GET A GRIP! A History of Sneakers vs. Skateboarding
Written by Nick Santora
Originally published in Route One Magazine (UK) Issue Number 2
Did you know the first skate sneaker was actually created almost a decade after the invention of skateboarding? The 1950s surfers from Hermosa and Manhattan Beach were the first kids to embrace the art of “sidewalk surfing,” by attaching roller skate wheels to planks of wood as a way to practice their maneuvers when there were no waves to ride. Because surf and skateboards were both made from wood and required the same riding styles, it was only natural for these kids to ride barefoot.
In 1965, as Anaheim hosted the world’s first skateboard competition, the International Skateboarding Championships, skating had drastically increased in popularity and kids began to hit Southern California’s empty swimming pools, looking for an alternative to flat ground and slalom. Unfortunately the combination of bare feet and clay wheels didn’t provide much traction and usually amounted to bloody and broken toes. The future of skateboarding was looking bleak due to the limited technology and equipment available to young skaters.
There were some skaters wearing Converse Chuck Taylors in the early 1960s, but in 1965, the Randolph Rubber Company created the first skateboarding sneaker, known as the Randy 720. Notice it looks very similar to Keds, or any boat shoe from this time period. Skateboards were still years away from using grip tape, so the sneakers needed to provide traction on deck. The sneaker’s outsoles were also reinforced and “TUFFER” thanks to RANDYPRENE rubber. The company didn’t last very long, but one of Randolph’s employee’s name is still synonymous with skateboarding today: Paul Van Doren.
That same year (1965), Paul and Jim Van Doren left Randolph, Massachusetts and moved to Anaheim, California to create the Van Doren Rubber Company. Randy’s, Keds and Converse were all making their own vulcanized sneakers and the brothers Van Doren felt that they could do it better. They spent 1965 acquiring the machinery to create a vulcanized shoe factory and within a year began manufacturing deck shoes under the Vans name.
The factory was located at 704 East Broadway and was attached to the first Vans retail store. Opening on March 15, 1966, Vans offered just one style, of sneaker, known as the #44 Vans Deck Shoe. Available in four colors – navy, white, red and loden green, ranging from $2.49 to $5.00 a pair. On the first day of trading they sold sixteen pairs of sneakers, all of which were made by hand, in the factory behind the store and ready for pick-up within 24 hours of purchase. Additionally, Vans began filling custom orders for anyone who walked in with materials that could be sewn into a sneaker. Everything from denim to high school team colors were being made into #44 Vans Deck Shoes, but the kids who really created the most far-out designs were the local surfers and skaters. Although many sidewalk surfers were still going barefoot, the more progressive skaters were wearing sneakers in order to attempt new moves and protect their feet. The most famous skate crew to adopt Vans sneakers were known as the Z-Boys, led by Tony Alva and Stacey Peralta.
Although many skaters had adopted Vans, it wasn’t until 1975 when Vans truly adopted skateboarding. After being approached by Alva and Peralta to create a custom shoe, Vans created the #95 model (known today as the Era), with a patented diamond waffle sole and padded ankle collar. The company slogan was, “Tell your friends about Vans” and the kids did just that. In Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach, many skaters started customizing the same color combinations which led Vans to add three multi-color stock models: navy/red, navy/yellow and beige/brown.
Vans’ connection to the Z-Boys solidified the brand’s credibility in the skate community, but also provided invaluable feedback that forced the evolution of skateboard sneakers. By 1976, sidewalk surfing was dead but pool skating was gaining popularity thanks to the invention of urethane skateboard wheels, grip tape and performance skate shoes. This new technology added a fresh breath into the sport of skateboarding, which was evident by the amount of concrete skate parks opening across America and Europe during the late 1970s. The Van Doren brothers were paying close attention and Vans began sponsoring the elite young skaters who were now competing around the world and featured on the covers of newly formed skateboard magazines.
