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How Calculated Was Vans' Newfound Chicness?

Somewhat — beginning with shifting how the brand was marketing and appealing to women.
Caroline Daur on day two of New York Fashion Week Spring 2018. Photo: Angela Datre

Caroline Daur on day two of New York Fashion Week Spring 2018. Photo: Angela Datre

While men's sneaker culture has always been a thing, it's a more recent development for women. Among the fashion crowd at least, having the right athletic shoe has become akin to having the new "It" bag — except there's a good chance the sneaker has been around for at least a couple of decades, while the bag likely hasn't been on shelves longer than a couple of months. From Adidas Stan Smiths to (maybe) New Balance 990s, it seems that every season, fashion collectively decides to resurrect another classic, old-school sneaker with which to accessorize both their on- and off-duty outfits. And one brand that has enjoyed a notably long run in this trend cycle is Vans.

In particular, its Old Skool and Sk8-hi styles have enjoyed widespread popularity among fashion girls and those who want to dress like them lately; from models and bloggers to editors and stylists, they've practically become the de facto uniform for anyone working in the industry. The piece of this equation that some might find puzzling is that the vast majority of these people have likely never set foot on a skateboard, and Vans' history is, of course rooted in Southern California skate and surf culture. The recent success of Vans can be traced to fashion's sudden realization that skaters dress really cool, and that non-skaters could also buy their sneakers and sweatshirts, etc. But is the industry's appropriation of skater culture the only reason for these styles' recent ubiquity? On a recent trip to Costa Mesa, CA, to tour Vans' brand-new headquarters (the brand was a big driver of parent company VF Corp's growth last year), we were set on finding out what role Vans, itself, has played.

While the 51-year-old footwear brand might not have been directly responsible for the recent chicness of its aforementioned styles (the brands themselves rarely are in these situations), it laid the groundwork that allowed it to happen and worked to support it afterward. As April Vitkus, Senior Director, Global Brand Marketing explained from one of many cozy sitting areas in the open, modern new HQ, "It's intentional, but it's a little bit of luck, too." She does credit skate culture's recent influence on fashion, but contends that it goes back further than that, to the development of Vans' women’s business, which involved some hits and misses. "I started about nine years ago, and I was the 'girls marketing director,' which, what does that even mean? And that was a very deliberate move on their part to expand beyond skateboarding into women's."

Vans' new Costa Mesa headquarters. Photo: Courtesy of Vans

Vans' new Costa Mesa headquarters. Photo: Courtesy of Vans

Ashley Ahwah, Director, Global Footwear Merchandising and Angie Dita, Senior Footwear Designer, were both also closely involved with the development of Vans' women’s business, which began about 10 years ago. "It was an initiative for the brand to start putting a team in place to focus on the women’s consumer," says Ahwah. "We hired more merchandising support for women's and we really started speaking to her through our icons, because if you look back when we first started, we were definitely more male-driven." The company didn't quite hit the mark at first. "It was like, oh, ok, a pink shoe. That's women's," says Ahwah. 

They also created slimmer versions of the classic men's styles and then learned that wasn't what women wanted. "What was interesting designing for women was [that] actually, you can't make it too feminine," adds Dita. Responding too directly to trends also resulted in some missteps. Ahwah gives the example of creating a wedge version of the Sk8-hi (oof) when wedge sneakers were a thing. "I think what's more true to us is if we did a platform version, basically keeping the DNA of the upper what it is and just adding height to it," she says. 

Ahwah feels that the turning point for women — aside from the female skaters who had long been wearing the men's styles — taking Vans seriously was its quietly cool collaboration with A.P.C., which began in 2004 and continued for several seasons (and which I totally forgot about and would really like them to reissue). The collab's success, she says, inspired the company to focus on simple, easy-to-wear styles and styles that speak to women in a more thoughtful way than just making something pink or adding a wedge. They didn't start thinking about capital-F fashion until more recently, instead focusing on the company's longtime strategy of aligning with athletes and creatives in ways that feel authentic.

