While Vans were popular among a niche demographic in the 1980s, they hit the mainstream thanks to their prominent role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The appearance of the company's classic slip-on shoe wasn't thanks to a brokered deal or even the sneaker purveyor reaching out to the production company. Instead, Sean Penn, the actor who played Jeff Spicoli, brought the footwear brand onto the set. This is how it went down.
Sean Penn is responsible for the use of Vans Slip-Ons in Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Sean Penn famously played Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The movie is a cult classic, and Spicoli's style in the flick spawned plenty of copycats. Spicoli's baja sweatshirts and long-sleeved tees layered under t-shirts spawned a fashion trend. Spicoli's shoes also caught moviegoers by surprise. Jeff Spicoli wore classic, checkered slip-on Vans. The shoe's placement in the movie did wonder for the brand's popularity, but the costume department wasn't responsible for the styling. The credit goes to Sean Penn.
When she signed on to direct Fast Time at Ridgemont High, Amy Heckerling wasn't an expert in California culture. Heckerling saw herself as an outsider and had little knowledge of Southern California style and fashion. As a New York native, she understood what was being worn in Time Square, not down by the beach. When Penn walked in with a pair of checkboard slip-on Vans, she decided to go with them. She liked the shoe and trusted that Penn knew what would make sense for his character.
Heckerling has spoken about the styling choice multiple times. According to High Snobiety, she said,
""In those days, a lot of actors could decide what they wanted as their costume. This was before the days of product placement and before you had to clear products before using them on film. I grew up in Bronx, New York, and when I came on to direct the movie, I wasn't really familiar with Southern California culture. Sean Penn, who played Jeff Spicoli brought in the Vans checkered slip-ons himself, and I really liked them…""- High Snobiety
Penn wore the shoes throughout the movie and helped bring the niche brand into the mainstream. Almost overnight, Vans were recognized nationwide when they had been largely a West Coast staple before. That exposure helped the company, but it wouldn't sustain them forever.
Vans have experienced cycles of popularity
While Penn is often cited as the reason for the brand's meteoric rise in popularity during the 1980s, he's not why people are still wearing the brand. Vans has gone through cycles of popularity over the years, falling in and out of favor with different subcultures.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Vans were preferred by California's skating and surfing communities, which inspired Penn to bring the shoes to the set of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In the early 1990s, the sneaker company became popular among skateboarders on the east coast but was quickly replaced by new, fashion-forward companies that connected skating culture with fashion sneakers.
By the early 2000s, Vans struggled to compete in an oversaturated market. According to Esquire, Rian Pozzebon, a fledgling sneaker designer, changed everything. According to the publication, Pozzebon walked into Vans with a plan. He wanted to see the company lean into its vintage appeal. Instead of following other companies by creating new, chunky styles, Pozzebon wanted to tweak what made Vans popular two decades earlier and market it as a vintage lifestyle offering. It worked. The Vans slip-on remains a popular shoe option across multiple demographics.