Peter: How did you start designing at Vans?
Neal: After a couple years into an Industrial Design degree at Arizona State Uuniversity, I made a shitty little portfolio of primarily all the models and drawing of my third semester in school. I took the six page portfolio to the ASR tradeshow and planned to have the sales reps I knew from my days at working in a skate shop introduce me to anyone in design departments from the brands at the booths.
However, earlier that day I was introduced to Rian Pozzebon at Vans, who still works here, and it felt like he was blowing me off too because he said something like “My boss is going to be back tomorrow…give me your phone number and I’ll give you a call tomorrow.” So, I figured I got the same response I had been getting from other reps during the day.
Then he called me bright and early the next morning and said, “My boss Grant is going to be here today at 11, so come by the booth at 11 and we’ll chat.” Those guys were very responsive and cool, and I just kept in touch with them over the next semester at school. At that point, someone had quit in the footwear design department, so they had an open desk and said, “Why don’t you come out and internship for the summer.” So between my sophomore and junior year I interned for three months while staying on a buddy’s floor. When I graduated two years later, they had an open position as an entry level designer in the skate category and they hired me.
That’s an awesome story.
I’ve been here (at Vans) ever since. That was nine years ago.
What were some of the things you were working on during your internship?
I was basically just hired as a temp because Vans didn’t have a developed intern program at the time—which we do now. It felt like I was waiting for projects to work on for the beginning of the internship and I was sitting by Nate Iott—who is actually my boss now—and we’d just be bullshitting about skateboarding and talking shit back and forth. Most of the time I’d just walk around and ask people what they were working on and if I could help out. Which resulted in me working on a lot of odds and ends. Then towards the end of my internship, I was put on a project for the moderate footwear category—which was distribution like JC Penney, or Mervyns. So, I got to do a basic puffy cupsole skate shoe. The shoe was weird, well, I guess it was fine for the time.
They also let me design the outsole for the shoe, and now when I look back, none of the lines on the bottom really line up because I wasn’t that great in the computer yet. I can’t believe I had that much control as an intern and no one checked my work on that one. Everyone I worked on that project with were really great about keeping me included on how everything progressed after my internship, pattern revisions, outsole blueprints. When they got samples they’d be sure to send me a couple that I could put in my portfolio.
The thing I was most hyped on during that internship was the dude who (still) oversees the Classics category, MIllsy, let me do some Half Cab colors.
Oh yes! What year was that?
I want to say those Half Cabs colors came out summer of 2007…which leads me into another internship story. I had some friends in New York and I wanted to get out there for another internship between my junior and senior year in school. Through Tom Cooke at Vans and my buddy Ben in NY, I ended up getting an internship at Supreme in New York doing mostly graphic design stuff for the summer. One day on my lunch break I went to Uniqlo to get socks, and as I’m walking up the stairs this Japanese couple browsing a rack right at the top of the stairs were both wearing colorways of the Half Cab that I had done the previous summer. They were just plain purple suede half cabs, but they were both wearing them. That was the first time I’d seen anything I’d done in the wild. I was so psyched. I wanted to go up to them and say something, but I thought that was too kooky. So instead, I just walked by pleased with myself.
How did things change when you were fully hired?
Just more responsibility. It was an interesting time. DC was doing really well with puffy shoes and we had a directive from above that we needed to compete with that. It was when big accounts like Zumiez, and even skate shops at the time, were really selling those bigger silhouettes. That was really the tail end of DVS really meaning something and DC and Osiris were still selling a lot of shoes at places like Journeys with all these wild colors.
What year was this?
It was 2008 and at that time there was an interesting dynamic going on in the skate category at Vans because most of the pros, or most of the team, would just skate the classics, while at the same time, we were making pretty shitty puffy shoes to compete at the mall with DC and DVS. It was weird.
I’d be designing a shoe with Geoff Rowley, and he’d have input and he would try to make it cool, but the intention was never that he’d wear it. The intention was to make a puffy mall-based shoe. The first XLT, he was actually into it. But then they just kept getting bigger and bigger. There was a shoe called the Rowley X that was designed right before I started that you would have never even seen as a skateboarder. There was another AVE shoe called the Avenge that was just big—a lot of foam, a lot of panels. There was a TNT II that was basically just a vulcanized dunk.
I remember those.
All that stuff was before my time. Then after that, things started to slim down, even from a commercial standpoint. Lakai was really big and vulcanized shoes started to come back. This was before the Janoski, which I came out in 2009.
So, what was the first shoe you worked on as a full-fledged designer at Vans?
