I grew up idolizing my uncle. He was the wild card in the family. He had ninja swords. He drove a Mini Minor. He surfed. Most memorably, though, he always wore Vans. His first pair came sometime in the late 1980s when he dragged my grandparents 90 minutes from home so he could go to the only Vans store in Anaheim. They were white Authentics.
By the time I was born, his crisp white shoes had been torn to shreds. I can still picture him standing on a rock along Pacific Coast Highway, his feet clutching the side with his pinky toe almost entirely sticking out through a hole in the top of those Authentics. Ever since, I’ve preferred my Vans to look the exact same: beat-up and a little soggy.
In my experience, it takes roughly six months to get a pair of Vans to their sweet spot. Play in a few basketball games with them. Wear them to the beach. Get stuck in the rain so you have to leave them in the sun.
What I like about a pair of well-worn Vans is similar to what raw denim guys like about the fades in their jeans — the warped, jaundice-colored rubber soles, the fraying canvas and the burgeoning holes all add up to an aesthetic of a life well-lived. In an increasingly sedentary existence (like many people, I work from home), beat-up Vans remind me that I’m not always sitting behind a desk, even if it feels like it.
“I’ve traveled the world in my Vans,” a fellow acolyte tells me. “They’ve been there for me when I was running to find a bathroom I could shit my brains out in after a severe case of food poisoning. And they were there for me when I proposed to my girlfriend on the beach.”
Of course, these days you could just pay $600 for a pair of Golden Goose sneakers that come out of the box distressed. But according to another admirer of well-worn Vans, price aside, the key difference between designer options and Vans is bearing witness to their decay. It’s making dinner from scratch rather than throwing food in the microwave.
You’re also much less cautious when wearing them. Put me in a pair of brand new leather shoes — or even a brand new pair of Vans — and I’m going to watch my step. I might be wary of going on an impromptu hike or to kick around a soccer ball. But in my shredded Vans, I’m game for anything. To say nothing of how they echo your own mortality. “You get to see all the shit you’ve made it through,” a third proponent of weathered Vans tells me. “They’re also a good reminder that you’re not here forever, so you better live it up.”
All of which is why I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve bought a new pair of Vans only to catch myself sneaking off to lunch wearing the old ones with their soles peeling off instead. Even now, as I write this, I can see a part of my toe wiggling through the top of my Vans.
You know, just like how my uncle wore his.