In honor of Vans 50th anniversary, we ranked its 50 best sneakers.
When I first went to visit my father’s family in the Philippines in the early 80s, we stopped over for a few days in southern California. And while seeing the A-Team van at Universal Studios was certainly cool, the highlight was visiting a Vans store. For an East coast kid who was into BMX and skateboarding, this was like holy ground. Way before every sneaker brand let you customize shoes on the Internet, Vans had actual fabric swatches that you could leaf through to put together your own model. I don’t remember what I designed that day, but the memory of the visit has stuck.
Similar experiences resonated with many others because now Vans is celebrating its 50th anniversary, an impressive milestone in an age when there are many here today, gone tomorrow brands. What’s more impressive is that Vans reached its golden anniversary by both innovating and staying true to its roots. So to mark the occasion we dug through the archives to find the 50 greatest Vans sneakers of all time, from Spicoli’s checkerboards to hyped collaborations.
1. VANS CHECKERBOARD SLIP-ON
Ever since Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli told Mr. Hand that he was a dick in Fast Times At Ridgemont High the checkerboard Slip-On has had an iconic place in sneaker culture and it looks just as good today as when it first came out in 1979.
2. VANS NAVY AUTHENTIC
Immortalized in the documentary Dogtown And Z-Boys, the Zephyr skate team gave us superstars like Tony Alva and the late Jay Adams. They brought a rebellious spirit to skateboarding that endures to this day and the navy Vans Authentic was a key part of their uniform.
3. VANS HALF CAB
Even though it’s Steve Caballero’s most famous signature shoe, it wasn’t his first. The Vans Cab was a high top, but Caballero noticed street skaters embracing the DIY spirit and cutting it down into a mid top so he asked Vans to make a production version and the Half Cab was born.
4. VANS X KAWS X THE SIMPSONS CHUKKA
To coincide with the release of The Simpsons movie, Vans partnered with a ton of amazing artists on 14 different sneakers. But the Chukka with Kaws stood out for many reasons. First, Kaws had incorporated the characters in his work before. Also, the ballpoint pen-on-lined paper style was something every doodler could relate to.
5. VANS X TAKASHI MURAKAMI SLIP-ON
Murakami is one of those most influential pop artists working today. And he happens to work in Vans Slip-Ons. So it made sense for the artist and brand to come together on these Slip-Ons with his brightly animated flowers and skulls.
6. VANS “I LOVE NY” AUTHENTIC
Milton Glaser’s graphic design work includes logos for DC Comics and Brooklyn Brewery. But his “I Love NY” campaign is his most enduring piece. The original sketches are now part of the MoMA permanent collection and the graphic looks perfect on the simple silhouette of the Authentic.
7. VANS SK8-HI
Simple and classic, the navy and white Sk8-Hi has stood the test of time and will continue to do so for decades to come.
8. VANS X SUPREME “POWER, CORRUPTION & LIES” CHUKKA
It isn’t easy to get guys to wear sneakers with roses on them, but Supreme managed to pull it off. This sneaker incorporated the album artwork, designed by Peter Saville, from New Order’s seminal album Power, Corruption & Lies.
9. VANS X DISNEY SK8-HI
The Disney characters are some of the most protected pieces of intellectual property on the planet, so to see them on a sneaker means a ton of bureaucratic red tape has been hurdled. It’s also nice to see Donald Duck get some love.
10. VANS X FUCKING AWESOME AUTHENTIC
With its Hulkamania-inspired typography and blunt message, Vans skater Jason Dill’s brand Fucking Awesome has an incredible edge to it. What was nice about these sneakers is that the all-over print obscured the message just slightly so it came across sotto voce.
11. VANS X ICE T SK8-Hi
Before he hosted a talk show with his wife or appeared on Law & Order SVU, Ice T was one of the godfathers of gangster rap and one of the first people to merge hip-hop and punk rock with his band Body Count. These Sk8-Hi’s paid tribute to that legacy with old english-style embroidery on the tongue and heel.
12. VANS X KENZO ERA
Kenzo, the brand started by Opening Ceremony’s founders, applied a print reminiscent of a chainlink fence on its Vans Era collaboration in 2012. It wasn’t too complicated or fussy. It just worked.
13. VANS X SUPREME X PLAYBOY AUTHENTIC
When these three brands got together, you knew something awesome was going to come out of it. Burgundy is a sleeper sneaker color and it worked great with the bunny ears and the Supreme logo.
14. VANS X MARC JACOBS SLIP-ON
Designer Marc Jacobs has done a number of Vans projects in the past, ranging from large polka dots to bright patent leather. But this Slip-On from 2007 was the most clever. The print of an Old Skool on top of a Slip-On silhouette created this awesome optical illusion.
