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The Vans Checkerboard is one of the most ubiquitous designs in modern fashion, let alone skateboarding, think how many times in your life you've seen those black and white shoes. To better understand the story of this skateboarding staple, let’s first consider the history of Vans as a company, and also the history of the checkerboard itself.
Fun fact, unless you have no interest in board games, the origins of checkers have been dated back to around 3000 B.C. Historians believe that a game played in the ancient city of Ur, Iraq is probably the first example of checkers.
The modern version of checkers, as in one we would most likely recognise today, is dated back to 12th century France. An unnamed Frenchman, feel free to make one up, pioneered the idea of playing checkers on a chess board, this game then eventually spread to England and to the Americas.
With that potted history of the checkerboard out of the way, let’s have a little bit more context, this time focusing on the beginnings of Vans, one of skateboarding’s most recognisable brands.
The Vans story famously begins in 1966 with brothers Paul Van Doren and James Van Doren, along with partner Gordon C. Lee, opening their first store in Anaheim, California. Initially manufacturing shoes which were sold directly to the public. You could literally walk into the shop with the fabric you wanted and they'd make you a Vans shoe out of it.
It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that skateboardings love affair with the brand began. In Southern California, the local skateboarders had begun to take to wearing Vans shoes, predominantly for their tough construction and grippy sole.
Later, in 1976, Stacy Peralta and Tony Alva worked with Vans to create the Vans style #95, that's the Vans Era to you and I, and the shoe became popular with many skateboarders at the time. Throughout the ’70s Vans continued to develop shoes, which saw the creation of many popular models that can still be found in skate shops to this very day - including the Vans Old Skool and Vans Sk8-Hi.
It was in 1977 that the Vans style #48, now known as the Vans Slip-On, came into being. In the late 1970’s Steve Van Doren, son of Paul Van Doren and now Vans Vice President noticed that skateboarders were colouring in the rubber midsoles of their Vans with a black pen - in order to create a checkerboard pattern on the shoes. From there Steve developed this idea further and Vans began creating shoes with a checkerboard pattern on the canvas.
Perhaps the most major factor in the popularity of the Vans checkerboard is thanks to Sean Penn and the 1982 cult classic film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Penn’s character in the film, Jeff Spiccoli, wore the checkerboard Vans Slip-Ons throughout. The shoes even appearing in the film’s promotional material to boot. Here’s a brief synopsis of the story from Steve Van Doren himself, as featured in the Free Skate Mag interview with Steve from 2016.
“So we made rubber that had checkerboard on it, but we made shoes afterwards with that on it and Sean (Penn) went into the Santa Monica store and got a pair. And after that Universal called up our PR lady Betty Mitchell and Betty got a couple dozen pairs down to the set and you know, it happened.”
After this happy accident, the film’s release saw the popularity of the Checkerboard Slip-On increase dramatically, with requests for the shoe going through the roof. Vans even went on to release a Style #98 ‘Fast Times’ Slip-On a year later in 1983.
Since the ’80s, Vans has released many a silhouette with the checkerboard design, from the Vans Old Skool, Vans Sk8-High, Vans Era and many more besides.
The modern version of the checkerboard Vans Slip On is far more technically advanced than it's 80's predecessor. Walk into a skate shop nowadays, or browse Parade ;), and you'll find the Slip-Ons complete with Ultra-Cush HD sock liners, DURACAP underlays in high wear areas, and Pro Vulc Lite construction which gives the shoe that classic Vans boardfeel. The shoes are free of any animal by-products, so you can skate safe in the knowledge that the shoes on your feet are 100% vegan.
As we have mentioned earlier the checkerboard started its relationship with Vans on the rubber mid sole. Tony Trujillo's latest pro shoe, the TNT Advanced Prototype, pays homage to this history with the Checkerboard Marshmallow colourway. Ideal for those of you wanting the modern day Vans technology combined with classic stylings.
Naturally, due to its popularity, the checkerboard now appears all over the show, a recent release from the Vans Versa franchise sees a stylish QZP get the checkerboard treatment, bringing that classic Vans aesthetic to a modern piece. Fans of getting cosy, whilst on or off the board, can treat themselves to the Checkered Taped pants, a cotton tracksuit bottom style pant with checkerboard taping down the length of the leg.
Let's close this off with another Steve Van Doren anecdote on the checkerboard, highlighting how sometimes the simplest of ideas can often be the best, again from Free Skate Mag's interview.
"Back in the eighties, when checkerboard came out, as soon as we came out with the red and white checkerboard I would see (competitors) Kinney’s, Tom McCan, big chains, a thousand stores each, with similar checkerboard shoes three months later... We had to sue them in the courts on the checkerboard, and we won."
We can surmise the history of the Vans checkerboard in simple a proverb - 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it', a happy accident come timeless staple that you can guarantee to be around for many years to come.
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