This skating renaissance spawned another advancement in skate shoe technology: the high-top skate sneaker. By 1977 Vans introduced the mid-cut #37 (Midskool ’77) and by 1978 the even higher #38 (Sk8 Hi), were added to the line. By the end of the 1970s other brands were tapping into the skate market – some by choice and some unintentionally. Skateboard manufacturers like Makaha and Hobie were now succeeding with footwear by marketing their sneakers as skateboard equipment, while basketball hi-tops from a newcomer named Nike also began to infiltrate the skate world. Nike’s All-Court, Bruin and Blazer models were heavily favored thanks to their combination of style and performance. The colored suede uppers, responsive outsoles and reinforced toe caps were just as necessary for skating an empty pool as they were on the hardwood basketball courts. In Great Britain and Europe, skaters improvised with regional models such as the Adidas Nizza, Clark’s Stunter and Dunlop Skateboard Superstars.
Although other sneaker brands were emerging, in the late 70s skate market, Vans remained the leader thanks to their commitment to the culture and grassroots marketing initiatives. Vans was always tuned into what the local skaters wanted and from 1976-1980, was all about mixing colors and fabrics. Vans was such a basic shoe that they needed to be wild in order to stand out in a crowd. Additionally, their success stemmed from always listening to what their customers had to say, so when they noticed kids coloring in their midsoles with rainbows and checkerboards, they learned what trends were catching on in the skate community.
In 1980, Paul Van Doren had also just re-tooled an old slip-on sneaker model from his days back in Randolph and was ready to introduce this as a new style for the Vans line. Since the checkerboard pattern had been so popular with the skate kids, Vans decided to print up some canvas in a black and white version of the pattern. Just as they finished production on some new checkerboard slip-on prototypes, they received a phone call from Universal Studios who were looking for sneakers for a new movie they were producing called Fast Times At Ridgemont High. The lead character was a quintessential stoned-out California surfer named Jeff Spicoli and would be played by Sean Penn. Vans sent over several pairs of sneakers, but the checkerboard slip-on became the defining piece in Spicoli’s wardrobe, therefore immediately becoming the sneaker of choice for every kid who identified with his laid back personification of California skate and surf culture. Aloha Mr. Hand!
This global recognition for Vans proved to be a blessing and a curse in the early 1980s as the company tried to expand into other sports, such as running and basketball. They soon found themselves in financial turmoil. Vans were so consumed with getting out of debt that they didn’t spend a dime on marketing from 1984-1987. This self-imposed restriction affected everything from advertising to skater sponsorships and the company who had been the leader in surf, skate and BMX, now had to step aside for a while.
The void left by Vans allowed companies like Airwalk and Vision Street Wear to enter the market with skate sneakers that truly captured the style and energy of 1980s skateboarding. Converse also re-emerged during this period with their timeless Chuck Taylor, thanks to the placement in one of the decade’s biggest movies, Back To the Future. Speaking of big movies and basketball sneakers….
The Search For Animal Chin was the skate movie of the mid 1980s and featured the newest crop of skate superstars, including Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, Mike McGill and Steve Caballero. In the movie, all the members of the Bones Brigade, other than Hawk, are wearing Nike Air Jordan 1s. Tony Hawk is seen rocking a pair of Vans Skate His and there is a good reason for that: Since Vans had shut down their marketing budget, Tony was the only one who still had a fresh pair on ice. Movie producer Stacey Peralta called in a favor to a friend at Nike and was sent a box of Air Jordan 1s for his crew of young skaters to wear throughout the movie. Although these guys are all legends by now, they were still broke kids at the time and would wear sneakers from anyone who would send them for free. It just so happened the Air Jordan 1 was the perfect skate shoe, thanks to their bold color combinations, padded ankles, responsive outsoles and reinforced leather on the toe and ankle sections. Just as Nike had inadvertently entered skateboarding though basketball technology in 1977, the Swoosh was back a decade later thanks to the aerial performances of Mike McGill, which were just as impressive as those of Michael Jordan.
