While touring the new Vans global offices in Costa Mesa, we chopped it up with Neal Shoemaker, the footwear design director for Vans Pro Skate.
Interview and portrait by Jeff Thorburn
Alright, I'm Neil Shoemaker. My last name's Shoemaker. I oversee Pro Skate and Surf footwear.
And you've been here with Vans for how long?
Just over nine years. I started in skate and kind of just gathered more responsibilities along the way.
Are you doing UltraRange?
Yeah, I did some of that. I did most of the outsoles for that stuff.
How's that been received in Pro Skate?
In Pro Skate, I think it's been okay. Yeah, it's been pretty good I guess, for people being receptive to a different construction that's not the vulcanized stuff, but it's not gangbusters by any means in Pro Skate.
Is it living up to what you expected?
I think it is, as long as people don't think it's super kooky.
I think that's fine. Like it works for what it needs to be, but it's never going to take over the regular vulcanized stuff.
Is UltraRange something that just moves the needle a little bit?
Kind of, most of what we wanted to do with that in skate was just basically like, one, introduce a different construction. A majority of the lines are vulcanized stuff, and kind of all built pretty similar. And then two, just kind of changing the profile read. So we look at the shoes from 10 or 15 feet away, and most of them have white-out soles and kind of seem the same sort of outsole. Like a slab topline, we wanted to just kind of vary that a little bit. So it’s got the toe bumper, the rubber shape sticks up a bit more than the EVA foam in the back. Then it kind of ramps up a little bit in the heel.
Now is introducing that a reaction to a demand for that, or is more about implementing something new to see how it’s received?
I'd say it's kind of both. Like there's a general demand for just non-vulcanized products since we have so much of that in line. And then just trying something new.
How is the skate team at getting behind new technology and designs?
It's a long process. So it took a long time from when I started just to get people out of skating regular classic stuff, so like Old Skools and Eras. Slowly getting them to just try like, “hey we have this thing, we did a new sock liner, just try it.” Even that takes a while, because you know, people want to be comfortable. They want to skate something familiar so it takes them a while just to get used to something new in general. But I find that now, a lot of the younger dudes and the flow kids—like we have this whole grassroots squad of people that do events—but also sort of like, regional flow programs. Those kids seem to be open to almost anything. They just want to be a part of a lot more.
So you'll give those guys stuff, they'll wear test or skate anything and then give feedback. And just the younger kids seem to be more open. Like they don't come into Vans with this set notion of like, oh, they're only classic vulc shoes. We have these consumer insights and these big kind of research firms come in and help out and then give general feedback on millennials and the generations after that. They’re saying that the generations after millennials are lot more open to new things, whereas millennials were all being authentic and classic. Maybe that's like super broad, but we still see it translate in a way in skate footwear where they're not all defaulting to Slip-Ons.
Two recent shoes that stand out to me and seemed to do well are the Kyle Walker and the Gilbert Crockett 2. Have those been wins in seeing success with something a bit different?
I think so. And I think that's something we can claim, we came up with that Waffle Cup stuff. It was a way to use stuff we're good at, the vulcanized stuff we're good at, and also merge it with cup sole stuff that maybe we're not as known for. We could offer something different and offer a benefit in a cup sole that maybe isn't available in the market.
Have the new Gilberts done well, those being the kind of newest pro model?
Yeah, Gilberts. His first shoe did really well, too. We had a project before that called the Stage Four, which was like a few of those guys, and that's kind of where the waffle cup came from. But that didn't do so great commercially. I think skateboarders liked it, but it was too plain of a shoe for I don't know, mass appeal. Gilbert's shoe, with a tongue label or a side stripe and a few more panels, peopled seem to like that. That one did pretty well. Kyle's even, too. And Kyle promotes the shit out of his stuff on Instagram, which I think helps.
He sure does.
Yeah. He loves it. He gets mad at us when kids hit him up for colours that are out. He's like, "You gotta tell me when these are online so I can get it on there." Like, sorry.
Amazing. Well, I think it's good to have those guys that aren't too cool to promote it and will actually wear their own shoe.
