Geoff Rowley is one of skateboarding’s most iconic figures. Born in Liverpool, England, an 18-year-old Rowley chased the American Dream all the way to California, where he soon found himself signing with team Vans. Not content with just revolutionising the sport, his athlete-inspired insights have also shaped the progression of skate footwear. With the relaunched Rowley RapidWeld Pro hitting shelves, we sat down to discuss his 20-year career at Vans.
Geoff Rowley Speaks on 20 Years with Team Vans
Date: October 06 2019
By: Audrey Bugeja
What brought you into skateboarding?
I’ve been skateboarding since I was 13. Honestly, my passion and drive for the sport is still the same as it was when I was a little kid. It wasn’t the music, art, culture or even the product — it was the individuality side that I found really exciting. We all had our different styles but I was accepted by skaters even though I didn’t dress like them. That makes skating what it is. I always remind myself of that.
How has it [skateboarding] changed since your teenage years?
Visually it has changed a lot, especially the graphics on the skateboards, wheels, shoes, and clothing. Going into a skateboard shop with all the bits and bobs of colour and creativity is still incredibly appealing. Most of the best skate shops in the world are run by skaters, so obviously they know what’s up. They empower their local community to do bigger and better things. Skateboarding has always done that.
Over the years, how have brands supported that empowerment?
Tony Alva stood up in the 1970s for all skaters with his character and attitude. He walked into Vans and told them, ‘I want padding in the ankles because the boards keep hitting me!’ That insight created the Vans Era! They listened to a skateboarder back then and the sport was changed forever. I had a similar experience. It’s humbling for me, but the fact that Vans listen to their pro athletes says a lot about the brand.
The family aspect of Vans is strong...
Yeah, it really is. When I’m asked why I ride for Vans, I answer that in a number of different ways, but the most natural and comfortable thing to say is that I actually ride for Steve Van Doren, purely because his family built the company. It’s the American Dream, straight up! His dad Paul Van Doren knows so much about footwear manufacturing and the entire vulcanised process. I was on a tour with him in Italy a couple of months ago and I took a pair of Eras off, dropped them in front of him and said, ‘Tell me about that shoe!’ Paul broke it right down because he knows the Era like the back of his hand. He built the brand and all the factories in the US, and he has always been so supportive of professional skateboarding. I’m thankful for that. I still ride for Vans because of the experiences I have with the Van Dorens. They treat me well and they treat skateboarding well.
Let’s talk about your first shoe with Vans.
My first Vans shoe was a model that had been pretty much forgotten by the brand. In the late 90s, the product that Vans was developing wasn’t really working for skateboarders and it wasn’t very fashionable either. The first thing I wanted to do after I signed was produce a proper skate shoe. Nobody told me what was possible, so I worked on it with a designer. I still have the original sketch.
Going straight to production in 1998 with a vulcanised shoe that hadn’t been made for a long time was – well, I don’t think Vans even knew whether it was the right thing to do! They knew vulcanised shoes were important to the history of the brand, but it took an athlete to confirm the direction. We added a comfortable and removable sockliner along with a little bit of padding around the ankles and tongues, then we beefed up the vulcanised rubber, making sure the crepe rubber content in the sole was incredibly high so that the grip was really good.
Did it skate better?
It skated better than anything out there at that time. I could feel the difference! I skated better and progressed a lot during that period in my career. That process also gave me the confidence in my heart to push for the right product. I did, Vans listened, and it worked.
Did this open Vans up to new opportunities?
Vans is built on that style, but I don't think they are just a vulcanised shoe company. It’s an incredible brand that does everything with the right intentions and makes the best skate product in the world. If it works, it doesn't need fixing, and what we have at Vans right now, in my humble opinion, is the best skateboard shoes in the world.
What were the design considerations you added to make your first pro model the ultimate skateboarding shoe?
Since nobody told me what I could or couldn’t have, every single piece of the shoe was broken down. I was very aware of making sure it had all the right DNA for it to skate and be very durable, but still retain that Vans look without it being a vintage rehash. All of my shoes have been very much inspired by the original Vans DNA. In the back of my mind, I’m always thinking, ‘That was done then. What can we do now?’ I think that experience reminded Vans that the vulcanised process produces great skateboard shoes. It’s an affordable process and the shoes are really versatile. You can wear a pair of Eras to the movies and you can go skate in them. They can look dressy or they can look rough. However you feel.
That was the first of many Vans shoes…
My first shoe was designed for me and it was all about skateboarding. My second shoe was more about comfort. I was skating really heavy stuff at the time and when I didn't want to wear my board shoes I wanted something much more relaxed, so we did a cotton-buff EVA design that was super light. My third shoe was a mid-cut cupsole style. Vans had never made a shoe like that at the time. I started by asking a lot of questions. How am I skating? What am I skating? Where do I want to progress? Do I need durability or do they need to be ultra light? Do I need extra cushioning and more support? What is beautiful is that Vans never tried to influence my ideas. I don't know how many different shoes I’ve had, but whatever I wanted for the last 20 years, they were always open to my ideas. I can't take credit for the first shoe because I designed it with a friend, but every shoe after that I have pretty much hand-sketched because I knew exactly what I needed.
What do you do with Vans right now?
I work with the design groups in different capacities. I don’t go out to the factories because I already know what we can do. When we’re designing the shoes, I know what stages of the vulcanised process we can play around with and what we can’t touch, all those kinds of things. Good designers know when to push and when to step back. When you’re dealing with athletes, it’s important the designer doesn’t try to overload the product, but they still need to give the skater what they want. Otherwise they’re not going to skate well and that doesn’t encourage progression. Working with Vans is a blessing, it really is. I love the brand and wouldn’t be anywhere else.
What does the future look like for you?
We recently relaunched my first shoe, the Rowley RapidWeld Pro. We basically took the same design from 20 years ago, revamped it, cleaned it up, thinned it out and made some improvements that weren’t possible in 1999. Right now it’s back in the Vans classics category. Aside from that, the future for me looks exactly the same as what I’ve been doing in the past. It’s all about progression at 100 miles an hour. I just launched a new skateboard business, so I want to try and grow that and do more for local communities and skate shops. That means more skateboarding – more fast skateboarding! More slams and skate videos, and hopefully more great Vans shoes. That's the future for Geoff Rowley!