What makes a true Vans fan? They aren’t buffing and polishing their sneakers or keeping their collections in rarefied air – instead, they wear them down to the soles, add embellishments in the form of custom graphics, and entrust their beloved footwear to friends, lovers and other connoisseurs.
For its latest campaign, Vans has teamed up with a community of individuals who use its footwear as a canvas for expression. Meet the Waffleheads sees the brand embrace personalisation, individual style and the various subcultures and creative folk who make up its global audience – from Charlene Holy Bear, whose creates custom shoe designs inspired by her Native American roots, to Panda Mei, who creates one-off ceramics in the shape of Vans sneakers.
The campaign will be brought to life with experiences and digital content, including video interviews with artists, panel discussions, a pop-up exhibition in Paris and Waffleheads experiences in London and Chicago. Vans is also inviting consumers to upload pictures of their own collections and customised designs with the hashtag #waffleheadcontest. Here, we talk to three Waffleheads about how they carved out their own space in sneaker culture.
Out of frustration with a certain mainstream e-commerce platform, LA-based artist, animator and entrepreneur Penelope Gazin and her partner and best friend Kate Dwyer set up a website to showcase their favourite artists. Although their racy, off-the-wall art marketplace Witchsy became cash flow positive within one year of launch, the pair couldn’t help but notice a tangibly condescending attitude from male developers. Enter Keith Mann: an imaginary CEO tasked with replying on their behalf.
The warm reception highlighted that even email correspondence can be spiked with everyday sexism. “For the most part, I only work with companies and people where I don’t need to use Keith as a tool, but sometimes it’s unavoidable,” says Gazin. Adding another string to her bow, she launched Fashion Brand Company to make clothes she wished existed. From hi-rise military pants with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it boob embroidered pockets to fringed cowboy-style dresses resized to fit a lizard (no, really), Gazin channels her wry sense of humour and adeptness with excellent tailoring through FBC. “I make sturdy amazing fitting clothes that are also funny and make fun of the fashion world,” she says.
Now working with Vans, she thinks her 15-year-old self – who spent many hours scribbling on beaten-up checkerboard pairs in high school – would be pretty impressed. Her advice for nailing brand collaboration? “Only work with brands who really respect you as an artist. Outline your expectations clearly from the get-go and ask thorough questions.”
How do you solve a problem like vintage Vans hoarding? Go into business – or in Henry Davies, aka Pillowheat’s case, open a Hackney treasure trove to sell the fruits of your near life-long love affair. “I was lucky that nobody decided to pursue old Vans on this scale, but if you put two decades of work into anything, there’s no limit to what can be achieved,” he explains.
Alongside running his store, The Other Side of the Pillow, Australian-born Davies has taken to social media to share his love of vulcanised shoes and highlight some of the stories behind the sneakers he collects. He now has over 52,000 Instagram followers, and still likes to get his hands dirty, scouring regional flea markets, classified ads and estate sales across the globe to uncover rare and vintage Vans.
A natural pairing for the Waffleheads campaign, he has supplied products for Vans events, and collaborated with the brand on copywriting, curation and consultation. Thanks to official recognition by Vans (you can find some of Davies’s collection at the Vans Carnaby Street store), his shop is getting plenty more punters and a whole new fanbase. “There’s a strong tourist market [in East London] so I’m being introduced to fresh faces from around the world,” he says. Staying true to the love of a brand is his number one golden rule for collaboration – that, and maintaining your integrity, even if being provocative and outspoken feels unnatural.
Back in 2015, a friend of the South Korean artist Hyun Ye asked her to customise a pair of Vans original shoe model, the Authentic. After posting the finished kicks on her Instagram, requests piled in and she sensed there was more in it. “I was getting tired of painting on a white square canvas,” she explains from her home in Seoul. “Now I get to have fun drawing on a brand’s signature shape or pattern using characters everyone knows or random doodles that only exist in my mind.” From a Keith Haring vs. Snoopy mashup to Egon Schiele sketches, she creates custom hand-drawn illustrations that blend goofiness with fine art.
Ye likens her style to a department store or antique shop, where she’s able to include everything she likes – even if it doesn’t necessarily hang together. Right now, her work is being exhibited in several locations and she’s creating custom designs for collabs with global brands like Maison Goyard as well as Vans. But how does she approach new projects? “Evaluate what you want before choosing to work with a brand, as each will have a specific set of requests and needs based on their size, portfolio and end goal. I want to make sure all my co-collaborators get what they need and are satisfied. But it’s the trying new things that most excites me about working with new brands or artists.”
Find out more about Meet the Waffleheads here.