15. VANS X STAR WARS “YODA ALOHA” AUTHENTIC
At first glance, you might think this was just another Hawaiian floral themed shoe, but then you catch Master Yoda peeking out and you realize “clever they are.”
16. VANS X GOSHA RUBCHINSKIY SK8-Hi
Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy is able to filter the 90s skate scene through a Cold War lens to produce some of the coolest menswear out today. For his collaboration with Vans, he tweaked the Sk8-Hi to look similar to a Vision Street Wear model from the 90s, complete with ollie guard and an all suede upper.
17. VANS X SUPREME X CAMPBELL’S SOUP HALF CAB
While not a direct collaboration with the artist, Andy Warhol was certainly front of mind when Vans and Supreme released their 2012 collaboration. An Authentic and Sk8-Hi were also part of the collection, but the Half Cab was the star.
18. VANS 50TH ANNIVERSARY PRO CLASSICS ERA
As great as the classic Vans styles are, they don’t always offer all the support that modern skaters need. The Pro Classics Era is built with extra cushioning and durability and this red and navy colorway is inspired by the shoes old school skater Stacey Peralta wore.
19. VANS X BARBOUR ERA BROGUE
Both Vans and Barbour are known for their work with canvas, so it was cool to see them work together. Barbour brought its knowledge of waxed canvas gained from its renowned jackets to the sneakers which ended up with a refined look worthy of an upper crust British gentleman.
20. VANS X TYLER THE CREATOR OLD SKOOL
Rapper Tyler the Creator played a large role in hip-hop’s gravitation towards Vans in recent years. The fact that he is a legitimately good skater only added credibility to the collaboration on Tyler’s favorite Old Skool silhouette. The pink foxing, while bold, meshed perfectly with the blue, green and khaki uppers.
21. VANS X THE BEATLES
It’s The Beatles, what else do you need to say?
22. VANS SYNDICATE X WTAPS “BURGANDY BONES”
The crossed bones that have been central to many of WTAPS (pronounced Double Taps) collabs creates strong imagery that especially resonates in the skate world with those who remember C.R. Stecyk’s rat bones logo for Powell-Peralta.
23. VANS X BODEGA CHUKKA LX
Sometimes what you don’t see on a Vans sneaker is as important as what you do. As great as the tonal olive upper and the work boot laces were on this Chukka LX made in collaboration with Boston boutique Bodega, it was the Realtree camouflage lining that really set these apart.
24. VANS X PEANUTS SK8-HI LX
I mean, who doesn’t like the Peanuts gang? And the fact that they chose to feature Snoopy’s alter ego Joe Cool on these Sk8-Hi’s makes them even better.
25. VANS X HUICHOL TRIBE SK8-HI
The intricate beadwork that artisans in the Huichol tribe of Mexico do is absolutely remarkable. Thousands of tiny beads are placed in ornate patterns on sculptures both large and small. So seeing that same level of craftsmanship deployed on a sneaker was equally mind-blowing.
26. VANS X MR. CARTOON AUTHENTIC
Scheduling an appointment to get inked by legendary tattoo artist Mr. Cartoon isn’t easy. He’s worked on everyone from Eminem to Justin Timberlake. And while these Authentics, which featured Mr. Cartoon’s work, weren’t much easier to secure, they were significantly less painful then a tattoo.
27. VANS X CURTIS KULIG AUTHENTIC
Strolling through downtown New York City, you see artist Curtis Kulig’s “Love Me” tag everywhere. It’s a simple yet powerful message that was deployed elegantly on these Authentics that were released in February 2013, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
28. VANS X HELLO KITTY AUTHENTIC
Vans have always been more or less unisex, but that hasn’t stopped the brand from doing women’s only collections that left many guys wishing for smaller feet. The black-and-white Hello Kitty on these Authentics kept them from feeling too juvenile and leopard print always looks great on a pair of Vans.
29. VANS X IRON MAIDEN “KILLERS” SLIP-ON
Headbangers who like to throw up their metal horns have always been partial to Vans and the affection is mutual. So when the brand partnered with legendary Metal band Iron Maiden on a Slip-On that featured Maiden’s mascot Eddie it was a perfect fit.
30. VANS X BLENDS SK8-HI ZIP
California boutique Blends took one of the most recognizable aspects of a Sk8-Hi and put its own spin on it by designing the sidestripe to look like bones. The leather used on these was also buttery soft.
31. VANS X MOTORHEAD ROWLEY PRO
Most Vans collaborations have centered on classic models like Old Skools and Slip-Ons, so it was nice to see longtime Vans skater Geoff Rowley work with legendary brand Motorhead on his awesome pro models. The shoes were approved by Lemmy himself, which is really all you need to know.
32. VANS X OPENING CEREMONY X MAGRITTE AUTHENTIC
Vans has worked with many top artists over the years, but they have tended toward modern artists. In conjunction with Opening Ceremony, the brand was able to use the works of a true master, surrealist Rene Magritte.
