Historian and archivist Catherine Acosta from Vans joins History Factory’s Erin Narloch for a behind-the-scenes take on the iconic Southern California brand. In a conversation covering topics including “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” common challenges and the corporate archivist role today, Catherine breaks down how Vans is bringing its heritage to modern-day marketing, product development and more.
Catherine Acosta is Vans’ first-ever historian and archivist. She joined the sneaker-maker four years ago and has been busy working hand in hand with marketers to share “nuggets” from Vans’ past to inform brand campaigns and uncover overlooked parts of its heritage that connect it to subcultures beyond skateboarding.
Instagram Handle: @bourgeoisspirituality
Instagram Hashtag Annual Campaign: #31daysofvans
Jason Dressel 0:11
Today on the history factory podcast vans with the company’s Catherine Acosta.
I’m Jason Dressel, and welcome to the History Factory podcast the podcast at the intersection of business and history. In this edition of the pod my history factory colleague Erin Narloch sits down with her friend Catherine Acosta, the archivist and historian at vans, the iconic California shoe and apparel company. The heritage of vans is so integral to not only the brand, but also product development. And as you’re about to hear much more, this is really a behind the scenes conversation that not only speaks to the power of Vans heritage, but also some of the more operational elements of how it’s managed, including where the archives function sits within the business, how the archivist role supports storytelling, and even serves as a resource for community building and engagement. So let’s jump into it or as they say, advanced, let’s get off the wall with Catherine Acosta and Erin Narloch.
Erin Narloch 1:25
Catherine Acosta, thank you so much for being with us here today. Can you just give us a little introduction and who you are and what you do? Yeah, I am the brand archivists for vans, which is a VF company. And I’ve been here doing this role is the one to really start and kick off the archive. Because previously, vans didn’t have it. I started in 20 tene as an intern, and then stayed on as a, essentially a contractor for a little bit, and then fully came into the role in July of 2019. So it’s been overall about five years. Amazing Vans one of those brands with an incredible story and heritage, like what do you think the power of Vans heritage is?
Catherine Acosta 2:13
Um, well, I think, yeah, we we are definitely a heritage brand, I would argue that’s not something that we we say ourselves directly, often, but Vans has been around since the mid 1960s. It was started in 1966, in Anaheim, California, which is an Orange County in Southern California. And we’ve remained headquartered in this area since then. So in terms of having real roots to the geography and the communities that surround this area, and the brand’s early history, it’s very much there. And then, of course, weaving and is most well known for is its really authentic and intrinsic relationship to skateboarding. And really the history of skateboarding too.
Erin Narloch 3:00
Amazing. Yeah, it’s definitely one of those skate brands, but it also has a connection to culture, right, like artists and musicians, too. Yeah. And, you know, I think the foundation for that really starts in the 70s, when the brand creates its first skate shoe, and really sets up really opens the doors of embracing skateboarding at a time when other other footwear companies, other fashion brands at large, just wasn’t really recognizing or speaking to that community. And Vans started that and that allowed through really the history of skateboarding, developing a sort of sub cultural aspect to it, opening the doors for music, and art and culture to really sort of come in and sort of be part of the thread of Vans. And so that’s been ongoing now for decades. Fascinating. So the Van’s archive, where do you where do you sit within the organization?
Catherine Acosta 3:59
I’m currently sitting in our marketing department, I report directly to our Chief Marketing Officer. And really, I’m at this time I’m wearing a lot of hats, of really helping the brand was storytelling when it comes to anything of that is based has any roots at heritage. And we’re still in the process of building the archive. It’s not a fully fleshed out thing at this point. So a lot of excitement there. But really, my job at this moment is really just to keep advocating and showing the excitement that the archive can provide and how it can really set a foundation for storytelling for the brand overall.
Erin Narloch 4:39
That’s amazing. Can you give an example of how maybe consumers can see your work in the market, how the archive maybe influenced any product releases or campaigns?
