Dan Ahwa

Interviews

Tony Alva

Vans is revolutionsing its footwear through innovation and its rich Californian storytelling. We explore Brooklyn with the global launch of Vans ComfyCush

Inside The Vans ComfyCush Launch In Brooklyn With Tony Alva

By Dan Ahwa, Viva Magazine

A current viral challenge gaining traction on the internet shows participants throwing their Vans sneakers in the air, which then gracefully land without fail on their soles. It’s the type of thing my 12-year-old nephew, Zac, is fascinated by. One video showing a pair of Vans being thrown 10 times and landing on their soles every time, has racked up 2.5 million views on YouTube.

This reflects a real buoyancy in the business of selling the Californian skate dream to the world. Vans know this and in its 53 years of existence, the sneaker giant has managed to create desire and demand based on the knowledge that skate culture will never die. Purely focused on the Californian market in its first 26 years of business, Vans has built a cult following for its range of distinctive sneakers for men and women, infiltrating skate communities across the world — and beyond. Everyone is sporting sneakers these days, and for a brand that’s long catered to its niche community, the time is right to provide a shoe that can be worn by everybody, anytime, anywhere.

Its owners, the publicly traded clothing giant, VF Corp., which also includes brands such as The North Face, Wrangler and Timberland, reported that its apparel and footwear sales rose 35 per cent in the last quarter of 2018. The company hopes Vans will reach $5 billion in sales by 2023. Having grown 25 per cent in its most recent quarter, and expanded at an average 15 per cent annually over the past 15 years, Vans has organically evolved from being a reliably comfortable cult-cool brand into the multibillion-dollar juggernaut it has become today.

Skate Icon Tony Alva

Skate Icon Tony Alva

Its most recent global launch held in Brooklyn in February debuted its latest technology dubbed "ComfyCush" — essentially a more comfortable cushioned foam-based rubber sole with an elasticated tongue to prevent slippage, introduced across five of its classic sneaker styles — Era, Authentic, Classic Slip-On, Old Skool and Sk8-Hi.

Unveiling this new product, Vans created a back-to-school themed event complete with turquoise lockers (turquoise is the colour of the foam), class photos, a performance from a marching band and a science class with senior director of footwear design Nathan Lott and global product merchandising manager Matt Pino, breaking down the technology behind the foam. But it was a "history class" with iconic skate pioneer Tony Alva that had everyone talking.

As one of the original members of the iconic Z-Boys — the Zephyr skateboarding team of the 1970s from Southern California — Tony shared what it has been like working with Vans since 1974, helping design the off-the-wall skate shoe (the original skate shoe), and the history of West Coast skate culture, from its surf roots to the strong influence of Chicano (low-rider) car culture.

“Vans were not only a part of West Coast style, but they were functional and something that we loved to associate the Los Angeles surf and skate culture with. L.A has always been a very car-centric city, particularly the car culture based on the ethnicity of the east L.A neighbourhood. To bring that culture into the product is like a dream job and it’s a total honour. It makes me feel important and respected — but not in an egocentric way, rather in a way that makes me feel my experience is valuable and helpful to others.”

It’s not unusual for members of the surf and skate communities to proclaim a spiritual love of the sport, but to communicate that culture through its product on a global level can be a tall order for Vans senior director of marketing Kelly Murnaghan. “It’s got such a strong West Coast identity, so we thought 'let’s launch in Brooklyn, in an urban environment'. This product is great for people who are on their feet for long period of time, so it made sense for us to launch in a city where people walk everywhere. It’s been a challenge to try and introduce this correctly as the product looks the same on the outside, but is a total game-changer in terms of comfort.”

Celebrating the new technology was also a chance for Tony’s input as a skating pioneer to further validate the shoes' promise of better comfort no matter where you are in the world. Having spent some time in Raglan a few years ago, Tony’s connection to New Zealand is a memorable one. “It was one of the most beautiful surfing experiences I’ve ever had, super spiritual. I love how the Maori culture has a deep appreciation for nature; and the belief that in everything you perceive and behold there’s a bit of God in it. I find that in a lot of indigenous cultures. But it’s also what skate culture is about.”

Tony adds some advice for skaters young and old: “You have to hold on to the essence of the natural energy that comes from an activity like that. Don’t lose it. When I was young I was just going for it on pure adrenalin and egocentric will. But I don’t run my life like that anymore. I do it from a much more intuitive perception. My perception of the world, in general, has evolved to a different level.”

Dan Ahwa