Guest editor, @Samutaro, digs into what it takes to create and maintain legitimate cultural hype ahead of the 14th Vault by Vans x WTAPS drop.
Sneaker collaborations have existed for decades, but there’s no doubt that in the past ten years, collaborative culture reached its peak. Where early sneaker collaborations focused mainly on athletes, the 2010s saw a pivotal shift in sneaker culture – when casual footwear styles truly crossed over into the mainstream. The success of recent releases has relied on the cultural cache of influential musicians, fashion designers, artists, and stylists. Even ice cream brands have had the chance to turn their hand to some of the most iconic silhouettes in partnership with the biggest sportswear brands in the world.
2020 is the craziest year our generation has ever seen, with sneaker collaborations hitting dizzying heights as fresh drops hit our IG feeds and inboxes daily. Beyond the hype, however, there have been a few important collaborations that have stood the test of time and helped shape sneaker culture over the last decade. One such example is the standout partnership between Japanese streetwear label WTAPS and Vans who, for the past 14 years, have turned out now 14 covetable sneaker collaborations built on their deep-rooted connection between style and culture.
Since 1997, WTAPS founder Tetsu Tet aka Tet has been stealthily building the brand into one of the most sought after streetwear names at home in Japan and overseas in the West. Always a fan of military garb, Tet established WTAPS in response to his running fascination with all aspects of vintage army gear: practicality, production process and materials.
Like so many other Japanese streetwear heavyweights, WTAPS' roots can be traced back to the Ura-Harajuku movement of the early '90s which birthed labels like UNDERCOVER, NEIGHBORHOOD and BAPE. While WTAPS arrived on the scene a little later than these cohorts, its influence has certainly been no less impactful. Tet cites his early influences as Hiroshi Fujiwara, Sk8thing and NEIGHBORHOOD founder Shinsuke Takizawa, each offering mentorship and support to Tet in the late 80s.
Akin to his forefathers, much of Tet’s inspiration comes from America through the wave of music, fashion and skateboarding that influenced the Ura-Hara scene at the time. “During the 80s, the culture in that community brought us together organically - the expression from music was an outlet too” Tet explained in a live Q&A with Vans at Paris Fashion Week. “Skateboarding played an important role in allowing me to follow through with my designs.”
It was through these early days of skateboarding that Tet first established his relationship with Vans. In 2005, Vans launched a new division: Vans Syndicate. At the time Nike was slowly infiltrating skate stores by offering exclusive sneakers through their highly popular Nike SB line and, while Vans had a large distribution channel, they were losing goodwill in the stores that helped build their brand by only focusing on classic models.
To compete, Vans assembled a group tasked with launching a new, skate shop exclusive line of sneakers. Among the founding members of the Syndicate team at Vans was Berto Reichty, who Tet had previously met through friends in Los Angeles and had bonded with through their shared passion for skateboarding. When it came to calling in the designer collaborations, WTAPS was first on the list along with other heavy hitters like Shawn Stussy, Luke Meier, Carhartt WIP, RAD, and Fucking Awesome. It was through these creative collaborations that Vans presented a new side of the brand, introducing new models in higher quality and creating an authentic culture that skaters wanted to be part of.
Skaters took notice—sneakerheads, too. Aside from the sneakers’ premium edge, what made Syndicate stand out was its attention to detail. Delivering unique packaging, storytelling on the background of each project, and often a cool little bonus gift, ranging from a money clip or a blank key to a razor blade bottle opener or a DIY stamp set.
WTAPS first collab that year was an immediate success thanks to the now iconic ‘Bones’ logo which debuted on the WTAPS ABC-Mart: a Japan-exclusive Sk8-Hi limited to only 100-or-so pairs. Arguably the most sought-after design emblem in the history of Vans x WTAPS projects, the ‘Bones’ motif pays homage to the iconic logo from the infamous Powell Peralta Bones Brigade skate team. Striving to create a uniform like that of Stacy Peralta’s original Bones crew, which included Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, Tommy Guerrero, and Mike McGill, Tet employed a personal rendition of the bones logo as a signifier of his own Vans community. “I made the bones logo so skaters wearing them would have the same clothes, like a uniform” he explained in an interview with Vans at Paris Fashion Week. “I can’t quite remember clearly when I used it first. But I was giving it out to my friends to wear and represent their teams.”