33. VANS X RAD AUTHENTIC
The 1986 movie Rad was Hollywood’s interpretation of the BMX world. There are some truly cringe-worthy moments, but Lori Loughlin was in it and it’s since achieved cult classic status. Vans made these Authentics in the colors of all the BMX teams in the movie, but if you saw the film the only one that mattered was Cru Jones’s red, white, and blue version.
34. VANS VAULT X TAKA HAYASHI X PENDLETON SLIP-ON LX
Designer Taka Hayashi consistently looks to Native American culture for inspiration for his sneaker designs with Vans. That meshed nicely with the Pendleton wool that was used in conjunction with leather on these Slip-Ons to give them a moccasin feel.
35. VANS X BARON VON FANCY AUTHENTIC
Artist Baron Von Fancy takes witty sayings and renders them in his own style of calligraphy reminiscent of old sign paintings. Some of the phrases on this Authentic included “Curiosity did not kill this cat” and “Find what you love and let it kill you.”
36. VANS X METALLICA HALF CAB
Metallica and Vans released a few sneakers to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its first album Kill Em All. But if you’re going to do a shoe for a metal band, there has to be a murdered out, all black version. And if it can have a clear sole with Kill Em All graphics on it, all the better.
37. VANS X BLUE NOTE “THE BLUES” SK8-HI
Blue Note is the jazz record label with a catalog that includes incredible artists like Art Blakey and Wayne Shorter. Oftentimes the artwork on the record covers rivals that on the vinyl itself. That artwork was celebrated on these Sk8-Hi’s with a cool blue overlay.
38. VANS CHECKERED PAST SK8-HI
The checkerboard pattern has long been associated with Vans, but the brand took it to the next level with these woven leather versions.
39. VANS X THE NORTH FACE DESERT CHUKKA MTE LX
This is the rare case of corporate “synergy” gone right. Vans and The North Face are both owned by the same company and worked together to produce this Mountain Edition Chukka that shares the DNA of both brands, including Vans styling and The North Face’s slip-resistant technology.
40. VANS X SUPREME X PUBLIC ENEMY SK8-HI
There are few more important groups in hip-hop history than Public Enemy. So it was great to see them get their due in the form of a Supreme collab. The yellow, red, and green colors were true to P.E. and the “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” quote on the foxing was the perfect detail.
41. VANS X XLARGE CHUKKA
Duck camouflage is one of the better camo patterns and it contrasts nicely with the bright yellow foxing.
42. FORD ECONOLINE
Get it? Just wanted to make sure you were still paying attention.
43. VANS X NEW YORK YANKEES OLD SKOOL
I hate the Yankees but it was hard not to tip my cap to these Old Skools. It’s incredible how the Bronx Bombers’ pinstripes completely transforms the look.
44. VANS X PEARL JAM SK8-HI
Vans paid tribute to the 20th anniversary of Pearl Jam’s monumental album Ten with two versions of the Sk8-Hi. One featured a plaid upper, which was a little too on the nose. But this version inspired by the departed SuperSonics was a great way for the band to represent its hometown of Seattle and the music that came out of that scene.
45. VANS X TRUTH X KEVIN LYONS AUTHENTIC
It’s hard not to smile when you see the playful monsters that artist Kevin Lyons creates. In this case, they were used to get folks to stop smoking in conjunction with the Truth campaign, so you could feel extra good about picking up a pair.
46. VANS X MARVEL SK8-HI
A great sneaker deserves to be immortalized by a superhero and the way that Spider-Man’s web was discretely incorporated onto the toe box on these Sk8-Hi’s still makes my Spidey Sense tingle.
47. VANS X SURFRIDER FOUNDATION “OFF THE WALL” ERA
“Off The Wall” has been Vans’s motto for a long time. It’s also the name of one of the most famous surf spots on the North Shore of Oahu. The two merged in this sneaker which featured a photo collage of great action and landscape shots from Hawaii.
48. VANS X SANTA CRUZ “SCREAMING HAND” SLIP-ON
Anyone who skated in the 1980s remembers the “Screaming Hand” graphic that artist Jim Phillips created for Santa Cruz. The illustration has become iconic and endures to this day. The box that the sneakers came in is as cool as the kicks themselves.
49. VANS VAULT X THE COBRA SNAKE X COLETTE ERA
This one was so weird it was good. Photographer The Cobra Snake and Paris boutique Colette decided to do an all-over print of a burger on the Era. Why? Who knows? But it makes me kind of hungry.
50. VANS X SKATEBOARDER MAGAZINE MID SKOOL
The Mid Skool is an often overlooked silhouette that is beloved by core skaters. So it made sense that Skateboarder Magazine worked up the sneaker for its collaboration with Vans. The retro box that they came in was icing on the cake.