When he happened to be in Daniel Lara's neighborhood shortly after the the teen appeared on Ellen, he took the chance to drop by the Vans store that sold Lara his "Daaaaaamn"-worthy kicks. “[The employees...] were super excited," Van Doren says. “I never got to see Daniel's buddy [Josh], who was the voice [of the video], though.” The brand's popularity extends far beyond one transient meme: Vans is one of the most liked sneaker brands on Instagram, according to Complex. If the past 50 years show anything, it's that Vans' influence probably isn't waning anytime soon, and the Sk8-Hi's evolution is proof of a company that hews to its history while still tweaking its designs and garnering new customer bases along the way. An insanely viral video plug? That's just the icing on this birthday cake.