Vitkus says this has been the key to Vans' longevity as a valuable brand. "Vans also has always been — I don't want to say the same — but it's always been about creative cultures," she says, speaking of the brand's frequent partnerships with artists and musicians. (One could argue that music appropriated Vans from skate culture long before fashion did.) When women's sneaker culture became more mainstream, it made all of their jobs easier. "All of a sudden, it was OK to wear a dress and sneakers and I remember being very concerned, like, oh, is this trend going to go away? And then what happens if we built this women's business and we've done all these things and the trend goes away?" says Vitkus. It didn't. "We were really cognizant of, well, let's bring these people into the brand."

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Inside Vans' new Costa Mesa headquarters. Photo: Courtesy of Vans

Inside Vans' new Costa Mesa headquarters. Photo: Courtesy of Vans

Vans started to make collaborations a big part of its women's business; increasingly, they've been with big-name fashion designers and retailers. Marc Jacobs, Opening Ceremony, Kenzo, Nordstrom, Off-White, Alyx and, most recently, Karl Lagerfeld are just a few recent examples. And that's not to mention Vans' countless collaborations with streetwear brands, musicians and even video games. For potential collaborators, Ahwah and Dita look for people with a genuine love of Vans. "It's true partnership. When we look to partner with another brand, we have that filter of, they're a Vans fan at heart; everyone has their story when they got their first pair of Vans and we definitely like to make sure they have that consumer connectivity and that authenticity that we have," says Dita. And for those just looking for classic Vans icons, it's about updating them with fresh fabrics, patterns and colorways. The brand has also made a big customization push lately with one of the most user-friendly tools you can find online to design your own sneakers and plans to bring shoe screen-printing machinery to events (and, one day, stores) that allow for same-day customization.

But did these projects and updates really inspire us all to make Vans our 2016/2017 wardrobe staple? Or did they just perpetuate their relevance and visibility? It seems to be more of the latter; Vans has succeeded in ensuring the brand is stocking the styles its consumers want at any given time. "The top selling Vans silhouette for woman is the Old Skool," says Ahwah. "However, the beauty of our Classics collection is the style diversity that is offered, giving our consumers additional options like the Authentic and Classic Slip-On, which are also top sellers within the line." It has also — perhaps most importantly — stayed focused on maintaining the brand's image of authenticity and preventing dilution by maintaining a balance of projects in and outside of the fashion realm. "One of the things we talk a lot about is really protecting the core of who we are as a brand," says Vitkus. The company also doesn't engage in typical pay-to-play influencer marketing. "You'll never see Vans just paying someone to do a brand endorsement, so generally we'll either see people who are wearing Vans and we're like, 'Hey we like that you like those,' and we’ll probably start a relationship with them." 

That authenticity is what will make people want to align themselves with the brand in the long run, even as trends pass. So then if Slip-ons, Old Skools and Sk8-his have all enjoyed their moments in the spotlight, what's next?

Praying on our undying love of nostalgia, the company is focusing on reissues, like the Anaheim Factory collection it reintroduced this spring. It plans to introduce more women's-centric styles to that range. Ahwah describes a style with a lug sole and cap toe as being "super '90s." For 2019 (the designers work that far ahead), she says, "You'll see more models coming out for women's that don't just look like our iconic uppers; you're going to see a little twist on it that was actually [inspired by styles from] the past and it's going to be really relevant right now."

Annie Georgia Greenberg on day 2 of this New York Fashion Week. Photo: Angela Datre

Annie Georgia Greenberg on day 2 of this New York Fashion Week. Photo: Angela Datre

As for existing styles, Vitkas predicts we're all going to be bringing Authentics back into rotation.

Whether their predictions will line up with the fickle street style set's preferred aesthetic at any given moment, we'll just have to see.

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