How did Vans, which has been the headlining sponsor of the Warped tour since 1996, become not only the most trusted shoe brand for rockers around the world, but likely the most trusted brand in the rock world period?
“Every band I was listening to at the time growing up, Descendents, Black Flag, everyone was wearing Vans; all the skateboarders I looked up to in the ‘80s like Lance Mountain and Steve Caballero, these people were wearing Vans,” Rise Against bassist Joe Principe says.
Converge bassist Nate Newton concurs. “We all grew up with Vans and skateboarding or riding BMX. It’s something we stand behind. All of us wear Vans, so of course we’d love to play a show for them.”
It is a simple formula: the company, founded in 1966 by brothers Paul Van Doren and James Van Doren, as well as Gordon C. Lee, focused their efforts on becoming the sneaker for the skateboarding and surfing communities. Once they accomplished that feat, becoming an iconic part of Southern California culture by the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, young musicians who loved skating and surfing saw the shoes on all their heroes.
That was step one. Step two is once they established that credibility they’ve maintained those relationships with an integrity that has impressed even the most uncompromising artists.
“Before we did the shoe with Vans we wanted proof it was not sweatshop made and we got the certification from Vans,” Principe says of their custom-designed Rise Against shoes. “They were super cool to work with and it went hand in hand with our ethics, which is awesome. They are in it for the right reasons. And as large as a corporation as they are they are still in it for the right reasons.”
The list of bands who have designed their own Vans shoes reads like the best of the Warped tour meets the more recent wing of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Metallica, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Circle Jerks, Bad Brains, Bad Religion, Slayer — those are just a few of the metal and rock icons who have lent their name or imaging to Vans.
But one name stands out above all. Pearl Jam designed ten-year anniversary shoes for their seminal debut, Ten. Except for a weird Target commercial a few years back which featured the song “The Fixer,” the Seattle grunge icons have almost exclusively kept their music away from commercial use. So the fact they would team with Vans says a lot about the integrity of the brand and their ability to communicate with musicians, a key element in their long-standing relationships with so many bands.
“Maybe five years now, we started playing at the House Of Vans in New York and ever since then we stayed in touch with them and they’ve been really kind to us and keep asking us to do stuff. We like them, so we keep doing it,” Newton explains. “I think, in general, Vans has a much longer history with bands coming from more underground scenes, having done Warped tour for so long. So I think that the company always had people working there that just understood it. From my perspective, being an artist that they have hosted more than once, they’re just super easy to work with.”
Rise Against have also been repeat guests at the brand’s very successful House Of Vans, their music, art, action sports and more franchise that currently resides permanently in Brooklyn, Chicago and London with an Asia location to open early this year. In addition, they do global popups, in cities like Toronto, Paris, Melbourne and Los Angeles, at FYF Festival, in 2017. The Brooklyn location will close down the end of 2018, but Vans have already announced more popups around the globe in 2018.
Principe says one thing that impresses him is Vans has not changed even as they have grown significantly globally. “They recognize their roots. They still have their vision intact and that’s what’s the most important,” he says.
“It definitely has that same feel, a company that is focused on making good skateboarding shoes,” Newton adds. “So that’s why most of my friends and myself supported them for so long. They have definitely grown. It’s kind of wild to see Vans stores in the mall when growing up you had to drive all the way across town to some dingy little skate shop or surf shop to get a pair. But that’s great that it’s grown because it’s helped numerous bands.”
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I spoke in separate conversations recently with Nick Street, VP Global Integrated Marketing, and Mitch Whitaker, GM of Vans North America, about Vans and music as well as the company’s growth.
Steve Baltin: Talk about where the ideas for House Of Vans and other events come from.
Nick Street: I think that’s a general Vans thing that a lot of the things we do come, the ideas that the brand has are coming from inside the brand. We don’t work with any really outside creative entities that come and pitch ideas and then we go and execute them. A lot of what you see is a natural growth of the brand and it started back in the day when Paul Van Doren founded it. It’s really understanding your consumers and being part of what your consumer does. So we started supporting skaters we’ve supported them ever since. It’s an organic growth and organic relationship. If you have that organic relationship you know what you should and shouldn’t do as a brand. When you see “Off The Wall” slogan that’s where the brand lives, that’s not just an advertising slogan. That’s within the culture as well.
Baltin: So coming in to a successful existing company how do you merge into what they are doing?
