Messing with the Classics: Interview with Rian Pozzebon

INTERVIEW WITH RIAN POZZEBON BY SCOTT PARSONS
FEATURING ARCHIVAL PHOTOS FROM HENRY DAVIES OF PILLOWHEAT


Messing with the Classics: 
How Vans Salvaged Their Past to Build a Future

The ubiquity of certain designs is easy to take for granted. They seem to lay such an indelible mark on our visual culture that it’s hard to imagine them ever wavering in their permanence. One such imprint is Vans—a brand whose silhouettes and patterns are arguably more recognizable than the name Van Doren itself. It’s simple to assume that the 50+ year run has been a steady construction of an iconic heritage brand. But Vans wasn’t always the stable and storied imprint it is today. A bleak period of dwindling credibility, loss of identity, and a failure to document and draw from their past left Vans on the brink of obsolescence. The rise, fall, and ultimate rise of the brand wasn’t a marketing plan drawn up on a boardroom whiteboard. Instead, it’s a story filled with unlikely characters including designers from major athletic brands, sales reps outside of skate culture, unfortunate puffy skate shoes, and two pattern makers who weren’t afraid to dumpster dive to preserve history. The other key player in the return from the edge is Rian Pozzebon, Vans Global Director of Design, Color, and Trend. Early on in the interview process at the company, Pozzebon asked the fateful question: “Can we mess with all the classic stuff?” It was a query that led to the creation of a patchwork Vans archive sourced from some odd places. Pozzebon shared the entire story from his office in Long Beach—a mere 36-minute drive from Anaheim, the birthplace of Vans.

How did Vans get to where it’s at today and how does your own story fit in?

I started about 15 years ago. My friend Jon and I lived together in L.A., and grew up in that vicinity. Skate culture was changing and becoming more and more popular around then. The brands just kept getting bigger and bigger. We were young and always wanted our own identity. When skate shoes became more popular, it pushed my core group of friends away. We were looking for other ways of standing out instead of just buying the puffy skate shoes.

Is that why collections like Vault and Syndicate came about? To remedy that period and re-think the vintage Vans catalog?

Exactly. When the opportunity for working at Vans came up for me and my friend Jon, our whole interest was that huge retro catalogue they weren’t using or taking advantage of. All they were doing was making puffy skate shoes. So, when we went and interviewed we asked, “Can we mess with all the classic stuff?” They said, “Do whatever you want, your responsibility is to try and get us back into the skate shops and make our skate program better.” Most of the designers were from outside the culture, and came from a sports background.

Is that why archiving the retro catalogue wasn’t a priority?

They didn’t do much to archive anything—even the good stuff. Their focus was more on new product. If you look at the old branding and the product of the era, they were trying to be more “modern” and “technical.” When I got there, I immediately asked, “Where’s the archive?” And we were finding that there was nothing. From that point on, Jon and I, and other people who were on the same page, started to collect whatever we could.

Where were you searching and what were you looking for?

People would leave the company and you’d kind of just have to scavenge through their desks to find vintage catalogues. We didn’t even have a catalogue archive. I did find one later hidden in the legal department file cabinets. They had a huge back catalogue, but no one knew they had it. Even the legal department didn’t know they had it. It was photos, line sheets, line drawings, color photos, and one-sheets—a lot of the stuff from the 80s and early 90s when everything was still made in the USA. It was all the USA-made stuff that I was trying to dig into, to try and understand how things worked earlier on, the stuff I was familiar with.

Were you ever able to get a pair of the custom Authentics when you were growing up?

My mom wouldn’t let me do the customs… I didn’t get the customs until I was in Junior High. I got a custom pair of suede Chukkas, grey suede with the black outsole. That was my first custom. But the thing that’s funny is that I graduated in about ‘93, and in about ‘92 or ‘91, they weren’t making or selling Old Skools in the stores. I saw them in an old skate magazine and thought “those are sick.” I had to go to the Vans store and get them to custom a pair of Old Skools.

So, they were only doing Old Skools as customs then?

Customs were never a problem. The area that I grew up in wasn’t a very wealthy area. It was kind of more blue collar. The area above was wealthy; the cities below were poor. The Vans store was just there in the middle and the store had stacks and piles of reject customs for cheap. As soon as we started skating in ‘89 and into the early 90s as kids, we were going through shoes so fast. There was an older dude who taught us how to buy the reject customs with all the crazy colors and then take them home and bleach them. You put them in the wash with bleach so all the suede would turn to a chocolate color, all the canvas turned to a khaki color, and then the side stripe was white or black already. If you go back and look at the early days of skating in that era you’ll see a lot of those types of shoes, mainly because all us kids were bleaching and dying the rejects from the shop. With all the crazy colors, you’d kind of just want to tone it down.

Henry Davies, owner of pillowHeat, an online shop and storefront in London which specializes in deadstock, rare, and unique Vans footwear. PillowHeat takes the cake as the ultimate archive of Vans, surpassing even the company’s own archival efforts, with Davies as its chief historian. Davies boasts almost a complete product archive of Made-in-USA era Vans, and has dreams to one day fill the shoes as the official archivist for the brand. Thanks Henry for sending us some rare photos from his archives :) 

What models would those have been around that time?

In the late 70s, they created the Sk8-Hi and the Old Skool. In the late 80s you were basically vert skating or transitioning from vert to street. You’d run Sk8-His until you started cutting the tops off, then you’re running Old Skools after that. Not many people skated in the Authentic or the Era, that was all earlier.