I think they all do it now. The marketing guys have sort of nudged them in that direction. I think they can kind of show them like, “hey look at all these benefits you can reap from this.”
I think maybe there's been a history, not just with Vans, but with other shoe companies too, where guys get their own model but don’t like to wear it.
You kind of get forced into things. Like maybe the brand has this certain technology that they want to do, and it's your turn, so can't always do the same thing. But Geoff Rowley has always been wanting to do something different than what exists already. I think he saw from early on the opportunity in doing something different and new. I don't know if some of those other guys like Gilbert and Kyle really ever thought that way, but Gilbert was always really down for like, "If it's my shoe, I want to wear it all the time."
So I think it's kind of a different mindset.
Where's Geoff at with making shoes, is it the end of the line?
I don't know, I think he's still skating quite a bit, but I don't know what he's up to. So for Spring '18, they're bringing back his first shoe in Vault. We're trying to say that's like kind of an Original, the way like the Half Cab is now a Classic. And then we just started planning for Spring '19. That'll be like the 20th anniversary of that shoe, because I think it came out in late 1999.
Could you see that shoe falling into the Classics line one day?
That's the hope. That thing gets requested every couple years, and it'll go away and then people ask for it. I feel like it should be around as a staple in some way. It's got a place, and it's completely different looking than a lot of the other stuff we have. I think at this point you could probably call it a Classic. It's 20 years old and still worn.
Yeah, true. So we did a tour of this new office, and we saw all the customization stuff back there. How much does that stuff affect your job?
Not very much.
Do you use it? Do you go back there?
There? No. I've actually never walked in that room [laughs]. But in our old office they had some stuff set up closer to where we sat, and there was a bit more involvement. Like those guys, they're part of the GIC, Global Innovation Center. So we've had regular check-ins with them on stuff they're working on, and they're really hungry to show us these technologies and these new things and then get us to latch onto it. Like, "We have this amazing idea, how do you see that working, where do you think it could fit in?" And part of it is they're just excited about coming up with new stuff. It's not just those couple guys that work out of here. There's a bigger office in New Hampshire. They're all like academics, like there's people who studied biomechanics, and then people who've worked in the footwear industry for 20 plus years. And they're just excited to do things that aren't tied to a specific business, or making money or anything. So then once they come up with these things, they're just looking for people to take it on, like, "Hey, we have this beautiful thing, use it. Do something with it." So we have a couple things in the works from them, but I don't know if it's anything that we can exactly talk about just yet.
Do you think that shops have a big influence on what the market wants to wear, or is it mostly from Vans own marketing?
I still think shops are super important. I don't know how it translates from the marketing, but I think, kind of like your point earlier about it being organic, and the athlete wearing it. Kids know when marketing's bullshit. Kids know when kids are actually wearing stuff. So it's like, they're all kind of in that culture. I don't even know if these bigger marketing campaigns have an effect on small shops like that, if that makes sense.
That's what I think, yeah. So what's the next skate thing that you're excited about that you can say, that you want to focus on or bring in?
I'm excited about that Chima 2. It should be like a pretty decent shoe for skateboarders, and dudes who don't skate, too. Kind of like his first one. So I think that'll be good. Other than that, we have this ArcAd subcategory now. I don't know if you've seen any of that stuff.
I have, yeah. Let’s talk about that.
We did a Made in USA shoe, that was like the last one that came out. But before that, the UltraRange was kind of launched through that as a way to showcase that new construction and the way that outsole gets molded together.
Tell me about the Made in USA models.
That's a cup sole product, like a pure cup sole, but the cup is gutted. So it's kind of just like the chassis doesn't have any heel height in it, so we could put in our normal pro classics sock liner. So it'll essentially still feel, underfoot, the same way like a Pro Classic would. We had to do a cup basically because we couldn't find a vulcanizing factory in the US. But we managed to find a factory that Timberland has used for some high end boot stuff. I think it's in Arkansas. It's like outside of Memphis. It was a couple years in the making. This other dude Nate, my boss, he kind of spearheaded that. One of the developers worked for a while to try to figure out how to get something made in the US.
