When a brand has become so ingrained in a culture, it’s easy to lose track of their actual importance to it. Perhaps that complacency is the highest honor. In the case of Vans, who celebrated their 50th birthday this past March 16, they’ve become an integral part of skateboarding, enabling generations to pursue their creative paths, forever being attached to it.
What Vans has accomplished in five decades is more than just making products, but changing what’s actually possible in the industry, by giving riders signature shoes. Just like the Chuck Taylor or the Air Jordan, Vans chose to celebrate their signature athlete with a shoe bearing their name, starting with Powell Peralta icon Steve Caballero.
While they weren’t the first brand to do this—Etnies created a Natas Kaupas model in 1988—their skate in skating, along with the functionality of the of the shoe instantly connected with skateboarding. After a few slight tweaks, Caballero’s second shoe the “Half Cab,” was born, eclipsing the popularity of the original, becoming a mainstay in skating for over 25 years. Even Caballero, who has been with the brand for over half of it’s existence is quick to admit that Vans has had its ups and downs, particularly getting caught up with the tech-innovation trend of footwear in the late-90s, but their internal compass has always steered them back to their core.
Vans is a lifestyle and that lifestyle has enabled many careers, taken unknowns out of their suburbs and into stardom, and provided a new revenue stream for skateboarders in order to keep them rolling. Oh yeah, they also just make great shoes that are as much of a part of Americana as blue jeans, baseball, or, well… skateboarding. Here’s our conversation with Vans professional Steve Caballero, on the eve of their 50th birthday in Brooklyn, NY.
When did you first become aware of Vans or who was the first pro you saw wearing the shoes?
I would say just looking in the magazines back in around 1976, about 1976/1977, I saw Skateboarder Magazine and I saw ads for Vans shoes and skaters wearing either the low tops, the boat shoes, or the Old Skools. I just saw them advertising them and I knew that when I got into skateboarding that I wanted to get the shoe that was labelled “the skateboard shoe” and that was Vans.
There really weren’t many options as far as dedicated skate shoes back then, right?
Some of the pros that I looked up to were wearing Nikes, and stuff as well, so before I went to the skatepark I had a pair of Nikes—white ones. But when I got to the skatepark, I saw everyone was wearing Vans— low tops Vans—so I heard that there was a Vans store in San Jose. I went to that store and bought my first pair. That would be around 1978.
And so how did you end up actually, officially getting on the brand?
Well, I got sponsored by Powell in 1980 and I think Vans was kind of flowing Powell Peralta and flowing Stacy Peralta shoes, because he was also a spokesperson for the brand. He was one of the first pros. I saw an advertisement of him promoting the brand. So, Vans was kind of giving Stacy shoes and he would distribute them to the team. But I never really had any direct correlation with the company until 1988 when Vans team manager at the time, Everett Rosecrans,called me up and said, ‘Hey, we wanna actually sponsor you as a pro rider and pay you to ride for our shoe company.’ At that time I was wearing a pair of Jordans and I was floating around with Air Jordans and Pumas, Converse… whatever I could get my hands on. I wasn’t sponsored by any shoe company in the mid 80s.
And it wasn’t common to have paid sponsors at the time and it seemed like everyone was just trying out different shoes to see what worked. Was it like a year later when you got the first pro model?
Yeah, like six months into it they approached me to do a Caballero signature shoe, so I signed the contract and my first signature shoe with Vans came out in 1989.
Do you remember what you wanted out of your first pro model shoe and how closely you worked to come up with the design?
It was exciting that they wanted to do a pro shoe, so I was kind of wondering what it was going to look like. So, the last pairs of shoes I was wearing were Jordans and Puma Prowlers, so I kind of drew something up that kind of looked like a cross between the two and then Vans came back with me with the Caballero high top design, which is kind of basically what I had. I just said, “Yeah, let’s go with that because it’s pretty similar to what I was thinking in the shoe.” And we just kind of went with that design.
Vert was kind of dying and street skating was kind of coming up, and I noticed a lot of street skaters were cutting the shoe down and duct taping and putting stickers to hold the foam in. I started doing it myself around 1991, and after about three pairs I was like, “This is ridiculous we should just make them like that.”
I called up Vans and said, “Hey, you know there’s a trend going on with people cutting my shoe down making it a mid top. We can just come up with a shoe like that and we can call it a ‘Half Cab.’ I can get a silhouette of me doing the trick and we can just start making them.” They said yes, so 1992 the first Half Cab came out.
How does it feel to not only have your own signature shoe, but now you have a shoe that’s become an icon in skateboarding?
I think it’s a combination of everything that’s lined up since then—just everything that I’ve done in my career as far as entering competitions, being part of the Bones Brigade, making the first skateboard videos, inventing tricks like the Caballerial to Kevin Staab inventing the trick called the Half Cab, and just kind of using that momentum of, “Hey I got my first shoe, it’s a high top, let’s cut it down and call that the Half Cab,” and just kind of stuck with what skateboarding was doing at the time and being creative in that way and making everything fit in together, it kind of related to each other.
Then street skating started getting popular and my shoe was all over Thrasher Magazine, on covers, and people were just wearing it all over. I think it was kind of a combination of all the pros back then that were wearing my shoe and there wasn’t very many shoe brands out there that there are now, so it just kind of being at the right place at the right time and taking advantage of every opportunity to produce something that was cool and stick with it.
The fact that Vans has always had a great name behind their brand and they always had a great logo, their designs, the waffle sole was always the best, grippiest, for skateboarding—their logo had a skateboard in it, so they were the skateboarder’s skateboard shoe. When no other brands had any kind of attention to skateboarding, Vans always had skateboarding’s back. It’s kind of really cool that I’m associated with a company that has a lot of roots behind our industry.
That ties into something that I think is really relevant now. What would you say Vans has done that’s a great lesson or model for other shoe companies?
Well I think it’s really easy to lose yourself when you get popular and you start to expand and you grow, and it’s really easy to lose focus of where you started from. So, as long as you don’t forget your roots and forget the people that stood behind you and what you represent, when you get huge and you start branching off into other mainstream avenues, and I think that’s where a company like Vans could have gone the same way as Airwalk as they grew.
When I got my first signature shoe, it took a long time for Airwalk to put a signature shoe out with their riders. They just didn’t hop onto it. And they just didn’t back what they started. Vans has had its ups and downs. I’ve seen six or seven CEO’s come and go since I’ve been there. Same with team managers, designers, team riders—but the one thing Vans has done is they’ve gotten back to their roots of where they started. With the way shoe designs have gone over the years, Vans has tried every avenue to help the supply and demand of what the public wants, but then sometimes we have to be those people that dictate what the public wants. And instead of copying other people, you just kind of go back to the roots of where you came from and I think Vans has stuck with that.
What does it mean for you to be a part of this 50th anniversary of this iconic company?
It’s an honor and I’m flattered to be a part of something so great as celebrating 50 years of a company that’s gone through the ups and downs of our industry but is a staple in other cultures as well. So I’m super hyped that celebrating their birthday this year and hopefully I can stick around and celebrate the next 50 years.
That’d be amazing.
I’ll be 101, 102 then.