When Vans collaborated with Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami for a line of sneakers and apparel in 2015, the world’s cool kids took notice. The patterns — Murakami’s signature psychedelic designs in a bold rainbow of colors — debuted at a celebration in Downtown Manhattan, at Soho’s Opening Ceremony store, one of the company’s boutique partners along with Bodega. They sold out.

The collaboration was part of the Vans Vault line, a limited sneaker and apparel category at Vans that remakes the classic sneaker lines (Vans’ slip-ons, high tops, lace-ups and more) with premium materials and designer collaborations, and sells them at higher-end price points. In its 10th year, when the Murakami collaboration dropped, Vault had officially established itself as a force to be reckoned with in the exclusive lifestyle footwear lexicon, on par with Adidas’s Originals and Nike’s Lab lines.

“That collab really put them on the map, in terms of reaching the sneaker collector group, the fashion and art group, as well as the general public,” said Yu-Ming Wu, CMO of Stadium Goods. “They had done interesting ones before, but this was so far reaching in terms of any product they’ve put out. It reached people who may not have paid attention to them before.”

Stephen Mills, Vans’ vp of lifestyle footwear who launched Vault back in 2005, recalled how the Takashi Murakami collaboration came together.

“I read in an article that we were one of his favorite brands, so we called him. He’s one of the most influential artists of his day, so we did a product because he wanted to,” said Mills. “He understands us and wears us.”

Outside of the Murakami collection, Vans Vault has partnered with designers like Marc Jacobs and Commes des Garcons, streetwear heavyweight Supreme, franchises like Star Wars and Japanese cult favorite brands WTaps and Undercover. Coming up, Vault will release a collaboration with Jockum Hallin, the curator of Stockholm’s vintage boutique Our Legacy. Inventory for each new drop caps off at a limited number of sneakers and apparel pieces, sometimes as few as 90 per collection, and they’re only found in boutique distributors, not at Vans’ 550 retail stores or its e-commerce store.

As Vault has matured, Mills, the lead of the line’s five-person team, has become more selective in who he chooses to collaborate with. He said that the brand is preparing to turn Vault into a more lucrative piece of the business that will drive sizable revenue, a tricky undertaking that would have to maintain exclusivity while increasing distribution. Right now, Vans is thriving at parent VFC, which also owns brands like The North Face and Timberland. While the company overall saw revenue drop 1 percent to $3.5 billion in the last quarter, Vans revenue lifted by 7 percent overall, with a bump of 20 percent in the Asia-Pacific market.

What’s now a source of “downtown street cred” (according to Wu) for Vans actually started as a marketing ploy.

“Back in the early 2000s, our classics line was really struggling. It was almost nonexistent,” said Mills. “We wrote a business plan that would put our classics front of mind and say, ‘This is our heritage.’ That turned into Vault. The line was essentially a marketing exercise for boosting energy and brand affinity.”

Mills, who oversees Vans’ classics line, as well as a new product innovation project that’s internally called classics-plus, said that Vault is the only line of the brand that he’s hands-on with everyday. He’s in charge of product design, development and collaborations, distribution and merchandising for Vault.

While Mills, a daily surfer himself, considers Vans to have fashion at its core, selling the idea of a premium, higher price-point, exclusive line was an internal challenge.

“Everyone felt internally that we were a dirt-ball skate company that couldn’t compete with Nike and Adidas, who were already on this road. We came in a little late,” he said. “People weren’t sure we could sell products at these price points. The internal conversation was harder than it was externally, because timing had a lot to do with it. At 50 years old, it was the perfect time for people to rediscover Vans.”

Vans Factory11

An image of the Vans factory, from the archives.

Mills said that, for those who grew up with Vans in the ’60s and ’70s, the brand had all but disappeared. But Vans’ five top-selling shoes remained the same: the Slip-Ons, Sk8-His, Sk8-Hi Slims, Authentics and Old Skools. He saw an opportunity to reimagine those styles to offer excitement to the older generation, as well as introduce Vans to a younger generation. By keeping Vault collections to limited releases and only selling them through 100 partner stores, a Vans shoe would have its first sense of urgency.

“With Vault, Vans is going back to the original sneakers but with premium materials and new designs,” said David Fischer, founder of streetwear site Highsnobiety. “It gives sneakerheads the real deal, so to speak.”

It has also given Vans a global platform. Through partnerships with global streetwear brands, Swedish curators and Japanese cult favorites, Vault has introduced a new audience to the California skate brand. Each partnership results in a halo effect that lifts the brand as a whole, said Wu.

“It’s become a global brand, reaching Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York. It’s no longer a Cali skate kid shoe, it’s a downtown hipster shoe,” he said. “Vans has definitely brought themselves to a nice place by using Vault.”

Mills said that as the brand figures out a way to turn Vault into a viable revenue stream for Vans without sacrificing its exclusivity factor, he plans to stay involved daily in the product and partnerships for each collection.

“As the brand has grown over the past several years, it’s been interesting to see who has the actual affinity for us,” said Mills. “We used to have to go out to reach out and talk to people. I’ve been adamant about keeping my hands in the product process, and I want to make sure I keep doing that.”

Vault’s consistency in product design and partnerships is key to its remaining an industry player, according to Fischer.

“You can see that someone is behind that line with a certain taste and knowledge of the market,” he said. “They consistently bring out solid product and choose collaborators that fall within that pattern. With other brands, things change all the time, but at Vault, it’s consistent. That speaks to the great job [Mills has] done.”

Header image: Takashi Murakami, left, with Stephen Mills. Image source: Canoe PR