Catherine Acosta 4:53
Yeah, about a year ago we did a big classic since forever campaign which was a big brandcampaign that was showed across the world in different different locations. But it had a really, really nice execution at some of our stores. And one was our our store here in Southern California, our kind of boutique downtown LA store. And that the actual installation of that which was speaking to our icons, and what made these things, classics, was showing actual archival imagery, and also objects from our collection that spoke to sort of the the history and the diversity of how these things have developed over time. And so it was a really, really well done execution tool. And it was playful, it also really use the models that were styled in a way that was reflective of the decades to which the shoes were sort of paired with. So for example, the authentic, which is one of our oldest and longest standing, iconic silhouettes that was, you know, originally designed in the 1960s. And so we kind of the model was styled in a sort of, you know, homage to 60s, early 70s fashion, and stuff like that. So it was it was historical, but it was playful. And again, the execution in the actual store. And this was just one of the stores that was one that I got to see in person was just done really, really well and again, showed the breadth of archival storytelling. And it’s incredible.
Erin Narloch 6:18
When you think about marketing campaigns, do you also have an influence in product development? Are you utilizing the archive to support any rereleases or any stories on product?
Catherine Acosta 6:31
Yeah, and that has really been a learning experience, because as I said, I’ve only been here for about four years officially. So in many ways, even though there wasn’t a formal archive before my role existed. There were long term employees with a, you know, a lot of institutional knowledge and internal collections and, and some, you know, strategic thought about how all of that come into play. But now with me being here in the archive, there’s, you know, it’s still going to work in progress of trying to figure out what is the best, what is the best time to pull me in? When can I have the most influence and right now, I would really say that things are shifting more, we’re, it’s coming through the archival lens first, and fleshing the story portion out, then creating the product, or sometimes it hadn’t always been that way. So and also just really, again, using the archive to, again, just even give sort of guardrails and guidance for how we do storytelling around anything that is really attached to our paths.
Erin Narloch 7:36
That’s great. So fans are really kind of these micro communities, right? It’s a real community based brand. How do you interact with them? Or can you tell us a little bit more about the kind of the community frontier at Vans?
Catherine Acosta 7:54
Yeah, so then, I mean, long before I got here, there has always been a really strong online community of people who collected vans, and then people who are interested in the brand’s history, but not necessarily its deep pass, but also more recent history. And you know, kind of leaning into the sneaker head collector space to and sort of this hybrid space of people interested in the actual older, older stuff, when, particularly in the collector world, there’s a big interest in USA made Vans, because Vans is operating its own manufacturing, here in California up into the mid 90s. So there’s these different periods of interest for collectors. And I really, there hasn’t been any formal, formal approach from the brand other than me, myself as an individual, making myself publicly accessible through Instagram, and sort of connecting my work identity with my personal one. So the people who are really interested in that can connect and see, you know, get some glimpse to what I’m doing. But as I said, I really always positioned it as as being a sort of work in progress. And one of the things that existed before I got here, but I’ve been trying to support really robustly is that there’s a collective group that a couple years ago started this challenge every July called 31 days of Vans, that’s the name of the hashtag they use. And for everyday in July, they post a pair of their favorite Vans. So in the last two years now I’ve participated and Steve Van Dorn, who’s the son of the founder of Vans, who’s worked here currently as our VP of events and promotions, he has participated but him and I have worked together this past summer to kind of put together an event along with some other colleagues here to host that group of the core group of that collector group and bring them here and sort of, you know, kind of getting the royal treatment and again, share with them the knowledge that I’ve been able to do a lot of the undiscovered stuff that I’ve been able to sort of shed light on here at the brand, and share it with them. And again, just giving them you know, more interest in, you know, information about the history that they didn’t know, and putting them close with our design team too. So I, my goal is to really, you know, try to get more support from the company from the brand, to you know, embrace that community and do more stuff like that. I think right now, it feels very niche, but it really is, you know, there’s, it’s getting out there, it’s growing, the community keeps growing and growing.
Erin Narloch 10:37
You’re brokering those relationships, right? And reinforcing brand fandom, which is incredible.
Catherine Acosta 10:45
Yeah, and, you know, we have more serious or more robust collectors, who are also dealers of vans, Henry Davies, who works in London, he’s been, he’s been very well established and started off as a blogger many years ago, and has built a reputation. And then you’re gonna Bloomfield who work who works out of Germany works out of Berlin, he is really knowledgeable and connoisseur of skateboarding history. So there’s all these sort of other pockets too, and other other degrees of collector connoisseur, you know, historian, people working in this space, bringing, they’re not putting their knowledge out there in the world. So again, trying to bridge this all together and formally connected to the brand. Even though the brand has worked with some of these collectors. Previously, it’s been very much on a case by case basis, it hasn’t been consistent. So my bigger vision is to again, bring it all together.
