Sneakers That Defined California's 1970s Skate Scene
Between 1976 and 1977, California was dry; really dry. The sun-kissed state stretching 900 miles along the Pacific was hit by the worst drought in a century — draining swimming pools, and scorching drainage ditches. But despite causing economic damages placed around the $1 billion mark, the extreme weather conditions in Cali managed to breathe more life into a new cultural phenomenon breaking toes and grazing knees across the San Francisco Bay Area: Skateboarding. Empty swimming pools, schools and ditches were carved up by sneakers like the Randy 720, Keds Park Plus, #44 Vans, Blazers and Bruins. All across California, these were the sneakers that defined skateboarding.
'California — wild, sweaty, important, the land of lonely and exiled, and eccentric lovers come to forgather like birds, and the land where everybody somehow looked like broken-down, handsome, decadent movie actors.' ― Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Back in the 1950s, surfers from Hermosa and Manhattan Beach attached roller skate wheels to wooden planks as a way to hone their surfing skills when the ocean was flat. Known as ‘sidewalk surfing’, the early days of skate featured no sneakers at all, early adopters deciding to barefoot and kamikaze their way across California. The first skate publication, Quarterly Skateboarder, managed to articulate the sense of pride and fearlessness permeating skateboarding, publishing an editorial that functioned almost like a manifesto:
'Today's skateboarders are founders in this sport — they're pioneers — they are the first. There is no history in Skateboarding — it's being made now — by you. The sport is being molded and we believe that doing the right thing now will lead to a bright future for the sport. Already, there are storm clouds on the horizon with opponents of the sport talking about ban and restriction.'
The ‘us versus them’ mentality, and antagonistic narrative, permeated skate culture. Skate parks did not yet exist, so skaters flocked to places like the Escondido Reservoir in San Diego, and other public locations nicknamed by the local community (e.g. the Egg Bowl, the Sewer Slide, and the Fruit Bowl) before earth’s first skateboarding competition arrived in 1965.
GETTING RANDY WITH THE 720
Located just outside the City of Angels, Anaheim hosted the world's first international skateboarding competition. Despite the embryonic tech and limited equipment, the event served as a catalyst for skateboarding across the globe. Early adopters of the sport rocked up in sneakers like the Keds or Converse Chuck Taylors, but in 1965 there was an important development in skate footwear: the Randy 720.
Created by the Randolph Rubber company, the shoe shared an aesthetic resemblance to the Keds, an English canvas sneaker with rubber soles. But the Randy 720 also incorporated some inventive grip stylings to compensate for the fact that skateboards still weren’t using grip tape. In many ways, the sneaker was an updated rendition of common boat shoes, with Randolph installing thicker heel soles and ‘TUFFER’ Randyprene rubber.
The Randolph Rubber Company itself was short-lived, but it did sow the seeds for the most important sneaker of the skate scene during the 1970s: Vans.
VANS ON A DIME
Formed by Paul and Jim Van Doren, the Van Doren Rubber Company wanted to take on the other vulcanised sneakers of the era. Located on 704 East Broadway, the Van Doren boys opened the first Vans retail store, selling one silhouette: the #44 Vans Deck Shoe. Hitting the wallet anywhere between $2.50 and $5, the Deck Shoe was available in four colours, Vans selling 16 pairs on their first day in a factory located behind the store. The Van Doren Rubber company also offered customisations for the #44; any material which could be sewn into the uppers could be brought in store (skaters often bringing in their own designs).
It didn’t take long for some of the more prominent skateboarders of the era to catch on, Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta’s Z-Boys early adopters of the sneaker. Throughout the 70s, Vans would add multiple builds to their line — Tony Alva’s Style #95, the #35, and the hightop #38 — and built over 70 stores across California.
AND THE SKATEBOARD GOES SWOOSH
The skating phenom began to pick up literal and figurative speed by the late 1970s, with skateboarding manufacturers and sneaker brands both hoping to tap into the lucrative market.
Manufacturers like Makaha and Hobie (the first skateboarding manufacturers to make shoes) found an angle by marketing their shoes as official skateboarding gear, while newcomers Nike began to make some serious inroads with All Courts, Blazers and Bruins. Nike was well-regarded amongst the skate community in the 70s for their sturdy materials, cushioning and stability, with skaters also taking a shine to the colourful suede uppers and reinforced toe caps. Soon enough, Nike were feeling as comfortable in empty swimming pools as they were on the courts.
Still, it wouldn't be until the mid-80s when Nike would sponsor their first team: the Bones Brigades.
WISH THEY ALL COULD BE CALIFORNIA GRAILS
Despite Vans casting a long shadow over the skate scene in California, other brands continued to jostle for position in the lucrative market. Whether it was Larry Bertlemann skating ASICS in 1974, Mark Richards hitting a 360 on the Randy 720’s first advertisement, or European pros making their moves in Clark’s Stunter or Dunlop Skateboard Superstars, one thing was certain across all brands: Sneakers in the 1970s were totally getting rinsed.