Tucked away in E5, off the beaten track, fans of vintage Vans have a mecca. The Other Side of the Pillow – a store, archive and functional museum of sorts – houses one of the nicest collections of US-made Vans on the planet. Its founder and owner, Henry Davies, is a hunter and collector, (naturally), and scours the earth for deadstock rarities to serve up to hungry customers with handmade quality and exclusive heat on their minds. Vans were made by hand in the US until 1995, ensuring that quality was paramount and bespoke one-offs were standard. With production moving overseas in the years since, ’95 serves as a natural cut-off point for Henry’s collection; visitors to The Other Side of the Pillow won’t find many newer models on the shelves there. As you would expect from such a collector and purist, Henry also happens to be pretty much the go-to expert on all things Vans, and for those interested in learning more about the history of the game-changing company you’d do well to pop into the shop and have a chat with its owner. One fine day in November we did just that, taking a stroll over to Lower Clapton Road to talk shop, hear first hand about the brand and take in Henry’s insane collection of vintage Vans. Check out how it went down, below.
YO HENRY, why Vans?
I was always drawn to it. It’s that Southern Californian thing, and the link with subcultures – obvious links with skate, BMX, American hardcore and punk rock, surf, everything else… but what’s cool is that these subcultures adopted the brand – it wasn’t marketed towards them. It started as a canvas casual shoe company and it became something else because of how well they made, and how they marketed it and how the brand evolved.
So was Van Doren not originally making them for skaters?
No, it started as casual deck shoes and it was picked up by surfers. It was in Orange County so there was that whole scene…
The first sole unit was the blue one right? Like a boat shoe…
Yeah that was one of the first. They started with about ten models but the Authentic has been around since day one, and that was the shoe that got picked up first and the one that the Zephyr team started riding, and the rest is history.
Were you into surfing and skating growing up?
I grew up on the beaches and I skated, like every kid, in the late ‘80s, but I wasn’t hardcore into it. I grew up playing basketball and athletic sports, wearing adidas and Nike and all that, and was a heavy collector, but they all fell to pieces, like, ten years later. I was like, ‘this is so bullshit!’, I was so gutted. I’d spent so much money and it was all dust. I started skating again and my friend was like, ‘you should check out Made in America Vans’. And I realised how well they were made, which is a big part of it – you see models from the ‘60s and ‘70s which have held up to today. They’re amazing quality, they outlast anything, they’re super comfortable and the shape is totally different to the modern silhouette. I was hooked by all these things, and then watching Dogtown and Z Boys was like the point of no return! From that moment it was on!
When did Vans switch its manufacturing from Made in USA to international?
They first started producing producing overseas in ’94 but they were still available locally in the late ‘90s in the US.
Would you fuck with non-US Vans?
Nope. It’s the quality. The quality went downhill so fast from that point. I mean, you could look at two consecutive pairs and there’s no comaparison. The quality has got better, but at the same time ’95 is a good cut off for me, so that I don’t go insane trying to get everything! At the same time, it’s the shape, which has never been replicated, the quality of the production which will never be reproduced, and the styles that were available.
Is there any particular era that you’re interested in?
The earlier, the better.
We heard with a lot of the early shoes, you could bring your own fabrics to the factory and they would make them.
Yeah, there’s a long history of customisation. A lot of pioneering concepts that they were into were ahead of their time in so many ways. You could bring your own fabrics – like kitchen curtains, or leather jackets, or whatever, and they’d fashion a pair of shoes from them.
There’s a pair on your Instagram where the entire upper is embroidered. Were they made by Vans or had someone customised their own?
Again, those were produced by Vans. I don’t know the full story, (they probably had some grandmas working in the factory!), but you could go in and say, ‘I want needlepoint with rainbows’, or whatever, and someone would do it the next day… they’re complete one offs.
What about the graphic sole units? Because it’s one thing to customise the uppers but what’s the history behind the custom soles?
It’s an interesting story. When Van Doren was in high school he noticed kids writing in checkerboard on the rubber and he went back and told his dad. So they started printing the scene, or the graphics, on the foxing. So that actually came before the canvas – before they were working on the canvas, they were printing on the rubber. The natural progression was to start doing it on the canvas too. There was no turning back from there, and that’s when all the crazy prints came out. But the scene (which is what they referred to it as) is iconic, and has become this collectable thing. They don’t do it so much now because the rubber is different, and it doesn’t really recreate in the same way. But again, they were ahead of their time doing that. It’s something that has never really been beat. There would be a poster on the wall and you could go in and pick your graphic, and pick your colourways, and the possibilities were endless with what you could choose.
That’s another thing with collecting, too, you never really know what’s out there. It’s not like with another brand where there was a catalogue from 1985 where you could pick your shoes. It was up to the imagination of an individual, and you never know what’s going to surface… it’s just the product of some kind’s imagination in 1973, or whatever!
Do you have a favourite Vans model?
It’d have to be the #95. The Zephyr team picked up the navy #44 Authentic, then they brought Alva and Peralta in, and they designed what was essentially the first, or one of the first, skate-specific shoes.
But then the Cabellero was the first pro model?
Yeah… second signature model. I think Natas had the first one on Etnies… I think Vans tried to claim it but Natas got there first! The first company to do a skate-specific shoe was one that Paul Van Doren worked for previously, a company from Boston called Randy’s. So Vans didn’t quite steal it, but they became quite skate focused. The #95 came to define skateboarding. And the simplistic colourway, the blue and red, is timeless.