The Air Jordan 1 was being worn by skaters all over the world thanks to their exposure in Animal Chin and their discount sale price. The other Nike model popular with skaters during this period was the Nike Dunk, which was essentially a slightly remodeled Air Jordan 1 produced in college basketball team colors like black/yellow and red/grey. In 1987 Nike launched the Air Jordan II which created little demand for any leftover Jordan 1s sitting on clearance racks for as low as $20 in the United States. Compared to the new Airwalk Prototype sneaker that retailed for $50, the Air Jordan was a more suitable option for skater kids with no money in their pockets. The colors were right for the skate aesthetic of the period and some of the most notable heavy metal personalities like Dave Mustaine from Metallica (and later, Megadeth) were also incorporating these early Nike basketball styles into their wardrobes. The look and feel of skate shoes would change again very soon, but this wouldn’t be the last time skaters would be seen wearing Air Jordans and Nike Dunks.
In the late 1980s, street skating had evolved significantly thanks to the progression of the Ollie onto flat ground. This new trick was the most important achievement in the history of skating because it turned cities into urban skate parks. Skaters were now hitting the streets and skating stairs, ledges and handrails, rather than homemade backyard ramps. There was money to be made by pros who were pioneering street skating and appearing in videos, as it became far more accessible to kids who didn’t live near vert ramps or skateparks. One of the most popular skaters, of this era, was Natas Kaupas who had the stand out parts in both the huge selling Santa Cruz videos at the time. Natas (who always rocked leather Converse Cons at the time) was so sick that a new French company called Etnies signed the Santa Monica local and created the first pro signature skate shoe in 1988, with the name NATAS stitched right on the ankle. While Vans was regrouping, Natas signed with Etnies, Tony Hawk went with Airwalk and Vision Street Wear sponsored Gator, Ken Park and Kevin Staab. If Vans was going to come back into skating, they had to be ready to make some big moves.
Just before the turn of the decade in 1989, Vans came back onto the scene with the Caballero signature model. Stevie Cab’s first shoe featured a suede upper with extra padding on the tongue and collar, as well as double layered Ollie patch and stitching on a waffle sole. As street skating progressed into the 1990s, many skaters went back to wearing low tops and customizing their higher cut sneakers with scissors and duct tape. So many skaters were modifying their Vans Caballeros that the company introduced the Half-Cab a couple of years later in 1992, which continues to be one of Vans’ best selling silhouettes to this day.
The early 1990s saw a new type of tech street skating that required low cut, cupsole sneakers. The book Made For Skate refers to this period as the “Big Pants Small Wheels” era of skateboarding and by 1993, canvas vulcanized high tops were being replaced with more synthetic, chunky and technology-enriched styles. Airwalk was able to remain relevant for a few years with pro models (from Tony Hawk and Jason Lee) and the ultimate raver sneaker – the Airwalk One. Meanwhile several new companies were joining Etnies in the skate sneaker market. DC Shoes (born from Droors Clothing) introduced the Danny Way and Rob Dyrdek models and eS (also started by Etnies founder Pierre André Senizergues) entered the scene with pro skaters Eric Koston and Chad Muska.
Another huge influence on skate culture during this time were the Beastie Boys. In the 1980s, bands like Black Flag and The Descendents represented the punk rock side of skating, but the Beasties helped insert some Hip Hop into the scene. The sneakers of choice for these guys during their Check Your Head days were suede adidas Campus and Puma Clyde’s. By the time So What’Cha Want came out, every kid had gone to their local mom and pop sneaker spots asking for any deadstock adidas and Puma that could be lying around the stock room. Vintage Suedes with a Phillies Blunt shirt, Fresh Jive baggy pants and a Stussy skullcap were standard issue for any skate kid who was into the Beasties, Cypress Hill and House Of Pain.
