Vans has collaborated with artist Takashi Murakami on a range of t-shirts, skate decks, surf boards and shoes for its premium Vault by Vans label. We spoke to Vans' VP of merchandising and design, Steve Mills, about the partnership, and how collaborating with artists and fashion labels has helped transform perceptions of its classic shoes.
On a sunny afternoon in Paris last weekend, Takashi Murakami, dressed in a magnificent skull-shaped hat, unveiled a new range of clothing and footwear for US brand Vans. T-shirts, shoes, surfboards and skate decks in his colourful floral and skull prints went on sale in 40 stores around the world on Saturday morning, and most were sold out of their stock within a couple of hours.
The collection is the latest in a long list of commercial partnerships from Murakami. He has applied his superflat designs to everything from Citizen watches and Issey Mayake clothing to a vast (and hugely successful) range of products for Louis Vuitton. As well as hosting solo exhibitions in some of the world's most prestigious galleries, and making art that sells for seven-figure sums, he creates toys and merchandise for almost every price point at his Kaikai Kiki factory, which now employs over 100 people. He has also worked on an animated music video with Pharrell Williams, album art for Kanye West and an animated feature film, Jellyfish Eyes, released in 2013.
Murakami's collaboration with Vans came about when he expressed a desire to work with the brand in an interview with Vanity Fair (he says has worn its canvas slip-ons every day for 15 years, and is fascinated by skating and surfing). After reading the article, Vans' VP of global design and merchandising, Steve Mills, flew to Japan to visit him, and the pair started working on the product line 18 months ago. "I've been a fan of Takashi since the mid 1990s. We had had conversations about working with him before, but for some reason, it had never come to fruition," says Mills.
The collection is one of a series of collaborations between Vans and contemporary artists through its Vault imprint, launched in 2003. As Mills explained to CR at the Paris launch event, the premium label was set up to help boost sales of its classics range and compete with limited edition collections from the likes of Nike and Adidas ("we wanted to come at it from a surf and skating angle," he said), but has since taken on a life of its own.
The project started out small, with lines sold at a few "hand-picked" retailers, but is now stocked in 40 outlets from California skate stores to branches of Dover Street Market, Barney's and Opening Ceremony. Past collections include collaborations with Kenzo and Simpsons artist Matt Groening, as well as street artist Ron English, and ranges featuring Star Wars, Peanuts and Disney prints.
"At the time we launched Vault, it was difficult convincing people to love Vans, and that we could compete in the upper echelons of the expensive sneaker business. We were known for $45, $50 canvas and suede shoes," Mills explains.
"When we first wrote the business plan for this, it was more about kick-starting our classics business, because at the time, we couldn't give them away," he adds. "It was really to get people saying, "Oh I remember that shoe", and go back to buying what they grew up with as kids, and now, what was started to help get that business going has become its own little animal."
Recruiting a mix of fashion designers, fine artists, street artists and franchises with a cult following has been key to the project's success, and Mills says the brand is selective about who it works with. "We turn down a lot of people, because it just doesn't make sense for us to do projects with them," he says. "It's not that we don't respect them, but it needs to be a right fit, and they need to get us as a brand. We've always been successful following our gut I think, and we try to find people that are like us. It sounds weird but we're a bunch of skaters and surfers and musicians and artists and we tend to associate with those kind of people," he says.
The list of collaborators is diverse, but all have a cult following, and many are closely linked with the skate culture aesthetic. Mills says artists and designers are left largely to their own devices when creating a line for Vault, with no creative restrictions placed on their designs.
"There are occasions where you'll try to steer people in a direction but for the most part, the way I work is, 'I'm working with you because I want you to do what you want to do. Not what I think you should do'. So we try to give them creative freedom without any limitations," Mills explains. "There are times when we might have to reign it back - I guess you might call it a social responsibility - but we try not to let that get in the way, and I can't recall when we've ever really told somebody they can't do something. It's pretty much 'If we're working with you, it's your project, and we're really just the canvas'".
"It's great that we have the latitude to be able to work with brands, musicians, pop culture and fine art, so it makes [the project] kind of limitless," he adds. "When we talked to Takashi, we initially talked about maybe doing another project and he showed me some stuff that he'd done on his own for it, so we might work with him again, but we've got to stagger it. We won't do it every season, because it takes the special-ness out of it," adds Mills.
In the decade since its launch, Mills says Vault has had a significant impact on the business, helping elevate Vans' classic shoes from skater's staples to items stocked in luxury boutiques. The range has also gone from a side project to one of the brand's most talked about collections.
"Vault did what it was supposed to do, and now we're trying to expand that in to its own little thing to really promote the brand. It's much more project-based, and aspirational, and it's allowed us to do a lot of stuff that we couldn't do elsewhere," says Mills.
Alongside super limited edition collaborations, new and alternative versions of its classic shoes are also sold exclusively through Vault retailers in larger but still limited runs. "These projects [like the Murakami range] are limited, so the stores don't make a lot of money off of them, and they sell out fast, so we want to give them something they can have exclusively but in bigger volumes to keep the business going," he explains. "The whole category has evolved over the last 10 years, and where it was once a line, 90 percent is now trying to do 3 or 4 collaborations a season, and producing what we call classic originals for the Vault."
Compared to its mass-produced lines, Vans' Vault range doesn’t make much money, but with fans camping overnight to get their hands on a pair of Murakami’s slip-ons, and coverage in high-end fashion titles, the value of collections like VansxMurakami extends way beyond their price tags. By collaborating with a carefully selected mix of high-end designers, iconic entertainment brands and contemporary artists, the brand has turned a struggling product into a hard-to-get item - and helped introduce a whole new audience to some of its oldest designs.