Are there any particular shoes in the store that you can give us a story about?
Well, it was a time before pros, pretty much. The first signature mode came out in ’89, and Made in USA stopped in ’95, so it was less about signature models and more about individual models. But they did a lot of collaborations and pioneering work with private label brands. For example, the Disney. They collaborated with Disney in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and they’ve just been re-released with Winnie the Pooh and Donald Duck, but they did things with Dick Tracey – check out this crazy scene – characters like Madonna on the sole, it’s pretty mental.
It’s fascinating that the collab seems like a modern thing, but Vans were doing it way back, and on another level. It was completely underground. With the early Disney stuff, there’s no Vans branding on it. Vans offered their silhouette to Disney to do whatever they wanted with.
What do you think separated Vans at that time from the likes of Sebagos making deck shoes for boats, that kind of had the same silhouette?
I think Vans just became entwined with these subcultures that were renowned for being cool. Like skating was underground, it was a subculture, rather than boating, which isn’t so cool!
You mean the gnarly subculture of boating?
Haha, that’s right! But you know, the kids wanted to wear them, they wanted these wild things.
Do you think it helped, geographically, that they were in Southern California?
Absolutely. You can compare it to Converse which is more of an East Coast thing, and it didn’t really have the same sort of appeal linked to beach life.
Everything here is vulcanised. Is there something about that process that strikes a chord with you?
Yeah, for sure. The techniques are sort of ancient now. I mean, shoes are still vulcanised today, but not to the same specification. It’s just the density of the sole they produced, which is an amazing thing. You never see vintage pairs worn through to the sole, other than the odd skated pair. That’s the beauty of the quality and craftsmanship of these models, which is something that is now almost extinct.
There are also a lot of suede models in here. Is that just a personal preference?
Yeah, I love the suede. They’re nice to wear, the quality is amazing and they soften up. Maybe it’s a personal thing. They end up being like slippers, just so soft.
Suede’s always been a skateboarding thing as well though, hasn’t it? Canvas doesn’t seem to hold up so well to grip tape.
That’s right, it’s more hard wearing. Almost all the pro models, like the Cab, Half Cab, and Natives were all suede.
What’s the rarest model you’ve got in-store at the moment?
It’s hard to tell because most of these are one-offs, but I guess the earliest ones are the rarest. I’ve got a pair from the first year of production, and those are incredibly rare. This pair here are from ’66 and branded House of Vans, which is what they were known as in the beginning. They began as House of Vans, then Vans, then Van Doren for many years, then back to Vans.
Have Vans themselves bought much from you?
Yeah, here and there. They’ve been a big support over the years. In the lead up to their 50th anniversary in 2016, I’ve got big hopes that I’ll be part of those celebrations. I’ve been looking forward to this date since the beginning and have been working towards that!
Do you watch what Vans does as a company nowadays, or do you feel it’s irrelevant to what you do?
I never used to. I used to live in my own little world of Ebay and vintage and had no idea what was going on. About five years ago I started realising I need to take note of what’s going on. It’s also important to market what I do relative to what’s going on now – like making comparisons between a modern pair and the original. But also it’s cool to see some of the new stuff inspired by the older stuff. You need to stay in touch.
Is there much of a scene in the world of vintage Vans? You’re kind of recognised as the top guy globally, but is there anyone else out there?
I’m kind of lucky that no one had thought of it before, or was insane enough to do it, because it is super specialist. It’s not like being a Nike collector where everyone’s more or less into similar things. There is a scene but it’s kind of underground relevant to other brands. In Japan there’s a huge market and it’s growing over there. They’re crazy about it.
It’s funny that on Ebay a lot of the pairs seem to be from South East Asia, which is normally a place you’d associate with getting fake goods…
Yeah, it’s true. I travel there and find it unbelievable how they turn up. They’re legit, you can’t really counterfeit anything to this quality so it still blows me away. All the American GIs would take pairs over during the war, which is part of it, but yeah, they’re really into it over there.
Do you think Vans will attempt to bring back Made in USA at all, or does the infrastructure make that impossible?
It’s a good question. I really don’t know. Maybe on a super specialist basis. I think there will be growing calls for it, because they’ve moved so far away from what it was. People come in here and they’re so disenchanted and disillusioned with the brand, they’ve given it up because it’s lost many of its strengths. But in terms of bringing back Made in USA, the logistics of doing it are something else. The company is now publicly owned, it’s not a family business, so understandably the interests are profit, sales and satisfying the shareholders. But I hope that one day they’ll move back to the glory days.
Well it would be hard to move all their production back there again, but as a marketing tool it might make sense…
Well other brands do things like that. New Balance do special runs made in America and England, and sure, it’s a higher price point, but it’s for a special market.
Which of the Dogtown era guys is your favourite?
Has to be Jay. Can’t go past him. He just embodied that whole spirit, and that creativity.
Are you ever in contact with the others?
Yeah, Alva was in London last month, and he came through here during the launch of House of Vans. He was super cool, asking me all these things, like, you want me to sign that?! I was like, OK! Van Doren and Christian Hosoi came through here, all the legends. These guys paved the way.
Those guys were all from an era where skateboarding was about character as well, it wasn’t simply about how good you were.
That’s right, and people say that about Alva, like, he wasn’t the best. But him and Jay defined what skateboarding was gonna be like, the attitude and the style. So it doesn’t matter about whether they were the best. They were the first.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PILLOW
161 B Lower Clapton Road
E5 8EQ London UK