One afternoon, a sun-tanned 21-year-old actor named Sean Penn sauntered into the Vans store in Santa Monica, Calif., in search of a pair of comfortable shoes. Penn, who had recently landed a movie part playing a SoCal stoner dude named Jeff Spicoli, picked out a pair of slip-ons in a checkerboard pattern. Back on the set, Penn liked his new sneaks so much he told director Amy Heckerling he wanted to wear them on camera.
"The stylist contacted Vans, and they ran a bunch of shoes up to L.A.," recounted Vans public relations manager Laura Doherty. But "they had no idea what would happen."
What happened was Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the summer blockbuster of 1982. The film put Penn on the map, and it did even more for Vans.
Today, over three decades later, the inexpensive canvas shoes remain a staple of the countercultural uniform. "You have to admire the relevance of Vans," said Meghan Labot, managing director of Spring Design Partners. "It's taken the classic styling of the skate culture of the '60s and '70s and transformed it into a blank canvas to carry the brand through the next three generations."
In 1966, Boston transplant Paul Van Doren opened the Van Doren Rubber Co. in Anaheim, Calif. It sold shoes tagged with the founder's name, and its timing could not have been better. Skateboard kids from Venice Beach, Calif., soon discovered that Vans' waffle sole provided a superior grip on their decks. "The Zephyr skateboarding team, who hailed from Dogtown and who helped to pioneer what would become modern-day skateboarding, had blue Vans as part of their team uniform," related the keeper of the site Skate Culture, who prefers not to be identified. "Seeing those guys, who many held in awe, had an influence on those who wanted to emulate them." Vans became boarding's must-have shoe, and with a kick from Fast Times, they rode the slacker fashion trend across the U.S.
Yet unlike most fashion fads, Vans never faded. It moved effortlessly into the rock band and BMX scenes, creating wild and fearless designs that arose from partnerships with everyone from Marc Jacobs to Metallica. But in Labot's view, Vans' enduring relevance comes from entrusting both its product and image to its fans. "We are now in the age of customization," she said. "But Vans has been doing this since the beginning, giving consumers control of the style, color and materials of their shoes."
The result is a culturally malleable product that's somehow everything to everyone—while still just being a pair of Vans. "Vans is rooted in skateboarding," Doherty said, "but it's become a youth culture brand."
Indeed it has. In 2005, the Library of Congress added Fast Times at Ridgemont High to the National Film Registry, which means Spicoli's Vans are, for better or worse, an official part of our national heritage.
This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.