pillowHeat x sneakers MAG ¬ under the RADar ¬ custom(er) culture ~ the history of vans customs December 04 2014
with house of vans opening in august and now proceeding to cement itself as the premier london establishment of core, community and creativity, the visit of steve van doren to said opening reinforces for me the original incarnation of the name, and i'm not talking about the brooklyn venue. what seemingly went under the RADar as such is the fact that the vans brand actually began their near-50 year tenure in the 1960's as the house of van('s)! a grass roots, in-house retailer of canvas casuals that would go on to shoe a generation of core sports enthusiasts and embody the playful and homely family values that house of vans london now strives to represent.
from day 1 of business on march 16 1966 vans were essentially a bespoke, made-to-order factory-direct retailer. in their hurry to open for business the van doren's had no inventory, and simply had empty boxes lining the shelves whereby those initial orders were 'customade' for collection the following day. of course those boxes would all soon be full but the precedent was set from day 1 for individually tailored canvas casuals. in that very event of satisfying the customer at whatever cost, the van doren's set themselves apart by offering the only on-site manufacturer and retailer of canvas footwear which even by todays standards was light years ahead!
not only was the custom culture established on day 1 but so too the 'catering to a whim' which vans became infamous for. as legend has it on that 1st day, a customer's desire for a lighter shade of pink or a deeper shade of yellow led to the 'house of vans' tradition. herein one could provide their own half yard of fabric to construct their very own personalised footwear. as such, for over 20 years the van doren's charged an additional $1 to provide one's own materials from anything including the kitchen curtains to a leather jacket to become the shoe uppers! a 19 day turnaround from east coast to west allowed jackson brown for example to bring down his battered snake-skin trousers to give them new life as a pair of scaled down style #44 (authentic). before nike ID. long before adidas mi zx flux. the foresight of this concept is pure genius!
style #17 HOV custom via deluded monkey
thus continued the culture of customisation which only evolved further to offer made-to-match footwear for cheerleaders & drill teams. word also soon spread that vans could produce almost any conceivable combination of colour, width, size, & materials which saw podiatrists sending problematic patients in for bespoke alterations, local skate groms looking for bi-tonal combinations of style #95 (era) and eventually skateboard legends like tony alva coming in for 1 shoe at a time to combat the thrashing given to the trailing leg. paul van doren was a systems guy & before too long extended his in-house operation to offer nation-wide mail order customs and instore binders of canvas samples for every colour of the rainbow. as it were, if it wasn't for this freedom of choice, the kids in the 70's without the option for a blue/red/blue style #95 (era), or a blue/gold/blue style #98 (slip-on), the evolutionary foundation of the dogtown revolution may have been a bit less colourful.
the vans culture of custom-canvassing the nation had evolved so much to the point where it had become inherent within the brands perception. all the myriad of combinations the van doren's saw the kids conceiving, had a strong influence on what they supplied the retail stores. then there were prominent retailers/distributors around the world who would customise their own stock options to dress according to the styles and flavour of the moment including the demands of the 80's italian paninaro scene for example. of course production of vans moved offshore mid 90's and arguably this too saw the end of the custom culture as we once knew it. the tradition was re-established however in the late 00's as the web based virtual program we know today operating stateside. it is without the same romanticism as flipping through the binder of canvas options, without the spontaneous flair of providing your own material & watching it materialise.... however it still resonates the freedom of expression which vans and america is all about. the original house of van's housed an overtly radical yet undervalued concept which sadly is now somewhat a lost art that will travel under the radar of RAD until the house is re-built 1 shoe at a time. here's hoping the 60's tag line still stands true.... "if there ins't a house of van near you- there will be soon!"