Erin Narloch 11:42
That’s great. And you mentioned a hashtag, can you say that again? So in case any listeners want to go on to Instagram and find those best pictures of lambs, and look at the years past?
Catherine Acosta 11:56
The hashtag is 31 days of Vans.
Erin Narloch 11:59
Very cool. Very cool. So if you think of the future of Vans, how do you imagine or envision the archives supporting, the brand doesn’t move forward?
Catherine Acosta 12:12
Um, well, one would be to have it fully. So have the collections part, be organized and have that foundation and then be accessible internally first, right, that’s the goal. Because right now, the way things are, is, it’s a bit on hold in terms of the development of that until I can get proper resources, the staffing and budget to really build it out. And that also takes time, I don’t think people realize that you don’t just, you just don’t create a archive or collection overnight, or in a year, unless you’re given a lot of money and people to do it. So these things take time. And you know, so then, of course, down the road to make some of that content accessible to our consumers, and offer deeper, meaningful storytelling, and creating some platform for that is, you know, would be the real end goal. And obviously, having a formal space that could be publicly accessible as some sort of gallery space, you know, whether that’s here or traveling exhibitions, you know, I feel like we’ve, since I’ve been here, I’ve been playing with small examples of doing that kind of work. But you know, it’s trying to build up the momentum towards leading towards the bigger opportunity. And again, I think, I think it’s really, it’s really easy to think that these needs, you know, the people understand like, an archive, in a corporate context, also has many, many different functions, you know, and it’s providing many different things. It’s not the same model that’s at a museum or a university or traditional library setting, it’s very, very different here. And you have to be very flexible, and adapt, and you have to preservation and best practices aren’t always at the forefront of your decision making. And so again, and also being really flexible towards the business needs, which I would say that’s the biggest, the big consistent story of me being here is having to be extremely flexible during some difficult times at the company and again, putting different hats on and, and being able to do that. So I think all of that, you know, just leads to these things take time.
Erin Narloch 14:28
Yes, there is there is alchemy and all of the work but one thing that remains the same is the investment of time, and building kind of the resource of a brand archive and positioning someone like yourself as being that trusted partner thought partner with so many individuals. Out of curiosity, do you have any stories or kind of gems from the archive that you love to talk about because they reflect the ever present Vans culture or what it is meant as a as a brand?
Catherine Acosta 15:08
Yeah, I’m actually really recently like as in the last week or last last week, then within the last week, I was given some Xerox copies of sales meetings from our district managers and store managers here in Southern California from the late 1970s. That I hadn’t previously seen. And I don’t know if we have the original copies, but we had these copies, which came from a long term employee here. And what’s really revealing about that is that one is shedding light on your time before, right when Vans started to get national recognition. And it’s also shedding light at the time, because most of them from 1977-78, when Vans was very local to just Southern California, and to when we developed our off the wall, our original off the wall product franchise, our original skateboarding shoes, which today are icons, and really sort of set the formal are really symbolic of when Vans really married skateboarding and brought it together under our iconic read off the wall logo, which is the heel tab on all of our shoes today. And these, the sales meeting notes vary and sort of speaking to obviously, you know, employee relations and just numbers that the store is drawing. And also the variety of product that wasn’t skateboarding related, because that’s the majority of what they were talking about. So really sheds light on the sort of things that we don’t really think about today as being part of the brand, but the brand really was a mom and pop company that was catering to every like middle class Americans living out here in Southern California and offering shoes for the entire family. And also, but it gives a little bit more more insight and anecdote to the development and how important that off the wall franchise was for the brand at the time, because they talk repeatedly about they make reference to that, you know, they’re they placed their first national ads and skateboarding magazines, they were getting orders internationally because those magazines were distributed, not just nationally, but internationally. And so it’s really giving a glimpse to the very, very beginning. And something where we don’t, in our in the company’s collections, we don’t have a lot of documentation about what was going on. So you know, I’ve only put down one quick pass through them. But again, starting to work with that document and really flesh out the story of the pre skateboarding vans and what the company was doing. And then what that beginning moment look like, and also what it looked like from a retail point of view from from from the store point of view to that’s what it’s it’s sharing a lot of because it’s were being done by store managers and district managers. So it’s not necessarily from a consumer point of view, or from an executive point of view of vans, it’s from this very distinct one. So there’s a lot there to unpack, but you know, it’s special.
