The murals started in Brooklyn. Popping up in various locations around the city, Vans celebrated skate culture, the organic history of a brand launched in 1966 and immediately embraced by skateboarders in California and beyond.
Then the murals started changing, offering not just a look back at the heritage of Vans, but also showing a modern expression of Vans style with half the mural taking on a new life.
“The (design) team did a phenomenal job transitioning from the heritage piece,” says Nick Street, vice president of global marketing for Vans. “We worked with artists to recreate designs as murals and put two versions up. The first version was leaning into the heritage piece showing Tony Alva and a heritage version of our advertising. But really it was the idea to tease and a few weeks later we went back and did a reveal and painted over part to speak to (the new) comfort message.”
As Vans launched a product update to its iconic sneakers — Old Skool, Sk8-Hi, Slip-On, Era and Authentic — by updating cushioning and other internal comfort aspects with brand-new ComfyCush technology, it offered the brand an opportunity to balance that ever-tricky idea of embracing the heritage side of the brand while showcasing a modern sensibility.
“What we did in New York was such a good example,” Street says. “You are walking past this thing one day and the next day the message is revealed, a real-life experience of a heritage piece and an innovative version of what you know and trust.”
Those murals started in Brooklyn, advanced through New York City and then landed in Shanghai and London as part of the late-February ComfyCush product release.
But designing product and creative at Vans is about plenty more than a major sneaker launch (although, that’s part of the gig too).
Street says that, yes, many perceive Vans as a heritage brand, but he looks at them being rooted in authenticity. That authenticity comes from skate culture adopting Vans from day one, which means skate culture will always be a tenant of Vans design. “Skate has been a constant throughout the entire history of the brand,” he says. “It isn’t a trend for us. Skate will always be there. It just runs through everything we do.”
From the early days of the brand to modern expression, Vans not only offers a performance attribute to skaters, but a distinct style. “You are seeing that style element come out of skate and surf and come from us, as a brand, in the product and communication we do,” Street says. “It is something we are very proud of and gives us credibility.”
Vans leans into the authenticity of skate, while working to embrace what that means: creative self-expression. For Vans, that ability to encourage self-expression evolves past product — although, they do have plenty of product that serves the purpose — and into design-focused community, such as House of Vans permanent locations. It is there Vans doesn’t even sell product, but instead creates activations that encourage creativity. Street says that focus on creative self-expression helps the brand create authenticity and live out founder Paul Van Doren’s mantra of Vans being a people company, not a shoe company.
With that, the Vans design team works to involve the creative community and co-create with them as much as possible, such as the murals in Brooklyn. They embrace user-generated content and include insights from consumers in product and design. “We are part of youth culture and continue to support their efforts and positives and negatives that our consumers are going through,” Street says. “We want to help them through their creative journey.”
Matt Pino, global product merchandising manager for Vans, says Vans always strives for the perfect balance of heritage and progression. “We are always looking to evolve and that is the important thing when it comes to change,” he says. “Change is not an ethos we want to follow, but we are always evolving as an extension of our foundation and our base. From a design perspective, that is what the team follows, how to progress but not stray away.”
On product, Vans must always consider keeping the waffle sole and “license plate,” the red heel brand logo, in play, two elements of the brand consumers have come to expect from Vans. So, when it comes time to debut new product, Pino says the design team must explore just how far from classic icons they can go. In that vein, the five most classic products for Vans must stay true to the heritage aesthetics consumers expect from the brand, but there comes more freedom in design for products that fall outside of that world, whether surf, snow or high performance.
“When we talk about performance categories, those are all the footwear needs that ask and need more progressive footwear,” Pino says. “We know that is the formula that is going to work, so we can offer much more modern aesthetics, whether pro skate or snowboard boots.”
But much like the murals in Brooklyn, design at Vans must always keep heritage in mind, even when creating for the modern world.
Tim Newcomb covers sports design for HOW Design. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb. All images courtesy Vans.
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