They've been worn by punk rockers, skateboarders and that quintessential drugged-out SoCal surfer dude Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgement High," and now Vans, the poster child for rebellious youths, celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Not quite over the hill, but no spring chicken, either.
It all began on March 16, 1966 when Paul Van Doren and three partners opened the doors at 704 E. Broadway in Anaheim, Calif. The Van Doren Rubber Company set itself apart from the competition by manufacturing shoes and selling them directly to the public.
On that first day, 12 customers purchased shoes to be custom-made at the store.
"Back in the day, you could go to the fabric store, pick out your pattern, bring it to the Vans store, and they'd make you a pair of shoes in three weeks. My friends and I used to love doing that," recalled John Eshaya, head buyer for Ron Herman, at Los Angeles retailer Fred Segal.
During the 1970's, Vans became a staple in the wardrobe of every Southern California skateboarder. In 1976, skateboard legends Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta designed the simple blue Vans #95, known as the "Era," which became the shoe of choice for a generation of skateboarders.
"I've been wearing Vans since 1978," Eshaya said. "They were, and still are, the epitome of the California lifestyle and surfer, skater culture."
He admits owning upwards of 40 pairs and is a devout Vans fan.
"Young people today think it's their trend, but, for me and my friends, it was our trend. The great thing about Vans is that everybody gets into them and works them into their style," Eshaya said.
Slip-Ons and Skydiving Shoes
In the 1970s came the now-famous Vans Sidestripe and Classic Slips-Ons, as well as the development of 70 Vans stores all over California and the broadening of their distribution to national and international dealers.
During the next decade, the shoemaker expanded its line to a variety of sports, from basketball and baseball to wrestling and even skydiving in an effort to compete with larger athletic shoe companies. But ultimately, its classic shoes are what made them a household name, extending beyond Venice beaches and skateboard hangouts.
"The main thing is that Vans is recognized as an authentic brand," explained Valerie Steele, curator at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
That popularity is now extended to music and sports, with the company sponsoring the punk rock Warped Tour, and purchasing the Triple Crown of Surfing competition. Vans is also taking advantage of the huge extreme sports industry.
"In the past four years, the whole world of fashion has changed," Steele said. "The empire of fashion is now broken down into style tribes and the surfer, skater, punk look is one of them. It has iconic appeal, it never goes away."
And it's now tackling high fashion, tapping into a big name designer to rework some of their slip-on and high-top sneakers.
"Marc Jacobs reinvented a classic," said Details Magazine's fashion editor Matthew Edelstein. "He made it look totally new and 21st century, but it still had real connection to what they had done in the past."
And, Eshaya added, that past is suddenly very current in the fashion world.
"What's really happening is that a lot of attention is finally being turned towards the California lifestyle and culture," he said. "The rest of the world is just catching up with what Vans has been doing for decades."