My first real project was the AV 6. At that time, again, most of the pros were exclusively skating in the classics—especially AVE. So as designers, we really made an attempt to knock-off the classics in order to make the team comfortable. I don’t think it was the best strategy and we’re definitely in a better place now, but we did some decent vulcanized shoes in the process. In hindsight, we probably just should of done the pro classics sooner. But yeah, my first project was working with Anthony and trying to make the raddest vulcanized shoe we could.
So, was there a concerted-effort then to recover from the “puffy-era”? Did it come from inside Vans or did it come from the team guys? How’d the return to the classic shapes come about?
I’d say it was a mix of both. The writing was on the wall because that’s what the team was skating.
The Vans Syndicate category started in 2005. When those guys first started, they basically just wanted to make classics cool again, and also for skateboarders. They were trying to make a much better product to skate in. They developed better cushioning with removable PU (polyurethane) insole. I still think PU is one of the better materials to put underfoot because it doesn’t pack out as much as other materials. Anyway, Syndicate would do these limited projects and every once in a while they would do something like add a PU drop-in sockliner to an Era and a couple of the guys on the team would like them. Finally, in 2011, you could get a basic black and white Era Pro on a regular basis. So, at that point, we felt Pro Classics was the best way to go. We just wanted to make durable, longer lasting versions of the classics. They are still around today and maybe half the line at this point. We’re still making subtle improvements.
How involved was the team with the development of the Pro Skate line?
It took a long time to get the team riding them, quite honestly. Most of the guys, if they were skating anything that looked like a classic, it was still the basic classics construction. It wasn’t as easy as, “Hey AVE, skate these.” Mainly because the team guys are used to how the classics skate. It was a slow process. But at the same time, it was working in skate shops. Shops’ flow guys were really into them and skateboarders started to buy the Pros over the classics.
It has to be incredibly hard to design for Vans, when most people want the “classic" Vans look. How do, or did, you balance the desire to design a better classic versus designing something completely different from the regular Vans aesthetic?
We actually talk about that a lot. It’s sort of a blessing and a curse. We are always talking about what is pushing too far away versus what is too close to what already exists. It’s almost freeing in a way though. As a brand, we have five or six shoes that will always work for skateboarders. From the Half Cab to the Eras, colored up in hundreds of ways and with endless materials every season—we have that as a baseline. So, when we are working on a new project with someone, we can go back to the Pro Skate category and tell them “Here’s our line, here’s all the different Pro Classics, and they’re great…” and then we explain “…but you can’t just have one of these, because they may as well just skate one of them.” So, it’s nice because we have a stable base consisting of the best skate shoes in the history of skateboarding and we can just branch out from there and try to progress.
Tony Trujillo for instance, he skates mainly Old Skools and Sk8 His, so for him, it’s always challenging to see how close he can go for something familiar like an Old Skool or Era but also push a little bit and actually come out with a new product. I get that a lot of the guys are purists. A dude like Tony has been on Vans since he was 14 or something. It’s what he knows, he loves it. We are always trying to figure out ways to stretch beyond what’s been done.
From a design perspective, some athletic brands seem to think that their skate-line is beneath them—as in, the designs are not a reflection of what they and their technology, are capable of producing. Do you ever run into that sentiment at Vans?
I can see that. Even now, I think skate shoes have changed so much since you and I were kids. However, they are still viewed as “Oh, a skate shoe is a puffy shoe all suede blob.” Now, whether they are still like that in 2018 or not, all of it is just problem solving. As a designer you are just trying to find a way to make a shoe function better. It is usually related to fit, durability, flex, and feel. And yeah, you’re right, it is somewhat limiting because most kids that actually skate today just want a plain suede shoe that is also black. Regardless, if you grew up skating and you see kids wearing a shoe that you helped design, there is nothing better than that—knowing you helped a kid skate in his shoes longer or just make him feel better about how he looks when he’s on his board—making them more psyched when they look down at their set-up.
Let’s talk about some specific models. How’d the Andrew Allen Slip On come about? And who decided to throw the little rubber toe on them?
A lot of the time when we start a new Pro Classics project we’ll chat with marketing/TMs and get a recommendation for who they’d like us to work with that season. Most of the time it’s because someone is ripping and has earned their own Pro Classics project. It happened to be Andrew’s turn this time, so we had him in and asked what he wanted to do. He said he’d been skating in slip ons a lot recently and that he just wanted to do basic colors. That’s fine and all, but we couldn’t just do the same thing. So, we had some old USA-made Slip-Ons in the archive that had the half moon toe cap on there (for reference). Andrew was into it.