One of the most iconic new designs of the decade was 1993’s Etnies introduction of low-cut sneakers worn buy guys like Sal Barbier. Going low broke all conventions at a time when hi-tops were still the norm. Truth was high-tops did provide more padding, but lows provided flexibility in the ankles. With the boom in street skating and kids organically gravitating to these old low-cut suede basketball models for look and performance, the writing was on the wall – Low tops, fat laces and puffy tongues were the new look in skating. One of the most famous sneakers that personified the look that lasted throughout the decade was the eS Koston 1. Shortly followed by Eric Koston’s second pro model, which broke even more ground when it became the first skate shoe to feature a visible air unit. Nike’s exclusive patent had expired and this technology in a skate shoe was a really big deal. As we know now, it also laid some of the initial groundwork of the Koston / Nike SB partnership.
The mid to late 1990s also saw the emergence of adidas, Converse and Nike into the technical skate shoe world. By 1998 skateboarding was seen as a legitimate sport to many and these big sports companies wanted to cash in on the business. Nike has always been entrenched in skate through their hard-wearing basketball shoes, European skaters were partial to the adidas Handball and Nizza, while the Chuck Taylor has always been connected to skating, along with the Pro Leather and Weapon worn by Rodney Mullen. All of these companies tried too hard to create new styles to connect with skaters and were all rejected by the community. It forced the brands to re-group and realize that sticking with the classics was their best option moving forward. Nike took this rejection to heart and came back heavy with the launch of Nike SB in 2001.
Around the turn of the new millennium, specialist skate shoe companies such as Lakai, I-Path and Circa were all producing quality skate sneakers, but Nike was ready to come back with a new approach. The first Nike Dunk retros were released in 1998 in a handful of their original colors, but by 2000, there were some low-cut models on the market known as Pro-B. Nobody really knew what that meant, but they were a low-top Nike Dunk with an extra-stuffed tongue. There was no special marketing for these shoes, but they quickly became very popular in cities like New York and Tokyo, where sneaker culture was dominant.
Then one day in 2002, a handful of new padded Nike Dunks, labeled SB, showed up at New York skate store Supreme. The models included all black for Gino Ianucci, white and blue for Richard Mulder, all wheat for Reese Forbes and a NY Knicks based colorway for Danny Supa. All of these shoes were mysterious, fresh to death, super limited, and suddenly commanding hundreds of dollars on eBay. Nike went back to what made them popular with skaters to begin with, basketball sneakers in bold color combinations. With the 1980s retro sneaker craze hitting the world hard it made perfect sense to re-issue unintended classics in order to get Nike back on the skateboarding map.
The Nike Dunk led the way for new SB models such as the E-Cue, URL and the brand’s first signature shoe for Paul Rodriguez known simply as the P-Rod. Nike was able to bolster their place in the skate world through meaningful sponsorships, community outreach and relevant lifestyle collaborations. Many of the flashy Nike collaborations such as the metallic Lucky Dunks and Dinosaur Jr. models led the way for a company like Supra to emerge with a skate lifestyle and fashion concept. Supra was founded by skaters who were able to cement the brand’s place in the skate and sneaker world with some futuristic silhouettes that toed the line between basketball, skateboarding and space exploration.
The evolution of skateboarding has traditionally been rooted in a spirit of adventure, creativity and determination. The do-it-yourself mentality has prevailed throughout the decades as skaters built their own boards and backyard ramps, and modified their sneakers with the use of markers, scissors and duct tape.
Who knows which direction skate sneakers will head in the future – vulcanized, cup-sole, lunar technology, higher, lower, fatter, slimmer, suede, canvas, leather? With so many choices from skater-founded brands like Emerica, Lakai, DVS and Supra to the athletic heavyweights such as Nike, New Balance and Adidas or the old classics like Vans, the modern day skater is spoiled with choices. Whether you’re looking for durability or greater board feel, it’s good to know the history of the shoes and brands you choose to skate in.