The House of Vans opens in London’s Old Vic Tunnels

US clothing and footwear brand Vans has transformed the Old Vic Tunnels at London Waterloo into an indoor skate park and arts venue with gallery, cinema, café and artist studios. We paid a visit ahead of the opening to take a look…

US clothing and footwear brand Vans has transformed the Old Vic Tunnels at London Waterloo into an indoor skate park and arts venue with gallery, cinema, café and artist studios. We paid a visit ahead of the opening to take a look…

From 2009 until 2013, the Old Vic Tunnels under Waterloo station hosted an award-winning programme of experimental art, music and film. The disused railway arches were transformed into sets resembling an Algerian market town and 1970s Brooklyn for Secret Cinema nights, a pop-up restaurant run by Michelin-starred chefs and an underground cinema for the premiere of Banksy’s film, Exit Through the Gift Shop.

The programme, funded by the Old Vic Theatre, came to an end in March last year and until last weekend, the space had lain empty. On Saturday, however, it re-opened as the House of Vans and is now home to London’s only indoor skate park, a 850-capacity music venue, a 160-seat cinema and a gallery, as well as two bars and an industrial-looking cafe serving American-style food. For the next three years, and possibly longer, it will host art exhibitions, creative workshops, concerts and film screenings and is open to eat, drink and hang out in five days a week.

The London site is the second House of Vans and the first to open in Europe. The other, in Brooklyn, New York, also hosts a music hall and skate park. Inside, the cavernous 30,000 square foot space has been cleverly redesigned (by Hellicar & Lewis), with Vans branding, artwork and memorabilia throughout.

At a private view ahead of the public opening last week, visitors entered via Leake Street, a public graffiti space, where artists had painted a series of Vans-themed murals on the walls. Floors and seat cushions in the cinema feature the brand’s famous chequerboard pattern, while its logo hangs in neon lights from the bar and on black-and-white placards around the building.

In a corridor leading out to the Leake Street entrance, the walls have been plastered in black-and-white imagery from Vans’ recent Living Off the Wall campaign, showcasing images of youth and skate culture shot by various documentary photographers. Free lockers in the skate park area are covered in digital prints of stickers from the brand’s archives and nearby, a row of glass cases house rare shoes and products loaned by collectors, including well-worn black-and-white deck shoes and skate shoes wrapped in duct tape.

The inaugural exhibition in the gallery space, Scissors & Glue, offers a look at DIY culture and ‘zines and features work from Ben Drury, Trevor Jackson and fashion designer Louise Gray. Also on display is the first issue of a new Vans ‘zine.

All of the facilities are free to use: musicians are asked to donate a percentage of any ticket sales to Vans’ partner charities, Old Vic New Voices, Railway Children and Action for Children and artists can rent studios for free, providing they are happy to be filmed at work by Vans. Creatives whose residency application is accepted can also exhibit work in the gallery at the end of their stay.

Alongside the screenings, concerts and exhibitions, Vans says it will hold workshops for the local community. The skate park is free to use, too, and includes mini ramps for novice skaters as well as a half pipe and skate bowl for the more advanced.

In a statement announcing last weekend’s opening, Vans described the project as a “physical manifestation of the cultures and creativity that have defined [the brand] since 1966.”

Vans is one of several established brands looking to align themselves with ‘makers’ and creatives by staging and curating cultural events. Levi’s has been doing the same with its Live in Levi’s campaign, its newly opened commuter hub and community space in Brooklyn and last year’s Station to Station project, which saw the brand team up with visual artist Doug Aitken to take a 1950s train across the US, hosting ‘cultural happenings’ and arts performances along the way.

Converse, too, has been hosting mini festivals through its CONS project, with gigs, talks and creative workshops held in Belgrade, Warsaw, New York, Los Angeles and most recently, Peckham in London. Like Levi’s and Converse, Vans is hoping the House of Vans will convince audiences it is still both creative and cool by hosting events and experiences that people will want to share, blog and Tweet about online.

Some of these projects, such as Station to Station, attracted criticism for failing to engage with the local communities where they took place, but the House of Vans is free to use and open to all. Whether it will prove as popular with young skaters as the nearby Southbank remains to be seen, but all of tomorrow’s two-hour skate slots are already fully booked, accommodating 66 skaters at a time.

It may be part of a wider trend in experiential marketing, but the House is an impressive project, and it’s great to see what was once one of London’s most exciting arts venues re-opened to the public.

The House of Vans is open Wednesday-Sunday at Arches 228-232, Station Approach Road, SE1. For details, see