Is there any item in street fashion more instantly identifiable than a pair of Vans, those canvas-top boat shoes with the insanely grippy soles? Adored by skateboarders, surfers, and hipsters everywhere, they are the essence of timeless simplicity. And that’s where the trouble starts—trouble for the manufacturer, at least. Because the fashion world loves nothing better than a knock-off and nothing is easier to knock-off than something as simple as Vans.
Haute couture copies Vans, and so do bottom-feeding pirates. No wonder Vans peddles its signature shoe under the name “Authentic,” going so far as to even trademark the name itself.
Before setting the standard for gluing skateboarders to their boards, hipster models to runways, and profits to black, Vans had a humble, if very California, beginning half a century ago as the Van Doren Rubber Company. In 1966. brothers Paul and James Van Doren and two close friends, Gordon Lee and Serge D’Elia, set up shop in Anaheim, California, slinging canvas, rubber-soled boat shoes. They sold 12 pairs the first day they were open, and soon James, a mechanical engineer, was working with a chemist to craft their proprietary gum-rubber blend “waffle” sole. Marketed at first to seafaring folk looking for traction on their vessels’ pitching decks, the ultra-grippy shoes soon were adopted by the growing skateboard subculture.
Over the next couple of decades Vans made and lost fortunes as trends came and went. In the mid ’80s the company filed for bankruptcy before bouncing back and being sold for nearly $75 million to a private equity firm in 1988. But all along the way, Vans were etching themselves firmly into the psyches of the surf, skate, and music subcultures. Their no-frills canvas design and that now-famous sole became synonymous with the sunny Southern California lifestyle and those who loved carving both asphalt and Pacific waves.
Sales flourished in the ’90s as skateboarding and punk rock skidded into mainstream popularity, and the brand was again sold in 2004. This time they merged with fashion conglomerate VF Corp, alongside along such other lifestyle labels as The North Face, Wrangler, Nautica, and 7 For All Mankind.
And with success came forgery. Much like Converse’s Chuck Taylor, the unmistakable design of Vans’ classic shoes made them easy prey for copying (to this day, countless websites exist to help you detect whether or not your Vans are the real deal). In the late ’80s the brand went to war with counterfeiters, chasing down dozens of foreign and domestic importers, and even today a quick internet search will land you any number of faux Vans.
But ultimately the true culprits haven’t been rogue retailers with access to Chinese factories but instead the haute predators of the multibillion-dollar fashion industry.
Where a shady dealer on eBay will sell you a pair of counterfeit Vans Authentics for half price, high-end brands want to put you in a pair of classic-seeming slip-ons for $650. Jimmy Choo does it, and Dolce and Gabbana offers much the same design for a staggering $2,995, which is enough to get ol’ Spicoli plenty of reefer—and 55 more pairs of his signature checkerboard Vans slip-ons. Ironically, what you don’t get for all that extra dough is Vans’s iconic skateboard-gripping waffle sole.
The real irony, of course, is that Vans’ original shoe, the Authentic, is not much more original than those of the high-fashion copycats they’ve fought so hard to squash. Just two years before the Van Doren boys took their casual cobbling skills to the streets, rubber giant B.F. Goodrich released a brand of—you guessed it—canvas casual sneakers called SeaVees that featured a vulcanized sole and minimalist upper. For that matter, Keds debuted its similar Champion model way back in 1916.
Then there’s the Randy, heralded as the world’s first skateboard-specific shoe and first manufactured by the Randolph Rubber Company in 1965. Not exactly coincidentally, the brothers Van Doren, along with Gordon Lee, ended their decade-long stints as managers at Randolph that very same year, in order to start their own company. Indeed, the whole reason the Van Dorens left their native Massachusetts in 1964 was to run a Randolph factory in California.
You could go around and around arguing who did what first, who’s the original and the ins and outs of how skateboarding culture has for several decades dictated the course of fashion, from skinny jeans to the thankfully forgotten normcore. But it comes down to this: Before you shell out 1/20th of the United States’ median income on a pair of here-today-gone-tomorrow haute couture kicks, just remember that you can get the real deal for far, far less. And, of course, that, while fashion is fleeting, authentic style is forever.