Oi Polloi

Interview: Henry Davies, Vans Collector

Published: Thu Feb 23 2017

Although ‘collecting’ is nothing new, it wasn’t that long ago that hoarding niche items was a fairly isolated, and occasionally frowned-upon, past time. You may have spent the majority of your life amassing the world’s biggest collection of crisp packets, but what did that matter when no one else could see it?

Nowadays things are a bit different. Thanks to the internet and developments in the world of image-based social media platforms, hoarders of even the most obscure, niche objects can share their finds with like-minded obsessives around the world.

One such ‘niche hoarder’ is Henry Davies. He’s spent the last fifteen years collecting Vans trainers (specifically those made before 1995 when production moved away from the USA), and now, thanks to his shop — The Other Side of the Pillow — other people can too.

Intrigued by his commitment to vulcanised canvas shoes, I visited his Hackney treasure trove to pester him with some questions… 

I suppose I better start with the most obvious question… how did you get into this? What was the thing that set you off?

I’ve always been a collector, even as a kid. I used to collect athletic trainers like adidas and Nike, but they fell to pieces. I didn’t want to collect things to just sit there; I wanted to collect stuff that I could wear. So someone planted the seed of old Vans. They said you could still wear ones that were 30 or 40 years old.

The release of Dogtown and Z Boys in 2001 was a big thing too. Watching that was the point of no return. The context of it in southern California and the birth of skateboarding just spoke to me.

Where did you go from there? It must have taken a while to get a collection as big as all this.

I watched that and then went straight on eBay to see what was out there. I never really had a plan; I just started obsessively hoarding this stuff.

What did you collect as a kid?

I was into Star Wars and the figurines. And then stickers. But I was well into basketball as a kid, and that started with trainers. It was always about shoes since then.

Why’s that? Is it because it’s something you can wear?

Yeah, that’s a big part of it. They say something about who you are. You feel like you belong to something by wearing a certain thing or dressing a certain way. I wanted to align myself with that way of life and that way of thinking. That was always key to me… even I was only wearing the shoes.

Yeah, you might not be able to go back to the late 70s in California, but you can buy a bit of it. Do you remember the first pair you bought?

The first pair I got were checkerboard slip-ons, which are probably the most iconic shoe for Vans. And then I was just buying whatever I could. I was getting most of them from America. This was early eBay when things would take months to arrive — if they arrived at all.

Back then I imagine stuff was a lot cheaper.

Yeah, I was buying stuff for five or ten dollars and waiting three months for them to arrive. I wasn’t thinking about them gaining value, they were just something I had to have. As soon as I got the first pair and felt the quality, I knew it was what I was looking for.

I know that you only buy the ‘made in USA’ ones. What’s the difference? To the normal person they probably look fairly similar.

The shape is a more tapered, contoured fit, with a much more pointed toe. And then the feel of the shoes and the quality is much better. But the density of the rubber is the most important thing – they’re much more solid. The old ones were pure crepe rubber and that was the thing that had traction for the skaters and the guys riding BMX. They were cheap and they were durable. They’re more flexible and malleable. The rubber almost has a life of its own.

When did buying a few pairs of trainers become a full blown collection?

I was living in Sydney in the early 2000s when I first had the idea. I then moved to London in 2006 and it was a totally different landscape in Europe for collecting. You’re so isolated in Australia that you don’t see shit. But you don’t realise it until you travel. I went to the next level of collecting once I arrived in London.

Then within three years of living here, I had the opportunity to open the first shop. The collection was getting huge. I had no choice but to have a market stall or open an eBay shop or something. Luckily things fell into place.

You’ve got a lot of stuff here that I’ve never seen before. Were these just things they made for a few years?

Some of them disappeared. There are some unusual models in the 70s that they never made again, but the majority of trainers they made were the staples like the Old Skool, Era, Authentic and Skate Hi.

And then the brand evolved in the late 80s and early 90s when the company was sold. A lot more experimentation went into product development and they were more adventurous. It was a reflection of what other brands were doing too. There was the Native American, which was a reaction to street skating.

Those ones almost look like a Vision shoe or something.

Yeah they were following suit. You can see a direct link to other shoes, but they’re still an amazing product in themselves.

There’s one that’s like a Gazelle too isn’t there?

That one is called the Epoch Sport. Back in ’93 and ’94 when a lot of guys were skating in adidas Gazelles and Puma Suedes and the athletic brands were getting a look in, Vans went down that angle.

I know with adidas there were different factories making different shoes. Was that the same case with Vans?

It was all quite centralised, coming from California, but the only real exception was W.P. Lavori — an Italian retailer who was given the green light to do exclusive customs and possibly they’re own style of shoe that was only available in Italy.

How come Vans were so big in Italy?

It was less about skateboarding, and more for the Paninaro. Wild colours, low deck-shoes, printed stuff. They wanted to be American, but it was this caricature of Americana. There was no internet or social media, it was just this fusion of styles borrowed from here or there.

I know Vans would make custom ones too. I suppose that means there’s endless stuff for a collector to find.

Of course. Vans offered one-off customs to any customer. People could choose what they wanted and supply their own canvas. It was possible to take a leather jacket or kitchen curtains into the factory and they would fashion them into shoes.

How far did they go with the customs stuff? What are the weirdest ones?

They went to every length. There’s these loafers that look like Wallabees that were made for the University of Southern California. Maybe they were made for the marching band or maybe one dude at USC wanted two tone loafers? And then there’s ones made from Hawaiian shirts and curtains.

The flexibility that Vans offered with customisation went to so many different levels. They made orthopaedic shoes for kids, or they would add an extra big sole if your legs were different lengths. At the same time, if you were a clown and you wanted some wild shoes for your party, then Vans were somehow associated with that.