Street: I started 12 years ago. There’s not like a playbook you get handed, which is like, “This is how we do it, this is what you do, this is what we don’t do.” We still operate like a family brand and upholding that spirit and that mentality. I’ve been skateboarding since I was a kid, I’ve been playing music, it was a brand I’ve grown up with. The skateboarders I now work with I had them on my bedroom wall as my idols at the time. Vans is one of those brands where it you understand what the “Off The Wall” mentality is, where the ideas come from within the brand could come from anywhere. I think the Warped tour is a good example of Steve [Van Doren, the son of the founder] saying, “Hey, I want to support the music scene and support Kevin [Lyman, Warped founder] and the up and coming bands because no one is really doing it in an organic way, so we’re gonna do it.” And I think something like the House Of Vans is a really good example of something that grew organically. It started in Brooklyn in 2010 and today we have multiple permanent locations around the world. That started in Brooklyn as a way to support the creative community in New York. When I was in Europe at the time I said, “Hey, that’s really cool, I’d love to do a permanent version of that.” But we were a much smaller market so we had to adapt the idea cause it was really a great opportunity. The reason the House event started was to really showcase all the different bands and we wanted to do it in Europe. But we didn’t necessarily have the resources to put a permanent location in. Running a permanent venue requires a lot of resources and everything else. So we decided to do a three-day popup version of it, condense everything a permanent version would do into a shorter-term popup venue, where we did the same stuff – artwork, gigs, we had Lupe Fiasco play in Berlin and that was the first time we took it outside the permanent location.
Baltin: Talk about the bands you have worked with for shoes.
Street: There have been a whole variety of things that we’ve done, from the Descendents all the way through to Metallica, and sort of every facet in between. Something like Metallica is maybe a little bit more commercial, but when we did the Mastodon shoe that was because it made sense, there was a good relationship there. Or when we did a Millencolin shoe, a band that we have supported since day one, and we decided to help them out because they’re friends and they’re part of the family.
Baltin: How did Vans become the rock brand?
Street: I think the rock and roll, the punk rock thing, that’s been part of the brand because we’re the brand that sort of started on the skating heritage. The product was adopted by the musicians. When you look at what happened when the hardcore scene started, there were a lot of people who were wearing Vans that were in bands at the time. So there was a general connection to the brand just by who adopted the brand at the time, just like skateboarders adopted the brand as well.
Baltin: What is the secret to maintaining a connection with the music community?
Street: I feel like as a brand, because we are multi-faceted and we understand who the consumer is, there’s a natural connectivity. If you have the right people working for the brand who are consumers themselves, who understand the brand, who understand what the “Off The Wall” mentality is, then it doesn’t really matter what genre you’re in. In China we had Peaches playing and then went straight into a local heavy metal band as the headliner and the crowd loved it.
Baltin: Who is the one band you haven’t worked with yet that you want to?
Street: It’s funny because a lot of the things that like excite me is I get to meet the older bands, Suicidal Tendencies that was one of the bands I loved. I got to tour with them. Someone like the Foo Fighters would be great if I think about the big bands. But there are a lot of the newer kids coming up as well. I think a lot of the people that you see on our lineup, they do their own thing. They’re creative and that’s what we are as a brand. We want to support creative self-expression.
Baltin: You just came back to the States you were telling me, correct?
Mitch Whitaker: I was in Asia running Vans Asia for the last ten years in Hong Kong. And I just moved back here five months ago. I’m just a little bit older than the building. I was there for almost ten years and I went and set up Asia from scratch, which was a great experience. And it was phenomenal in the sense that it was growing, every day was a new day. Every year felt like a new job cause it was expanding, very dynamic. But after doing that for nine and a half, ten years, I’m ready for a new challenge. Time to get back home and I’m just excited for another transition.
Baltin: So how do you approach being back here, where there is a Vans awareness, versus being there where you were starting from scratch?
Whitaker: You’re spot on, being there opening up for China, setting up an office and a team and opening up our first stores, though we have over 500 stores now in China and about a thousand in Asia, where ten years ago we had zero, it was starting that first relationship where you have to get to know your consumer and we have that initial experience. It was very different from here where it is a more mature market. But I would say the fundamentals are still the same. What connects our consumer and a Chinese kid who is just getting exposed to the brand, they connect to the same thing. We enable creative self-expression, that’s our brand. So we set up House Of Vans-type platforms that give these budding artists and kids in China the opportunity to get on stage and play guitar or do a workshop with an artist and give them that experience. Same thing happens here, it’s much more mature. Going forward here, as we are more mature, it’s about keeping our core intact, our soul intact, which is about our pillars of skate, action sports, art, music, street.
Baltin: While I was in Montauk I had the chance to talk to Alex Knost, who paid Vans a huge compliment, saying the company hadn’t changed since he started working with them in the ‘80s.
Whitaker: That’s kind of the journey we’re on right now, staying true to who we are at our core as our brand grows. We do mean a lot to our consumer, from kids who are 12 years old to a 50-year-old who has a story. I think one of the most interesting things about working with Vans is that every time I meet someone and I mention I work for Vans, they’ve got a story, like I played music in a punk band or I used to skate. To me it’s about making sure we keep that meaningful connection with that consumer.
Baltin: How does music play into that connection?
Whitaker: Speaking specifically in China, where we had to find that connection, we started doing music festivals out there. For example the Beijing Music Festival, where we knew the promoter and we were able to set up a booth, set up a skate ramp and we did that for about three years. And the response we got from being there and starting to connect to that consumer who loves music, they saw skateboarding and they’re like, “Oh, this is cool.” And then we started bringing street artists in to do graffiti and artwork, these are local Chinese artists for example. That was our spark in Asia that really worked. We’ve been doing it here for several years with the Warped tour, House Of Vans, so that’s an area where not gonna give up, we’re gonna continue to support and be a part of that.