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A decade of Vault by Vans

Vans’ director of lifestyle footwear on ten years of the brand’s visionary Vault line

A decade after launching Vault by Vans in collaboration with Luella Bartley at New York’s Sky Studios, the Californian skate brand returned to NYC in August to celebrate Vault’s big 1-0. From Marc Jacobs’ trompe l’oeil Slip-Ons to 2010’s Major League Baseball pieces and the epic 2007 Simpsons collection with artwork by the likes of Kaws, Futura, Neckface and Stash, the brand showcased key styles from the first ten years of Vault at a party at The Park with DJ sets by The Rapture and Washed Out and a live performance by M. Ward.

Elevating classic Vans trainers to new heights since its inception in 2003, Vault has produced endless collectors’ pieces in collaboration with some of the most zeitgeist-defining artists and designers from skate culture and beyond. Since 2008, artist, designer and skater Taka Hayashi has lent his wildly imaginative signature to the Vault universe, pushing trainers towards new frontiers. “For me it’s almost like building a sculpture,” Hayashi tells us. “I go way out of the box sometimes. We did a Style 36 woven like a Mexican Huarache sandal once. The labour was intense. It took days to make, so that one never happened.” he says, laughing. 

This season, the family-owned brand has brought back its iconic eighties Original Classics Disney prints featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Winnie the Pooh along with a second season of pieces by Italian boot makers Diemme. We sat down with Steve Mills, Vans’ Director of Lifestyle Footwear, before the party for a chat about authenticity, the awesome Bunny Caminiti who has developed patterns for all the major Vans classics, and his favourite pieces from the Vault.

DD: How did Vault by Vans come to life?

Steve Mills: I took over Classics ten years ago and at the time, we literally could not give a Classic away. It was a tiny, tiny part of our business and the line was maybe twelve shoes. Steve Murray, who was at that point Vice President of Product and Marketing and one of my mentors, was like, “Let’s rewrite everything. Let’s rewrite the business plan”. And we thought, we have one of the most iconic shoes in the history of sneakers and that was the Slip-On at the time. Internally, people were a little nervous. Could we do exclusive sneakers at a higher price point? And I was like, of course we can. It really puts us out of our comfort zone as a company, which is something that’s good because you never want to get too lax in what you’re doing.

DD: What are your highlights from the ten years of Vault?

Steve Mills: Doing the Simpsons project – which was really limited – was pretty unique because I’ve always been a huge fan of Matt Groening and it was the first time he allowed anybody to manipulate his designs. Working with Marc Jacobs gave me a glimpse into high fashion and a complete 180 of what we do. Giving Kenzo free rein was pretty interesting. Umberto is a Southern California kid and he really understands the brand. And Brooks Saddles and Filson Bags were amazing.

DD: What do you think makes Taka Hayashi such a great fit for Vans?

Steve Mills: Taka has always been grounded in classics. He may end up in a different place but it’s always started there. And he just understands the brand. He grew up with Vans and skateboarding. When we hired him, we looked at him as more of an artist than a designer because he’s very unique in how he approaches footwear.

DD: Before joining Vans, what was your relationship with the brand?

Steve Mills: Growing up as a kid there were two brands I wore: Vans and Nike. At that time I had to get all my Vans through mail order. I distinctly remember my first pair of Vans. They were Sk8-His – black and white checkerboard on one side and red and white on the other. And when they came it was like Christmas. And from that day on I’ve always been a Sk8-Hi guy. I only wear Sk8-His or Slip-Ons.

DD: What inspires you on a day-to-day basis?

Steve Mills: It’s the things we do that nobody hears about that really inspires me. Being in the action sports industry, we’ve had a lot of our athletes get hurt, and some of them seriously. And Vans has taken care of them when we really didn’t have to because they’re part of our family. When Katrina happened, Steve [Van Doren] took a truck down to New Orleans with clothes and money and gave all that away. We take care of our beaches, we have clean up days, everybody’s involved, we give back to the community. Nobody ever hears about that. Also, at director level and above – which is quite an extensive number of people – most people have been here ten or twenty years or more. It’s definitely family. Bunny Caminiti, who’s one of our development people, still works with us. She’s in her 70s and she was one of the first employees of Vans.

DD: She must have some incredible stories.

Steve Mills: Yeah, and she’s still developing our shoes for us today. She did all the original patterns for the Era, the Authentic, the Slip-On, the Old Skool, the Sk8-Hi and the Half Cab. She’s been there well over 40-plus years and she’s still going strong. Bunny is the greatest lady. She didn’t design the shoes, but she made the patterns. She’s got the greatest attitude and everyone loves her to death. She could retire, but she loves working. She brings food and feeds most of our department every day – Jamaican garlic chicken, salads and vegetables. She’s everybody’s mom. So that kind of tells you in a nutshell what the company is like. We do a lot of things that you lose at a bigger company.

DD: What do you think it is about Vans that’s so compelling to people?

Steve Mills: First and foremost, we were the first and for a long time the only skateboard shoe around. The unique thing about us is that we were adopted. When the Van Doren family started the Van Doren rubber company it wasn’t to really be a skateboard company. It was just to make cool sneakers and you could bring your own stuff in and customise it. It was all made in the US. We got adopted into an industry in Southern California that just really took us to heart and we grew up through skateboarding and surfing. Nobody else has 40-plus years of history in the sport. We were also pretty much adopted into fashion and adopted by artists without really going after it. Things normally work if they’re organic and things that are forced usually don’t. Vans is a brand that’s really about the California lifestyle and what we believe in.

DD: The word authentic gets thrown around a lot in fashion these days, but it’s a word that really rings true in relation to Vans.

Steve Mills: We’ll hang our hat on authenticity. It’s not a word we use lightly. And the beauty of the brand is the same five shoes that founded the company are still probably our top five shoes. Not a lot of people can say that.