Erin Narloch 18:10
Yeah, that’s incredible. When you think of that time and Vans history to when it becomes, you know, almost ubiquitous with popular culture. Have you think about different moments in popular culture? Where were some of the places that Vans show up?
Catherine Acosta 18:26
Well, the biggest one, of course, is in 1982, when Fast Times at Ridgemont. High came out, right, which has become again a very landmark moment for the brand and really pushed the brand into really the national likes lens because there are editorials and newspapers across the country in the early 80s. Speaking to, you know, the desirability of wanting the checkerboard slip on and checkerboard shoes from this small company in Southern California because it was shown in this film and Sean Penn in this archetype Sean Penn playing Jeff Spicoli, the character who’s shown wearing the shoes, who’s also becomes very much an archetype of what Southern California youth culture and lifestyle is about, with his connections as a character, to to soar sort of nonconformity to individuality to surfing and skate culture. You know, also stoner culture to a certain degree, plenty of references to do that at a time when this really became, you know, really representative of a lot of different a lot of different things. And in the American consciousness of, you know, what Southern California living was, and this shoe in terms of its design is so simple. And it becomes it becomes associated with all of these different associations. And that’s a really big pop culture moment, and you can’t underplay that. However, though, it’s also it’s not the only one that’s just sort of the biggest one and it also lends itself is just really also cementing the brand’s identity with youth culture at large. And not just the skateboarding or BMX piece, which were the two main connections at that time. It really takes vans into a real lifestyle setting, they wouldn’t have said that them. But we say that we could say that today more.
Erin Narloch 20:21
That’s great. Just a question. Did you ever imagine yourself doing the job that you have now? Did you know it existed? Just out of curiosity?
Catherine Acosta 20:35
Ah, well, no. The answer? No, because this I mean, I think, again, the the story of how my role got created here, and this is, you know, a story that reflects others at the brand to I learned was that vans had had in VF had a great track record of hiring interns. And so this started off as internship to assess what an archive would look like. And part of that fit was that my background was museum studies, curatorial studies and working in those settings, from a design history point of view and having some personal connection and interest in fashion history and some formal opportunities, but also have only working with an archive more as a researcher, not the actual foundational piece. But that that is something that one one can learn. And again, that it’s important, but what’s actually more important is the really the cultural understanding of the brand. And also, for me, personally, I grew up in Southern California, very cognizant of what Vans represented to me at different times in my life, I always associated very much with skateboarding. So there is a part of me this very purist, very narrow way of thinking but reflected the subcultures I was involved with, which was punk and hardcore in the LA area in the late 90s and early 2000s, that if you were wearing Vans in that, in that scene, you skated, I didn’t skate, so I wasn’t going to be wearing them. Because if I were them, that would mean I was inauthentic and being a poser. And that wasn’t necessarily reflected, because Vans was a really big brand at that time, and also had such was doing so well with the warp tour. But to me, that was really reflective of mainstream culture and sort of big record labels, capitalizing on punk and pop punk, that was not my space, I was more in this underground space. So that really, I’m sharing a very personal but very, very validated point of view two the brand. That also just shows the there’s importance and not wearing something as well, for exactly that reason of, you know, not having that authentic connection, because in my mind, the skateboarding piece that history was so intrinsic to the, to the shoes from my perspective.
Erin Narloch 22:53
Catherine Acosta 22:55
Anyone up for that question? But I didn’t. But I like to answer.
Erin Narloch 23:00
But I liked the response. So I think it was a really valid response, also, understanding identity, right, and fashion and footwear, and the role that Vans plays in identity creation, right for some consumers.