Yeah. What's the ultimate goal with that project?
You know, I don't know. We're going to try to do another Made in USA project. And I'm sure it'll be just as small as that one. Which, I think we made like, 700 pairs total. Probably the ultimate goal is to have a bigger component of the lifestyle side of the business be made in USA. But we're just kind of like testing the waters at this point.
Is ArcAd meant to be any sort of replacement to Syndicate?
In a way. It is but it isn't. So, we had Syndicate, and then after 10 years of Syndicate being around, it just, it wasn't really doing what it was supposed to do from a shop standpoint. The account base was getting broader, projects weren't selling out or selling through like we wanted to in the past. It was just maybe going to the wrong places, too. So we decided we should just kind of cap it off. And it worked out to where we could do it at like a clean 10-year period. So we did that, and then there was a lull for a year with the 50th anniversary stuff. After that ended, that's when we started the ArcAd stuff. And the goal with that was to basically cull the account base back down to, really it's the most important shops. I guess the last component of ArcAd is just like getting weird. So having a place to maybe try things, and not have as much of a risk as like doing a whole new pro shoe and then like, "Oh, we need to sell thousands and thousands of pairs of this." So it's almost like changing the metric of success a little bit. Like that USA shoe, we could have never put that in any other category in a meaningful way because the price was so high. People would just balk at it.
So this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Half Cab. Can you imagine producing a shoe now that could endure 25 years?
I think it is. You still see this evolution of new technologies and things like that. Maybe the most recent thing that sticks out in my minds is that FlyKnit stuff Nike's done. So they literally figured out a new way to construct a textile that wrapped around your foot. And they're just built it like a sock. So it's like basically knitting a sweater for your foot. They did it right and launched it right around the Olympics, and it was this whole performance running thing. So the way they put it out, it was like very lifestyle, and shoe nerds were into it. But they sold it at mom and pop running stores that had been around for a while. And so it made it to where maybe like the normal sneaker nerds that want to get stuff would have to go out of their normal channels of cool guy shoe stores to get that stuff. They wanted to put it on runner's feet. But that thing's like, I think that thing's kind of like enduring, and it's only getting bigger and bigger.
But that being like a technology or a fabrication, is it-
Yeah, but I mean, I think it's creating a whole new look. Like the way that textile looks, and they wrap it around your feet, like that'll probably endure for a while.
That look, that slim but supportive look?
Yeah. For us, I don't know. I mean we're... Vans is very… we look back a lot. 25 years on the Half Cab, 50th anniversary of all this old stuff, so people are more open to it now. The Ultra Range is a good example of us trying new things with people being receptive to it. So I think that's like a nice marker of hope, like, "Oh look, we did something different, people liked it. Let's try to do that again."
Switching gears, Elijah Berle seems like the perfect guy right now to promote Vans, given his style and where he’s from. He seems like a likely person to get his own iconic silhouette. But he seems so tied to the Authentic.
Yeah, we've done like colourway stuff with him in the past, and he's very much like, "Oh I like that, and I want to translate that over here." I don't know, some of those guys, they just think differently. Some people are kind of like product people, and they want to nerd out about stuff like that. Other people are just like, "I like that, let me just have that."
Is it frustrating when the guys Vans wants to market, like Elijah and Curren Caples, seem just content with your existing product that sells fine on it’s own?
No, I think it's just, they're just different personalities. Like you just kind of tend to deal with them differently. I think as long as you're up-front about what you want to accomplish, or like, "Hey, we have an opportunity to so this, this is as wide as we can reach," you try to figure out a happy medium somewhere. Elijah's actually one where we're trying to do more stuff with him, and we're trying to push him a little bit further than maybe you'd expect from him. And he's been receptive so far, which is cool. So I'm hesitant but optimistic about a guy like that. Because I agree with you, he's just kind of like the perfect Vans dude. But there's also like a negative in there that he's such a classic guy. When he was young and he first started coming in, we had all these drop samples. We had Full Cabs and some other weird old stuff, and he loved it. He took a pair of Full Cabs from us that were size nine, and he's like a 10.5, and he went and skated a spot in San Pedro, under the bridge. He just tore the insoles out to skate those shoes and ended up getting a cover in them.