Ever since the bones logo has been a recurring motif that has featured on some of the most memorable Vans x WTAPS releases to date. Produced from premium materials in simple colourways with a distinctive embroidered crossbones pattern, each successive release has only increased their mystique and appeal. WTAPS Bones editions have included everything from Vans classics like Slip-On, SK8 Hi, Half Cab, Chukka, and Era. Other special editions have included statement prints and patterns like flames, Pentagrams and side taped midsoles with the brand’s GPS coordinates, through to the premium Anaconda-inspired embossed leather and the ‘Rudeez’ a completely unique model designed by Tet in 2008 for WTAPS third instalment with Vans.
These consistently creative releases were pivotal in solidifying the Vans Syndicate series’ place in streetwear history. Even their wider 2013 release through the Vans Vault franchise has reached grail status after Kanye West was photographed wearing them. WTAPS releases might move much more stealthily than its more brash and boisterous Western counterparts, but it’s certainly no less coveted. Check on Grailed and you’ll see that some of the WTAPS' releases rival Supreme’s in their ability to hold, and even increase in value, over time.
For those who aren’t familiar with Vans Vault, the line is Vans' premium label pulled from 40-plus years of Vans classic designs and silhouettes, or as the brand likes to put it “where we keep the good shit.” Alongside WTAPS, the exclusive collection has collaborated with other renowned Japanese brands including UNDERCOVER as well as influential artists like Taka Hayashi and Jim Goldberg. Taking inspiration from the world of skate and surf, Vault releases come loaded with classic details: side walls hand-wrapped high and tight, cotton in the rubber, the original patterns and panels, the OG label artwork - all of it, true to the days when Vans was just getting started.
One aspect that has made WTAPS so alluring is Tet’s deep understanding of, and commitment to, telling a story through clothes; creating narratives and identities that customers want to become a part of, to adopt and express in their daily dress. WTAPS has certainly earned a loyal fan base who follow the brand's strict military aesthetics, but for the Vans collaboration, Tet wanted to create something more fun and free. ‘Vans #1 Waffle Lovers Club’ was introduced by Tet in 2006 as a way of sharing his love for Vans and bringing together similar Waffle loving friends. Footprint graphics paid homage to Paul Van Doren’s iconic waffle soles which mimicked the texture of the baked confectionery. As history books go, Van Doren never originally set out to make a skate shoe but built affordable shoes with such great traction that they became the shoes of choice for local SoCal skateboarders like Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta of The Z-Boys (Zephyr Competition Team). WTAPS Vans Waffle Club was met with immediate success and became a symbolic word in subsequent products and activities.
For AW20, WTAPS and Vans pay tribute to the bones and waffle print icons that have made the collaborations so successful over the years. Launching in September, the drop features a four pack ‘Bones’ sneaker collection including the OG Sk8-HI LX and OG Era LX. The orange and black models come crafted in a premium construction including a suede upper and leather jazz stripe,each style unified by the coveted Bones pattern stitched across the quarter panels and finished with a solid toe cap design. The apparel, which comes in complementary colours, includes a range of t-shirts and hoodies that have two statement graphics - the waffle sole and a new hybrid print that blends the Bones and Vans Off the Wall emblems.
So as WTAPS hits this milestone collaboration with Vans, what does it all mean for Tet? He credits his partnership with Vans as one of his all-time favourites. “I’m stoked to partner up with Vans, it’s my pride and joy. The relationship has become much stronger. We’ve reached out to a global audience and it wasn’t by accident.” And he’s right. It’s the longstanding partnerships like that of WTAPS and Vans that have allowed the two to reach such an esteemed status in the sneaker scene. In a world where collaborations seemingly happen every week with not much thought beyond mere logo slapping or tapping high profile celebrity authenticators, WTAPS’ lifestyle driven products speak to a desire that many of us have:clothes which speak to some essential quality somewhere at the crossroads of form and function, comfort and culture.
The Vault by Vans X WTAPS FA20 ‘Bones Pack’ is now available for registration on END. Launches.