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Vans Old Skool, A Brief History

Just how did the Vans Old Skool become so popular? Here's a brief explainer...

Vans Old Skool, A Brief History
Posted by Matthew Broadley3 min read
Wednesday, April 03, 2019

The Vans Old Skool was created way back in 1977 - the same year that Elvis Presley died, The Clash released their debut album, and Red Rum won the Grand National for the third time. Or, in Vans history, a year after the Vans Era, and the same year as the Vans Slip On. At the time the Old Skool was known as the Style #36 and was the first Vans skate shoe to make use of the now ubiquitous side stripe.

The Old Skool was a new low top style, it was Vans' first skate shoe to incorporate leather panels. The now iconic side stripe was originally just a random doodle by the brands' founder Paul Van Doren, which he referred to at the time as the 'jazz stripe'. Fast forward to the modern day and that simple doodle has become an unmistakable hallmark of the Vans brand.

Steve Van Doren, son of Paul Van Doren, recalls how the 1980s were the decade of customisation. Something they made use of with the Vans checkerboard style, Steve had noticed skateboarders drawing with black pen on their rubber midsoles. The idea that you could simply whip out a pen and create your own customised unique footwear was incredibly popular. The construction of the Vans Old Skool, with its multiple panels and varying material parts, lent itself perfectly to this idea, allowing the shoe to be tweaked and modified to the satisfaction of the individual. This idea of footwear as an extension of the wearer's personality is something that Vans latched on to from an early stage and has become synonymous with the brand, with the Old Skool being their trusted canvas for this.

In the 1990s Vans began to reach out to the wider fashion and streetwear world. They collaborated with high fashion brand Marc Jacobs, creating an Old Skool which made use of premium materials, releasing in limited numbers allowed them to create a feeling of exclusivity, similar to the notion of customisation they’d pushed so hard in the previous decade.

It was in the ’90s that Vans began their long relationship with skate shop and streetwear giant Supreme. In 1996 Vans and Supreme released a collaborative Old Skool shoe, a pair of which will set you back well over £1000 if you were to try and purchase them today. James Jebbia of Supreme said at the time: “The Old Skool is iconic, classic skate… In 1996, it was one of the best shoes offered by Vans and has really stood the test of time.”

The American punk rock scene of the late ’90s and 2000s, which in itself has a rich relationship with skateboarding, heavily adopted Vans Old Skool as their shoe of choice. Famous figures such as Black Flag lead singer, Henry Rollins were pictured wearing the shoe on many occasions. Never ones to miss an opportunity, Vans began working with bands such as Slayer, The Descendents and Bad Religion - creating Old Skool models with each band, in order to celebrate their shared heritage and history.

The Old Skool has of course always been popular amongst skateboarders, stick on a Julien Stranger clip and you’re likely to see the Anti Hero bossman skating a pair. Whether they took their lead from skateboarding fashion or not, the shoe also was popular amongst BMXers as well. Anthony van Engelen recalls his memories of the Old Skool: “The first pros I really looked up to were Henry Sanchez and Guy Mariano, and at the time they were skating Vans Old Skools, and skating them well.” Which, you have to admit, is a pretty stellar recommendation. The Old Skool's suede and canvas upper, complemented by the grippy waffle sole, mean the board feel is good and they stand up to the abuse skateboarding puts shoes through.

Vans Old Skool skate shoes remain ubiquitous to this day, head to your local skate shop, or indeed have a browse on Parade, and you'll see them adorning the shelves. Recently Vans paid homage to longtime team rider and skateboarding legend (in the truest sense of the word) Ray Barbee, designing a tasteful burgundy colourway. Rowan Zorilla, Baker pro and star of Supreme's ‘Blessed’, has also had a signature pair of the shoe, available in both all white and black, with a checkerboard detail on the side giving a nod to Vans' history, whilst the velcro closure in place of laces sets them very much in the modern trend of skateboarding fashion.

Perhaps the main reason for the continuing popularity of the Old Skool is its easy availability. Anyone from the man on the street all the way up to major recording artists, Kanye West or Frank Ocean, can get their hands on a pair with relative ease. Whilst for some items this may be seen as a drawback, the shoes deep history means this saturation has yet to diminish its - for want of a better word - coolness.

As mentioned previously, collaborations have been a major part of the history of the Old Skool. Those early collaborations with Supreme and Marc Jacobs paved the way for many, many more. In recent years there have been Marvel Old Skools, Peanuts Old Skools, Disney Old Skools to name but a few.

These popular culture collaborations, which admittedly are hugely popular, have also been offset by more high-fashion and streetwear focused limited releases. Vans teamed up with the man of the moment Virgil Abloh back in 2017 to release the Off White Old Skool. Similarly, Tyler the Creator, of Odd Future fame, released a Golf Wang x Vans Old Skool in 2014. Since their first collaboration with Vans back in ‘96, Supreme has gone on to release countless more collaborations featuring the Old Skool, and you’d imagine there will be more of these to come in the future as neither brands popularity seems to be diminishing any time soon.

Seeing as we’re supposed to be here to talk about skateboarding, not that it isn’t interesting to learn a bit of history, otherwise, we’re doomed to make the same mistakes forever etc. Let’s take a look at some Parade favourites styling in the Vans Old Skool, as it's meant to be used.

Elijah Berle in ‘Spinning Away’

Elijah Berle was born into skateboarding, growing up in Santa Monica in a family of surfers and skateboarders, pretty fitting then for him to be rocking one of skateboarding’s most famous shoes. Check his powerful appearance in the Vans’ video ‘Spinning Away’ for evidence

Ray Barbee in 411VM Issue 11

A true skateboarding style icon, in the physical sense of his movement on the board, if you mention ‘no comply’ to any skateboarder (well, one of a certain age) and Ray Barbee is almost certainly to be the first name to spring to mind. Take a look at Ray’s footage from 411VM Issue 11, from way back in 1995, for some Old Skool adorned styling.

Olly Todd in Landscape ‘Portraits’

Bringing it back to the U.K with our final pick, Olly Todd from Landscape Skateboards from 2003. You can catch Toddy, bootcut jeans and all, repping the Vans Old Skool in a fair few of these clips, including that very choice noseslide 270 on Euston Road.

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