Sole power

Vans footwear has been associated with the Californian skateboard scene for more than 25 years. John Cooper discovers why the company chose to open its global flagship on London’s Carnaby Street

Vans’ new shop on London’s Carnaby Street may seem like an odd move – there are, after all, numerous stores throughout central London that stock the brand. Yet the store’s opening is a proven strategy, with a history that dates back to the opening of the first Vans store, in Anaheim, California, back in 1966.

‘Board sports lifestyle brands’ as Daniel Le Vesconte, managing director at Vans UK, refers to them, have come a long way. One of the original skaters sponsored by Vans, Stacy Peralta, directed the 2001 film Dogtown and Z-boys, which documented the pool skating scene in southern California during the mid-1970s. A sport originally started by surfers looking for something to do when there were no waves, it has grown exponentially, along with spin-off board sports. The success of Dogtown was one measure of this success, but a more revealing statistic is the growth of Vans worldwide, with the company now owning 190 retail stores.

The Carnaby Street shop is designed by Kevin Bailey, vice-president of global retail for Vans, Dan Hones, vice-president and general manager of Mice DisplayWorks, and Ruddle Wilkinson Architects. Bailey and Hones describe the store as a ‘flagship for Vans globally’. They add that it ‘evolved from current Vans stores, with a refocus on Vans’ heritage. The use of wood, concrete and steel evokes the raw beauty – both natural and urban – of Southern California’s surf, skate and youth lifestyle.’

The history of the brand is obviously an important element in the design, which incorporates ‘subtle hints that communicate the chequerboard pattern that has been a Vans signature design element for over 20 years’.

It is hardly surprising that the company chose Carnaby Street as the venue for its most prestigious showcase. After years of tacky decline, when it became a stronghold for tourist souvenir shops, the street has started to emulate its hip neighbour, Newburgh Street.

The arrival of brands such as Diesel, Lee, Puma and Ben Sherman, as well as Mambo and O’Neill, which both have a similar surf-inspired image as Vans, has turned the area into a mecca for hip lifestyle brands. The redevelopment of Kingly Court over the past year has complemented the process. It may be commercially led, but these stores have changed the face of Carnaby Street for the better. The designers agree – Bailey and Hones think it is ‘the perfect location to connect the lifestyle Vans represents with London’s vibrant fashion scene’.

If the store itself is not enough for the crowd on opening day, Vans has another trick up its sleeve to improve the experience. The company’s top sponsored skaters were in the store on the opening day, doing what they do best on a skate ramp. Le Vesconte had high expectations: ‘Geoff Rowley, Steve Caballero, Tony Alva and Jim Greco skating a mini-ramp in Kingly Court will certainly make it a store launch to remember.’ There was also a charity auction of customised Vans slip-ons, with one-off designs by celebrities such as fashion designer Stella McCartney, illustrator Raymond Briggs and DJ/ producers Mr Scruff and Touché. Proceeds go to Surfers Against Sewage and Regain – The Trust for Sports Tetraplegics.

These events not only give people something to look at other than clothing and merchandising, they reinforce the fact that Vans supports board sports – whether that entails opening branded skateparks – there are eight in the US – or sponsoring up-and-coming athletes in the skateboard, BMX, surf or snowboard scene.

Sceptics may doubt the commitment of a publicly quoted company to what many consider to be marginal sports practised by disaffected adolescents, but recent evidence suggests otherwise. This summer’s X-Games – the World Cup of the adrenaline sports calendar – were held in Los Angeles in front of a worldwide TV audience of millions, with Vans running a roster of 30 riders competing in the games.

So when a company convinces its customers that it cares about something other than annual profits, it pulls off one of the biggest tricks of the corporate world, and still manages to skate away with the loot.

The Vans store is now open at 47 Carnaby Street, London W1

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