Okay, so I discussed this issue a bit in an interview with Dennis Busenitz a while ago, but do gum soles actually grip better than other colored soles?
I think so. The way you mix gum soles, they require a little more natural gum rubber compound, which is grippier than the synthetic gum. However, it is harder to work with and more expensive. If you skate a pair of vulcanized shoes with an all gum sidewall, it will feel grippier than a black or white sidewall. It’s probably one of those things where you think you're crazy, but it really is different.
Do you take it personally when someone isn’t into a shoe you design?
In general, when I started doing this, I took feedback personally. But you get over that in time. Also, when I first start designing shoes I was really excited about making something I was stoked on. Like I said, all I wanted to do was color up some Half Cabs, so I had a pretty low bar.
Well, a Half Cab colorway is a very important thing…and I’m not being sarcastic.
It’s still my favorite shoe of all time. Mostly because of all the pros who skated it over the years. But also, it is a fucking weird looking shoe. You look at it and it kinda doesn’t make any sense from a design perspective. It’s really blocky, most of the lines on the upper make no sense and the panel with the label on it is just there. If you take a step back—it’s kinda fucked looking, but I love it.
It does not make any sense except for the fact that it is a Half Cab.
The lady that designed the Half Cab, her name is Bunny, she’s in her 70s, and she still works here. She’s worked at Vans for like 35 years or something. She’s so rad. She’s kinda vulgar in the way she talks and she has a Jamaican accent. At the time, when they were designing the Caballero Pro, they used the same cutting dies to do the Buffalo Boot and the Mountain Edition. It was an effort to make three different shoes with the same cutting dies to conserve resources.
Going back to your original question, when you’re starting as a designer, you’re basically just trying to design for yourself. As you get more experienced, you start to try to balance other market factors. For me, I try to stay true to my original target which is the kid who I want to help skate better and longer.
What about the Waffle Cup? How did that develop?
So, Johnny Layton had a shoe on Vans after he won Am of the Year and was switch 360 flipping down everything. He was slated to have a second shoe and the idea came from Nate Iott. It got sampled enough to make it to catalog, but it didn’t make it to production. The shoe was going to be called the Vulctron. So, Johnny was going to get this shoe with the same waffle bottom, but with this new sole with added support. Marketing didn’t really know what to do with the technology at the time. They just took the idea as a joke. Vans in general has always struggled with how to present technology. That’s why the current advertising has a cartoony waffle guy—because as a company we’re always looking for a more tongue in cheek way to talk about a shoe. Rather than how a DC ad would look back in the late 90s with zooms and tech call out squares. So, it didn’t really help the project out that the shoe was called the Vulctron, and then they took the shoe away from Johnny because he left a few trips early and bumming out the TM. Also, the shoe was getting challenged in meetings, so it just didn’t make it.
What’s the next step for the Waffle Cup? Does Vans even want to take that technology further? What about a full cupsole?
We’ve tried some pure cupsoles here and there, and its never gotten as good of a reception as the Waffle Cup stuff. The Waffle Cup is a good Vans approach to a cup sole because it can have that vulc detailing. We don’t have anything in the works just yet, but we’ll probably be starting something with Kyle again.
What were you working on with Alex Olson before he left?
I liked that dude and working on stuff with him because he was bringing up pretty different ideas. Back then was when the Dylan Reider shoe was initially ridiculed for how risky it was, but ended up doing well in skate shops. So, Alex was kinda in that same zone where he wanted something different. We had initially tried to get him to push a shoe called the Versa. He was also pretty enamored with soccer shoes. So, we met up with him in L.A. and we bought up a bunch of soccer shoes for him to wear test. We tried to then design these indoor soccer inspired shoes, but it would always get to the point where he wasn’t satisfied with what we were creating. So, we’d get various shoes to the production stage and get a pair in his hands and he’d be like, “These things are disgusting.” There was a pair he hated so much that he wrote all over them. So we scrapped it. Then he was skating in these OTW shoes called the Prichard, which was a cupsole dress looking shoe with a thin rubber cup sole. They had a little notch in the sole that made them look like a heel, but they were flat. So, we tried to develop more of an oxford shoe for him to skate in. Once again, we’d get them to production and then he’d pull away again. It was always fun to design with Alex, but we just never came up with something that worked for him. It was sad to see him go because I liked watching that guy skate.
Have you ever thought about doing a slip on Waffle Cup?
We’ve toyed with the idea of putting a Waffle Cup on the Pro Classics, but it almost seems too easy in a way. Also, we’re more worried that if we did something like that then people would buy those over the Walker or the Crockett 2 and take money out of their hands.