It’s interesting that you mention those styles, because they seem to be the pillars of the vintage Vans aesthetic now, even though there were thousands of earlier Vans styles. Is that a conscious decision, to only re-release certain styles for now? Or is it just because those are what people want?

It tends to be more about the demand. A few of us have been interested in trying to bring back some of the obscure ones. But a lot of times we’ve brought stuff back and it just sits in the catalogue and the retail environment ends up not picking it up. If retailers aren’t picking it up and they’re going more heavily towards the Slip-On or the Authentic, that’s what’s selling for them. Selling the unique product takes far more work, unless you have the brand leverage of someone like Supreme. We’ve launched several new products with Supreme through the years because they’re always digging in and trying to find that unique thing. One of the ones they brought back was the Style #86 Lampin Shoe. They did ok, but most people have no idea what it is or its history. It goes against the grain of what the market is looking for, not just for Vans but outside of Vans too. When they do a shoe like that, they don’t brand it with a giant repeat Supreme logo on the side. It ends up just being a unique Vans model.

But that must be the allure to a certain subset of people, right?

For sure, but that’s a small group. That’s the challenge, it’s a small group who’s interested in it.

It seems like, more and more, those vintage designs are sneaking back in. I’m thinking specifically of the recent ALYX collaboration that took cues from the vintage Coors and Rad! collaborations. Are collaborators able to pull anything from the archive as far as styles or inspiration?

Matthew, who does ALYX, got in touch with me, and he remembered the Rad! shoes from way back. He remembered the Syndicate models that had the Rad! logo on the side, so he basically pulled that stuff out and wanted to do something with a more BMX feel. He’d do a Google search and find something and then

I’d send something back from all the catalogues from back then as well, that show all the custom foxing tape options on the side. There would even be contests back in the day where you could submit a drawing to try and have it be one of the catalogue options for people to buy. I think I tried to submit something once but it didn’t work out.

The amount of styles, colors, and patterns from back then is staggering. Has there ever been a model or style that no one knew existed, only to be unearthed later from old documentation?

There’s a bunch of them. You were asking before about some of the treasures we’ve found, there was one key one with this guy, Mike Hillman. He was one of the original graphic designers for Vans and the one that created all the original prints and sidewall tapes. When I first got there he was super protective, but he had all of the original screen-print films that you would use to burn the screens to make the artwork. When he left I was eventually able to find it. After that we had a really good archive of all these original prints and patterns that were on these films. That to me was one of the best finds.

Apart from patterns and styles, is color something that’s influenced by the archived pieces as well?

For sure. For example, when we created the new Anaheim Factory Collection, the colors were derived from the original swatches that we have archived now. The biggest challenge with hanging on to the historical stuff was that Vans used to be this family company that eventually grew and moved from one building to another, to a different warehouse, to a different factory. Then in the 90s, it was purchased and went public and the bankers came in and restructured, moving production to Korea and removing the USA-made part of the brand. In the move of all that stuff, they were just junking and throwing away everything.

But there were two women, Adaline Harrell and Bunny Caminiti, one of the early developers for Vans. Bunny, who was a pattern maker, designed the Half Cab, the Caballero, and Mountain edition. Before there were designers, there were just pattern makers who would generate designs.

So, she was the designer and pattern maker for all of those shoes?

Bunny was the main pattern maker, so she would talk about the design with somebody and then she would go make the shoe. If you look back at our history, at the Mountain edition, the Full Cab, and the Buffalo Boot, you’ll see that they are similar patterns. Basically, they would just remove a panel from the pattern and it would be released as a different shoe.

This was because Steve Van Doren’s father always wanted to make sure that they were maximizing a cutting dye. They never wanted to open-up a cutting dye for just one shoe. So, they’d make multiple shoes from a pattern that each served a different purpose. One might be laces, another might be Velcro.

You end up with a ton of shoes because a lot of the panels would carry across. The Authentic and the Era—for the most part—have the same front panel and tongue. They just generated a different back panel.

So everything was getting thrown out around them? How did the two pattern makers you mentioned fit into the story of that period?

Yeah, Bunny and Adaline started pulling stuff out of the trash while Vans was restructuring, and they saved all the original material rings and all the colors. They saved the books they had back in the day. They’ve kept all that stuff super-secret and underground. I’m glad they did because often times you share something with someone, then they share it with somebody, then it’s gone. Adaline and Bunny keep it strict, but working with them—they’re also the developers for this project—we’ve used colors and materials they saved. We cut swatches of it and sent it out to color labs to correctly match all the colors to the original colors of the swatches they saved. The color palette of the Anaheim Factory Collection is all based on those originals, and the canvas and the liner base as well.

And preserving and recreating that history is only possible because Bunny Caminiti and Adaline Harrell took the time to pull all that out of the garbage and keep it?

Yeah. They’ve been a rad resource.

So, what was the motivation behind saving the swatches, books, and patterns from the garbage?

I think a lot of it was that it was a major time of transition. Everyone involved just held onto that stuff that meant something to them on a personal level. It was special to see all of it. I don’t even know if they’ve exposed all of it to me yet. For Bunny and Adaline, this was their past. You put so much time into something beyond just your 9 to 5 that you start to feel that way. Bunny started in the early 80s, so she was 16 years deep in the company. That’s part of her past. So, you want to hold onto all those things and not let them go. I think that’s a big part of it. It wasn’t trash to them.