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Vans OTW Berlin

The streetwear brand launched the third season of its premium line with live sets by Lupe Fiasco and 'The Artist Formerly Known as Mos Def'

Vans' OTW is less of an abbreviation and more like an expansion, evolving the open-minded Off The Wall collection from Vans that specifically targeted skaters in the late 1970's. In this case, the endorsees aren't even skaters. Just as skate culture came of age, it splintered off into myriad sub-cultures who wore Vans for pursuits that weren't confined to four-wheels. OTW celebrates that energy and self expression — the essence of the brand.

Artists, photographers, tattooists, filmmakers and musicians all carry a creative ethos that echoes the hardcore innovation at the heart of the sport and it helps that the majority of Vans' OTW advocates grew up with skating as the jump off point for their creative careers. The Vans OTW line offers an extension of familiar Vans genetics and is a younger sibling to the acclaimed Vault line and sought after Syndicate collection, but since its 2010 debut, OTW has forged a premium identity all of its own.

After debuting atop a hefty Downtown Los Angeles building, with Wu Tang's RZA on DJ duties, a similarly grand European launch for the line has been a long time coming. East Berlin's vast Department space was the perfect pop-up House of Vans location to debut the collection's spring 2012 silhouettes and makeups, like the sleek Stovepipe mid-top and minimal Ludlow Decon, in a multitude of personalised creative spaces for OTW advocates like motorbike-crazed Frenchman Dimitri Coste, who installed a bike in his room as well as his photographic work. Hong Kong's subversive toy making mastermind, Chris Kong of Garage Works Industries, dwelt in a room of his incredibly detailed vinyl that included a Made by Monsters collaboration with Ron English, while New York based designer and artist Eric Elm customised his environment with walls of banners that managed to merge internet meme sloganeering, 1950's graffiti phenomenon, Kilroy and WorldStarHipHop favourites, Brick Squad.

Launched with 1,000 partygoers crammed into a dancefloor area that sprawled vertically with a temple-like feel, the perennially unpredictable Yasiin Bey operating as 'The Artist Formerly Known as Mos Def' lost his sharply tailored appearance a few songs in, caught offguard by the hyperactive humidity of the stage area performing 'Umi Says', the first live appearance of his Jay and 'Ye remix, 'Niggas In Poorest' and a J Dilla tribute. Newly braided OTW advocate Lupe Fiasco's live energy and restless approach to rap's possibilities remains refreshing despite his recent label politics and Amsterdam's Patta Soundsystem remain cutting edge, but never too self-consciously cool to enjoy themselves.

Twinned with Dimitri, Chris and Eric's immersive curations, the European launch party was engineered to convey the OTW ethos experientially. Beyond the visuals and sonics, it's easy to summarise — good shoes made with the assistance of a respected team from a disparate range of backgrounds who collectively aren't afraid to get their hands dirty.

Since transplanting from San Diego to New York, Eric Elms has worked for the likes of Supreme, SSUR and Nike, while deftly juggling corporate work with his personal art and design work on multiple mediums. He also runs his own publishing house to put out 'zines (including small runs of OTW releases for fellow advocates) and has exhibited globally. OTW represents another facet of his creative growth.

Dazed Digital: Eric, what's the role of OTW advocates?
Eric Elms:
It's like the lifestyle line - it's a team put together to do interesting things and represent the brand. We have a little input on the shoes. We do our own colours. it started out small and it's growing.

DD: Everyone in the team seems very different to the usual picks of collaborator. There's plenty of disciplines in the mix. The original group was you, the Blackouts, Mister Cartoon, Dimitri, Ako and Attiba Jefferson - were you all acquainted beforehand?
Eric Elms:
Yeah. We were together for three years — that group bonded super well. I knew Ako a little bit. I didn't know Atiba. I'd met Cartoon but none of us knew Dimitri.

DD: So they put you together, but what was it to formulate? Was it for marketing, creative direction and colourways?
Eric Elms:
They'd come to us for like, our opinion on the general vibe. They'd show us the shoes. We'd each do our version of an existing silhouette.

DD: It was very low key - it just seemed to be a name in the colourway. There hasn't been a Vans x Eric Elms or Vans x Mister Cartoon in OTW.
Eric Elms:
Oh yeah, you know how crazy colourways got or how crazy collaborations got? For me it was always a double edged sword. If an artist does a one-off with a brand they'll be like, "I want to do something that's like my art!" But it can end up being unwearable and a disaster visually. If you do something that's more low key and wearable, then you can be like, "Why did I bother doing it?" It can be difficult. This isn't some collaboration where I make the shoe and never talk to the company again. That shoe can be low key because it can sit alongside my artwork, so it all fits together.

DD: Vans always had a tradition of patterning though. In the early days people could just bring in their fabric.
Eric Elms:
I don't really collect shoes, but there were these amazing needlepoint ones — one-offs. They were girl's ones that were supposedly made for cheerleaders. They had the strawberries, the ladybugs...

DD: Were you a big Vans wearer back in the day?
Eric Elms:
Vans is one of the few brands thats been with me from when I was a kid in San Diego to now. I remember wearing them in elementary and junior high.

DD: What's the story with the decor in your OTW room?
Eric Elms:
I just made this for this event. I just wanted to make something cool for the room.

DD: How long did that take?
Eric Elms:
I banged it out. I hadn't shown this stuff — I just made it, brought it and hung it up. I told them that I was just making stuff. Vans we just like, "Alright!" I think they trust me at this point...hopefully.

Text by Gary Warnett
Photography by Max Wanger

OTW products are available now via select Vans accounts globally