Without A Net

Pop culture from Southern California and beyond.

Vans co-founder branded generation of SoCal youth with iconic shoes

My Vans special edition Descendents shoes. They're well-worn and well- loved.
My Vans special edition Descendents shoes. They're well-worn and well- loved. Hayley Fox/KPCC

James Van Doren, co-founder of Vans skate shoes, has died at the age of 72, leaving behind a legacy of iconic shoes and devoted followers. What began as a simple skateboarding shoe in 1966 turned into a symbol of the burgeoning Southern California skate culture.

Vans were the shoes of a beachside counter-culture; the thick, rubber-souled lace-ups and slip-ons were not mean to be kept clean. They screamed to be scuffed, ripped and worn until a telltale hole appeared on the toe. Vans were used to do ollies and kickflips, protect your feet in mosh pits and carry California's youth wherever they wanted to go.

The holy moment of the company came with the creation of the checkered slip-on. Originally created only in black-and-white, these flexible, sturdy shoes remained suitable for skating but with an aesthetic that appealed to a much larger crowd. People became obsessed with the shoe, which was later rereleased in an assortment of updated colors, including neon pink and black or electric blue and black.

Photo courtesy of vans.com

Since then, Vans has collaborated with artists, musicians and creative visionaries to create skate shoes that have become powerful images of fashion. Vans now come decorated with hearts, flowers, skulls and American flags.

There are special edition, rubber-toe low-tops named for pro skateboarder Tony Alva, and a pair of plaid high-tops honoring Pearl Jam. Vans also a has complete line of children's shoes and apparel with collections featuring Hello Kitty and Yo Gabba Gabba.

But it is the Vans classic models that have captured the hearts and minds of generations of sneaker-wearers. Shoes like the Vans Authentic, Slip-on, Chukka Boot and Era surface in film, television, music and fashion, first in California and then in the rest of the world. Sean Penn's character in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," Jeff Spicoli, sported a pair of checkered slip-ons and soon rocketed the shoes to mass popularity.

Vans have been featured in fashion magazines and seen on the heels of celebrities from Rihanna to Brad Pitt. The brand has become the symbol for a larger culture and even spurred the enormous touring rock concert, the Vans Warped Tour.

The Suicide Machines created a song in 1993 titled "The Vans Song," declaring the group's love for the shoe. The chorus included: "Vans in my head, Vans on my feet" and "Don't wear no Doc Martens, Don't wear no Birkenstocks."

And it was only five years ago that Berkeley high schoolers The Pack released their ode to the canvas shoes, simply titled "Vans." The song quickly exploded in the Bay Area, was picked up on the radio and became a representation of a new era of music. When these young rappers released this song, they made a statement that the shoes, and skateboarding in general, weren't just for punk rockers anymore. (Although The Pack does give them a shoutout with "These are punk rock shoes so they get real dirty.")

The Pack helped usher in a wave of young hip-hop music that embraced skateboarding culture. The "Vans" video highlights skateboards, skate tricks and of course, the shoes. "You can get different colors like rainbows — since 1966 Vans has set a trend, I got a blue pair, yeah, in a size 10."

In 2006, Lupe Fiasco put out his own song about skateboarding called, "Kick, Push." He sings, "Just the freedom is better than breathing they said, they said. And they escape route, they used to escape out, when things got crazy they needed to break out. They'd head to any place with stairs, any good grinds, the world was theirs, and they four wheels would take them there. 'Til the cops came and said 'There's no skating here.'"

Even the chorus mimics the actual motion rhythm of skating, "So they kick, push kick, kick, push kick, push kick, push, coast. So come and skate with me, just a rebel looking for a place to be." You can almost hear the whoosh of wheels on cement.

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