So do you have ideas for silhouettes and shoes you want to make, but it's just a matter of, “how can I channel this through skaters to get this to skaters?”
No, I think it kind of goes back to the point about knowing who you're working with. Like you might have an idea of a shoe or a technology you want to mess with, you would know who would be the appropriate person, who would be into that, or who might be receptive to that. So I think we kind of think about stuff in that way. Chima's getting a shoe next season. I have a general idea of what that dude's into by what he skates, and how far we can push him technology wise, or what he might be open to, versus a dude like Geoff, where he would be more open and more receptive to just doing a completely different construction, or totally different looks just based on his personality, like where's he's been in the past.
For Geoff or for Anthony van Engelen, who have probably had more shoes than just about anybody, in those cases, have they come with their own ideas of things they wanted to do a lot? Or is it you thinking like, "Okay, we're doing something new for Geoff, here's a couple ideas I'm going to run by him?"
Well, so Geoff specifically, he usually almost always has a sketch or a rough idea of what he wants to do. Pretty detailed to the point or construction. Usually he'll have even like, reference samples of like, "Oh, I want to build it like this, or I like this toe down." He's very, very involved in his product creation. I think it's almost like everything, like even the apparel side of things. That's just kind of like how he is. He's into that stuff.
AVE is a little more hands-off. But he's been more receptive, in recent years, like his last shoe, that was the all Rapidweld thing. That thing, he was basically lamenting how he had to walk his dog in these stupid Nike running shoes. So he's like, "I see this stuff everywhere, I feel like this is kind of the future, why don't we do something like this?" So that was maybe an unexpected one. We didn't think he would be receptive to some stuff like that, but he was. We made stuff, he liked it. Even one of the first samples we got, we were really afraid to show it to him, because it was clear, so you could see all the shit underneath.
And that was produced, right?
Yeah, that was the first color. And that one, we just thought he would react poorly and it would kinda of like sour him on the whole thing. But that was the one he liked the most, so we're like, "Oh, we can tweak that and make it like a color like that." And he's said, "Yeah, looks cool."
Yeah, and he did wear them a bit.
Yeah, I didn't think he would actually wear them, but he did.
He's had a lot of shoes, but it seems that usually not long after the marketing ends, he falls back to Old Skools or Authentics.
Every time we work with him, he always kind of goes back to the look of an Old Skool, and like some of the lines. Which is fine, that's what he likes. We have to accommodate that. But with him specifically, he's been open to some of those other technologies. That's been cool, where we can take a purist dude like that and push him in one direction. So I love working with that dude, he's one of my favorites.
Yeah. And because you touched on this, on the Nike and their runners at the Olympics, with that just in the back of your mind, do you think about, "What can we introduce at the Olympics on the skate team?"
No, I don't.
Not at all?
No, I haven't.
Do you think that will come up? Could that come up in a board meeting in the Tony Alva room, about, "What are we doing? What are we going to drop in Tokyo?"
You know, it probably will quite honestly. But the way we've tried to position Pro Skate, I don't know, going back to skate shops, I try to think about that 15-year-old skate kid, or like the core shop, what they would actually buy and what they would actually wear. Would those dudes wear it? That's the person we need to like capture the attention of. And they're all out there kind of talking shit about the Olympics, or kind of ignoring it.
We have that Park Series stuff, but I think that was sort of set up to feed into that, whatever that Olympic system is going to be. I can't really speak to that.
On that tip though, at Park Series, there were billboards for the UltraRange with Curren and then he’s skating the contest in Slip-Ons.
Yeah. Well that's the shit that kids see through.
Yeah, yeah, but I guess maybe it works for the average Joe buying UltraRange.
I think so. I would hope that if we had something for the Olympics, whatever we're going to push around that time—cause it probably costs a lot to spend some money anywhere near the Olympics, whatever we're spending money on—it would still appeal to the kid who's actually out street skating every day.