Didn’t they do military shoes too?

Yeah, the government made contact and wanted military spec mukluks for extreme cold weather.  They’re super high, reinforced army boots. They’re pretty wild. I’ve got a pair that are my size, so I’m going to cut them down into lows and rock them like that.

I’ve seen loads of shoes here with logos and stuff going round the sole. What was that about?

The story goes that Steve Van Doren spotted kids at school with magic markers, writing on the rubber, so he took it to the factory and they started making it themselves. They called it the Friction Scene. Kids would come in store and draw their own scene on paper, and if they had maybe ten entries with hearts or unicorns or whatever, then they’d start making them.

How did the skate thing start? Weren’t Vans just a normal deck shoe company?

The skaters started wearing them because they were cheap, durable and flexible. Tony Alva and the Dogtown kids built a relationship with Steve because he knew they were just skate rats who wanted to skate. They were allowed to get one shoe at a time, or maybe get one shoe of a different colour. That’s kind of where it all started.

And then Vans asked them “What do you want in a shoe? What could be improved?” So the Era came out with extra padding, then there was different colours and two tones and the Off The Wall logo.

For the first ten years, Vans was about canvas casual tennis shoes and all your boating needs, and then suddenly it became this gnarly, punk rock, off the wall thing. Vans could have gone, “Oh, these punk kids, we don’t want anything to do with them, we’re going to make our sensible deck shoes,” but they embraced it.

Do you have favourites? I know you collect your niche, but what’s the ultimate one for you?

The mid 70s stuff. The first Off The Wall shoes they made — the blue, red and blue Eras. They’re really special to me. And then there’s the freestyle BMX stuff, and how they used to match the shoes with the factory outfits. I love that era.

Did you used to ride?

Only as a kid. It was always about the product for me.

Too busy checking what shoes they were wearing in the photos?

Yeah, it’s how my brain works.

It’s weird how seeing a photo or something can set you off on things.

There was a moment when I was 17 or 18, just before I got my driver’s licence. And I remember going into this bike shop and looking at this photo of this dude on a BMX with red and white checkerboard Vans on. And I remember thinking, “That rules.” That was another seed that planted all this.

I know you won’t want to give away your sources, but where do you get them from?

Yeah, I won’t give away everything, but eBay is still a major resource. I’ll go to any length. Getting out on the road is the fun part, but it’s unrealistic to just drive somewhere. I’ll only go when I’ve got a serious lead.

I know you hear stories sometimes about these old sports shops full of old stuff. Does that still exist?

Yeah, I’m certain places like that still exist. Even in the smallest towns in Italy you might go into a sports store that’s been untouched since the 80s. And then next door there might be opticians with frames untouched since the 90s. These places exist; it’s just how many people are out there actively digging on that level?

It leaves it to the committed I suppose.

Exactly. People think that eBay is the only option.

Do you think collecting is maybe more popular now? I know maybe twenty years ago you’d be seen as a weirdo for being a collector, whereas now with Instagram and stuff, everyone’s sharing their stuff.

I think social media has acknowledged niche interests on so many levels, and has allowed people who would have been considered geeks to reach this level of notoriety and expertise. Transfer of information is easier, and finding this stuff is a lot easier.

I suppose when you first started this stuff, maybe it was almost too soon? People can understand collecting some old stuff from the 60s, but stuff from the 90s is maybe different.

Yeah, with the cycle of cool it takes at least a decade for people to start appreciating what came before. A lot of it is thought of as disposable, but perception changes when you mix it with nostalgia and appreciation of design.

Yeah, people are already starting to collect old DC skate shoes. I don’t think anyone would have thought that would be happening fifteen years ago.

Yeah there’s a whole world of that. It’s just bubbling around at the moment, but it’s going to be big.

People just go for the things they remember. In the same way you were influenced by that old picture of the guy with the checkerboard vans, someone else might have seen a picture of a guy in big bulky trainers.

Yeah, some guy might look through a snowboard magazine and see something that captures his imagination.

There’s no choice with this stuff sometimes. I don’t think people can choose what they’re obsessed with.

Yeah, you can’t help who you fall in love with. It’s the same with appreciation of design or fashion. These moments happen to you. They’re unavoidable. The subconscious mind can do strange things. Who knows why we’re attracted to what we are?

Do you manage to keep a handle on your collection? Does it ever go too far?

There are moments where I question my sanity. I invested my life in this, my time and my money. But it helps to have it as a business. If it were just some hoarding complex that I had, then it’d be different. Before I had the shop, it was more of a problem cos I’d just see piles building up. The shop justifies it somehow. There are definitely moments when I’ve got to reel it in.

Okay, I think we’ve probably covered most things here now. Last question… where do you think the collector mentality comes from in some people?

I think it’s the complexity of the human mind. I remember collecting trading cards when I was a kid, and saying to my mum, “Why can’t I be like everyone else, and just find the ones I like?” I had to get everyone in the set. It’s a very male driven world, but it just comes down to how your brain is wired. I think I’m probably on the Asperger’s spectrum.

There’s this fixation and this compulsion where I have to have something and it fuels almost every waking moment. It’s just how my brain is wired. Other people are genetically predisposed in different ways, or maybe they haven’t had experiences when they were a kid that can lead to something like this.

I remember my first pair of Nikes. Nike Air Span. 1988. I bought them in an airport in Malaysia. I put them down for a minute to get a drink and they were gone. Someone nicked them. That was traumatic for me. I think I was scarred by that moment.

See Henry's shop here. Or see his hoard on Instagram via @pillowheat