Catherine Acosta 23:16
Yeah. And I think, you know, one of the biggest strengths I’ve been able to bring to the brand into developing the archive is having us having a different background actually, and coming from this formal academic place with design history being more of my wheelhouse and decorative arts, but applying the same methodology, and really contextualizing Vans is history, in bigger ways that if I were coming more from a true fan, fan point of view, and a love and really deep connection with skateboarding, it would just really allow for different interpretations of the brand. And I think this kind of gives some context to one of my personal biggest stories I’ve championed in the archive, because it’s so deeply important, and it makes vans so unique in comparison to other American footwear and international footwear brands, is just that. Part of our early business before skateboarding got formally involved was making custom made shoes with fabric provided by customers. That in itself is very innovative in the footwear industry and in the history of athletic footwear. But what’s more striking and something that had gone largely unacknowledged, unrecognized because there hadn’t been anyone here to really start to craft a story and also find the actual primary sources and documentation to show that this was important, which I’ve been doing is that a lot of that business in the late 60s and 70s was for women. So it was women creating one of a kind custom sneakers with a mindset of not functionality for an athletic function, but with functionality to fashion and the sense of one’s identity and wanting to match their shoes to their outfit. And so to me, and there’s so many photos now, they’re super eight footage, there’s ads, I’ve been able to find that the brand hadn’t previously seen in local newspapers that highlight how important that actually was. So I very passionately, argue here internally and feel like this will start to get incorporated into the bigger consumer storytelling piece down the road, that we have had a very, very close and authentic relationship to women and individuality, expressions of creativity, and really also reflecting just middle class everyday women and their sense of fashion and self through our product. And it’s a very strong, very unique history. It also challenges a lot of conceptions within the sneakerhead world, which is so heavily male dominated, and there are women in that space. But there’s focuses so much on athleticism, too. And so this has also led me as like a research project and looking beyond just Vans, and what they were doing, to really looking at how sneakers were marketed in the postwar period, particularly in the 50s and the 60s by brands that don’t longer exist, and what that space look like. And there’s a lot of content about young women, teenage girls and young women. And I think it can, it’s something that should not be overlooked.
Erin Narloch 26:29
No, not at all. Purchasing power. I think that, you know,
Catherine Acosta 26:35
Yeah, consumer culture. I mean, Van was born out of out of that time period in American history.
Erin Narloch 26:42
Incredible, because now today, we we talk about a personalized consumer journey, right, and consumers consumer segmentation, and delivering what the consumer wants that point of sale. And this is truly an innovative story that you’ve discovered or helped to, you know, craft, around Vans, you know, experience in that space. And I think just the story you’ve shared with us is an incredible example of how positioning, you know, a brand, archive and historian as a strategic asset for a brand’s future.
Catherine Acosta 27:24
Yeah, and it really, I mean, to me, this is all very interconnected to and I like to really step out in this very holistic story and history here. Because that sets up the framework for how Vans would have been very open to embracing skateboarding and building that relationship, which obviously is insanely important. And it’s very much been the center of focus, and also sets, again, a sort of, you know, a foundation for how it would become really intrinsic with youth culture during the 1980s. With that fast time now, there’s a whole bigger story there to unpack. And like I mentioned, I think just even thinking that well, Vans started in 1966, at the tail, the boom of flick the boom of consumer culture in the United States, and purchasing power, and all of that not, there wasn’t that long before the teenager was created as, as a consumer, as a consumer demographic, then, you know, there’s so much there to like to put it all together. And you can see that there’s a lot of power within that story. And a lot of it is so relevant to what the brand is doing today and where the brand will go, and how it can use these authentic moments in history to really, really, you know, pull everything through.
Erin Narloch 28:40
Yeah, well, we’re going to be here. We’re going to be listening for those stories. And thank you today for your time. It’s been incredible to gain some additional insights into what you advanced the value you bring in the stories that you tell and the research you’re uncovering. So, thank you, Catherine. Thank you.
Jason Dressel 29:07
Alright, folks, that concludes this episode of the History Factory Podcast. Go to vans.com to learn more about the history of the brand or the byproduct. Thanks again for Vans archivist and historian Catherine Acosta and History Factory’s Erin Narloch for a great conversation. As always, thanks for listening to the History Factory Podcast. I’m Jason Dressel, be well
Transcribed by https://otter.ai