How Vans Became Fashion's Coolest Sneaker

Nostalgia is key.

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For every Balenciaga stiletto-heeled sock boot that may make an appearance on the streets of New York or Paris, we can’t help but notice the sheer volume of Vans Old Skool sneakers on the feet of the style-minded (even mini fashion icon North West was seen sporting them, complete with an Aaliyah T-shirt). But how did a 40-year-old pair of $60 kicks find favor in fashion’s inner circle? As Vans senior director of global merchandising Dabney Lee says, “Skate fashion is having a bigger influence on the entire fashion world right now. The Old Skool is one of the first styles that skateboarders and surfboarders embraced back in the ‘60s, so we have authenticity. We all know how important authenticity is right now, so I think it kind of makes sense that people are going to the true source for that trend.” And they're in throngs — in July, Steve Rendle, CEO of Vans’ parent company VF Corp, said that specific shoe became the brand’s number-one classic style.

Driven By Women

Though it is certainly surprising, according to Vans, 50% of its customers are women. But, Lee admits it wasn’t always this way. “It was more of a boy’s brand five years ago, but we decided to really make an effort and push to build our women’s business," she says. "We did a lot of research at the beginning and we found that it was a brand that girls wore when they were in high school or in junior high. We tried to play that forward.” Lee credits the genderless fashion movement and Vans' recent collaborations with brands like Opening Ceremony and Supreme as ways fashion savvy women have had a reason to look at Vans in a new light.
For fall, Vans is taking its style partnerships up a notch, enlisting Karl Lagerfeld to place his signature black-and-white stamp approval on the brand. “We’re really excited about this. Our design team worked closely with Karl’s team to make sure we built a collection that celebrated both brands — we wanted it to be iconic Karl meets iconic Vans," Lee says of line, which features 12 pieces of apparel and six pairs of shoes. "There are some styles that celebrate our classics with twists on the fabric or the print and there are some that are brand new styles for us that are a little bit directional and a little more Karl." Old Skools, for their part, are featured on a laceless platform.

What's Old Is New Again

That Vans has that nostalgia factor baked into its DNA is something other brands have experienced (see: Adidas with the Stan Smith). But Lee contends Vans isn’t just resting on its past for its present or future, for that matter. “We get lumped in with them, and we think about it a lot, what does our future look like and how do we stand out from the other crowds of nostalgic products,” she says. “But we’re not just one thing, we don’t just have one shoe in the market, the Old Skool will never get too big of a piece of the pie. We have a variety of styles and as a brand, we don’t have a one shoe fits all philosophy. Instead, we strive to enable creative expression through all our products.”

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