What is the history of the Vans checkerboard?

It’s one of the world’s most iconic and instantly-recognisable prints – but how did the Vans checkerboard come to be a staple look for generations of skaters and streetwear fans alike?

It was 1944, and Paul Van Doren was an eighth-grade dropout. In place of school, he spent his days at the racetrack, where he earned the nickname ‘Dutch the Clutch’ in honour of his precocious bookmaking and money-earning skills.

Despite his business acumen, it wasn’t long before Van Doren’s mother put an end to his racetrack endeavours and ordered him to get a job at Randy’s, a shoe factory in his native Boston.

Fast forward 20 years and Van Doren had moved his way up to the position of Executive Vice President at Randy’s. After relocating to California to save a failing local branch, he decided it was time to put his entrepreneurial mettle to the test and start a shoe business of his own.

In 1966, Van Doren – along with his brother, Jim, and friends Gordy and Serge – opened the doors to the Van Doren Rubber Company at 704 East Broadway in Anaheim, California. Their business model was unique in that they manufactured shoes on the premises and sold them directly to the public – “Canvas shoes for the entire family”, according to the slogan on the box.

On the first morning of the operation, 12 customers purchased Vans deck shoes, now known as the Authentic. Within the first week, a customer came in requesting shoes in a different colour, and Van Doren asked that she bring a sample of the fabric she wanted – marking the beginning of Vans’ speciality for customised shoes.

Enter the Vans checkerboard

The story behind the checkerboard print begins some 10 years later when Vans style #48 – now known as the Slip-On – was invented. Steve Van Doren, son of Paul, had noticed that teen skaters were colouring the midsole of their shoes to create a checkerboard effect. Van Doren decided to develop the idea further, by printing the pattern on the canvas upper of the Slip-Ons. Just like that, the famous checkerboard design was born.

Around the same time that it was being developed, the rise of the second wave of ska music – ‘two-tone’ – was also happening in Britain. The accompanying movement sought to transcend racial tensions in a politically volatile era, and bands championing it, like The Specials, used a checkerboard pattern as a symbol of racial unity. The Vans checkerboard Slip-On soon became a favourite amongst fans of the subculture.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Vans was fast becoming ubiquitous in the California skate scene. Just a few years earlier, the introduction of the Old Skool style, with its leather toe and padded backs, was quickly adopted by skaters looking for extra support and protection from moving boards. A collaboration with legendary skater Stacy Peralta and the launch of the ‘Off the Wall’ slogan cemented Vans as a go-to brand for skaters and consumers with a unique sense of style.

The movie that made Vans famous

Despite its rapidly-growing popularity, Vans’ real turning point towards mass recognition came when a representative for Universal Pictures asked for some shoe options to use in an upcoming movie.

The movie was the wildly popular Fast Times at Ridgemont High – the first major teen film of the ’80s. Rumour has it that the star of the film, Sean Penn, picked out the checkerboard style himself, and his stoner character Jeff Spicoli can be seen religiously wearing his favourite black and white sneakers on screen. In fact, the shoes were such a significant part of the film that they ended up on the cover of the soundtrack.

Post-Fast Times, sales of Vans shoes skyrocketed and the brand became a household name virtually overnight.

From “Canvas shoes for the entire family” to pop culture icon

Today, Vans’ checkerboard print can be spotted on the skate ramp, the red carpet and everywhere in between. Recent collaborations with leading designers and brands like Marc Jacobs, Marvel and Disney, as well as new twists on the classic like this year’s Blur Check print, have further solidified the design’s infamy.

Such is the enduring appeal of the checkerboard print that it’s as readily worn by everyday streetwear fans as it is some of the world’s biggest celebrities.

In 2011, Twilight saga star Kristen Stewart marked her celebrity status on the Hollywood walk of fame in a pair of Vans checkerboard Slip-Ons.

In 2017, songwriter Frank Ocean attended the White House state dinner in a perfectly-tailored blue suit, and – you guessed it – a pair of checkerboard Vans. Asked why he chose Vans for footwear, he said, "You can't think; you just gotta do things.”

It’s perhaps this same ‘dont-think-just-do’ ethos that’s the secret behind Paul Van Doren’s success. An entrepreneurial spirit and go-getting attitude that started on the floor of a shoe factory has led to one of the most iconic prints in the world, and over 50 years of success for the Vans brand.