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Picture a shoe. It has a sleek sloping silhouette unencumbered by laces, rivets, velcro, or buckles and can easily be slipped on and off. There’s a slightly chunky sole and a tag in the middle of it. The shoe is a $45 Vans slip-on, right? Well, it’s close. Picture the same shoe, but the top half, known as the upper, is made out of nubuck leather and instead of Vans, the tag reads Tom Ford. Are you ready to fork over $700 for this shoe yet?
Tom Ford’s blatant copy of the Vans slip-on isn’t the only or even the most flagrant version of the California company’s famous model. Search for slip-ons on a site like Mr. Porter and you can find shoes that would pass for Vans on the street from designers like Givenchy, Bottega Veneta, Lanvin, Common Projects, Balenciaga, Dries Van Noten, Dolce & Gabbana, Maison Margiela, APC, and Alexander McQueen. The cheapest of these is the APC, which still costs almost four times the standard Vans slip-ons, at $170.
But how the hell did a shoe that was made for skaters in California find itself in fashion designer territory? "It’s the ultimate casual shoe," senior menswear editor for trend-forecasting company WGSN Jian DeLeon tells Racked. "Everyone from Mister Rogers to skaters can pull it off." And that’s why designers keep coming back to the shoe and charging prices that only the likes of Mister Rogers could afford.
Both DeLeon and Eugene Tong, fashion consultant and former Details style director, put it right up next to the Chuck Taylor in terms of iconic, game-changing shoes. The slip-on is a low-effort way for designers to introduce a certain laid-back appeal into its collections. "Designers are trying to channel ease and comfort and a relaxed style," DeLeon says. Consumers are already familiar with the silhouette, designers need only to throw some expensive materials on it and — voila — they can suddenly charge outrageous prices.
The Vans slip-on is essentially a blank canvas, ready for whatever vision a designer may have. "Vans are traditionally canvas, but designer brands apply premium leathers or even skins and the sole is constructed a little better perhaps," Tong tells Racked. "But you’re also paying for, like anything else designer, that brand, that logo, that label." It’s an easy way for designers to play dress up with a shoe they know will move. It’s a timeless shoe.
Scan through the designer listings of the slip-on model and you see them boasting materials like woven suede and a whole herd of leathers: nubuck, embossed, studded, grained, perforated, and Intrecciato. It’s an upgrade over Vans, but the differences are probably only noticeable — or noted — to the trained eye.
This all plays into the reasons that designers can sell their versions of the slip-on for so much more, though. "We live in a time when consumers are more hyper-aware of brands than ever," DeLeon says. "There’s a certain cachet to brands and a Louis Vuitton sneaker or a Common Projects slip-on certainly has more sort of perceived luxury than one from Vans."
This explains why designers can get away with what looks on the surface like highway robbery. Simply printing a tag with the words Tom Ford, instead of Vans, elevates the value of the shoe in consumers’ minds. Tom Ford, just by being a more upscale brand, is seen as luxury, even if it’s the same old slip-on. On top of this, people wearing the shoes are suddenly given a more luxurious feel, one that Vans can’t really provide.
"That’s what people are willing to pay for," DeLeon says. "It all goes into the power of branding." But even the branding is something designers are forced to thank Vans for. It’s a little tiny sliver, but that tag that sits on the elastic between the front and back half of the Vans can make such a difference. "Even the tag is equal parts signifier of casual style and become an American icon in its own right," DeLeon says.
It’s a give and take for Vans. "Imitation is the best form of flattery," Tong says. "Vans also gets credit for it. They are synonymous with the slip-on, so they get included in the conversation for sure." It’s entirely possible that the Vans slip-on wouldn’t have reached their iconic status if designers weren’t spreading the word from high school kids to Richard Branson on his day off.
Vans is rightfully taking advantage of the luxury it’s been lent. The company is still serving the mass market with its classic slip-ons in every color and checkerboard styles. But it’s also hitting the niche market by collaborating with brands like Supreme, Engineered Garments, and Gosha Rubchinskiy. "If anything [designer versions] just make them look stronger," DeLeon asserts.
And it’s not all bad on the designer end, some are making the Vans classic their own. Tong and DeLeon both agree Diemme makes a mean slip-on. Céline helped popularize the style again and some designers are adding their own signature, like Bottega Veneta’s with its trademark weave pattern. "There are definitely ones where you can see where the influence is from, they’re not just remaking it, they’re making it in their own way," Tong says.
The Vans slip-on is iconic for the same reasons that the shoes have been knocked off every which way by designers. It’s one of the simplest, most casual, and easy-to-wear shoes in existence. "That’s the mark of good design right there, that it’s just timeless and classic and that it will always look fresh and always look cool," Tong explains.