The Sobering Tale of Tony Alva's Vans Relationship
Tony Alva has been around the block more times than he can count. Along with Stacy Peralta and Jay Adams (RIP), Alva was part of the legendary Z-Boys team of skaters based in LA that are still renowned for their existential impact on skateboarding. On the eve of celebrating his epic 45-year relationship with Vans, Alva was in a reflective mood when we grabbed a few minutes at a recent House of Vans event in Sydney.
Let’s go back to 1966, the year Vans started.
Vans started out making shoes for sailors and surfers. The direct connection to skateboarding in the 60s was that skaters were sidewalk surfers. If you wanted a little bit of protection and you wanted to look cool, you wore Vans. You’ve also gotta understand that Vans started out as a family business. They were a mom-and-pop shop with a few retail outlets, but they also had a little factory that made custom Vans shoes in California. A lot of the people that worked in the factory were employed right off the street, mostly Chicanos and Latinos. Now they’re a multi-billion dollar business. That’s the American dream!
And how did you fit into that story?
When I first started going to the factory in Anaheim, they would sell me one shoe at a time. I didn’t care what colour it was, I just took whatever I could get. I would wear a light blue and a red shoe at the same time, which is why the Era originally came out in mismatched two-tone colours. As soon as I joined the team in 1974, photographs started appearing in magazines and the move immediately paid off. To actually have Vans not only giving us gear – because we went through stuff super fast – but actually paying us was a dream come true for kids from the west side of LA. We were the perfect crash dummy test-pilots, especially with shoes. If you want to test the durability of a product, give it to the Z-Boys! We were a ragtag bunch of kids, bodies all over the ground, but we used the gear to take skateboarding to the next level. What I do for Vans these days is more cultural. The creative expression comes from the style that we carry, and holding ourselves true to being part of the Vans family.
Is that how you see Vans, as a big family?
Vans is still a family-oriented company. Steve Van Doren believed in it, and so did his father Paul, who started the company. It’s not just about making money. It’s not just about having an ‘image’ like the corporate companies we compete against. I won’t mention names, but you know who I’m talking about. Those brands follow trends, and they capitalise off of skateboarding and what skaters are into. Integrity is a core value within the company. Steve Van Doren always gave back, and he still does.
Vans stands for style and aesthetics, but also the functionality of the products they make. They never really tried to reinvent the wheel, especially when it came to waffle soles. The way the gum rubber sole grips the grip tape, and the feeling that it gives you, there’s nothing like it. Vans was always part of our uniform. We didn’t need anything else, and we never wanted anything else.
Why do you think Vans has been so successful?
Vans haven’t always been as successful as they are right now. There were a few points where I’m surprised they didn’t throw in the towel. But they never gave up. They stuck it out. To compete against the transition to manufacturing shoes outside the US – what they’ve done in order to survive – is unbelievable. The success of Vans has a lot to do with Steve’s personal ethos. The last time we were in Milan, it was freezing cold and there was a line of 1500 kids outside waiting for Steve Caballero, Christian Hosoi and me to sign posters. So Steve goes out with trays of snacks for the kids. The fact that the CEO of marketing and promotion at Vans is out in the freezing cold giving mini pizzas away is what makes the company great.
Looking at the Vans team, there’s something that sets them apart. Is it fair to say that relates back to the family aspect of Vans?
Sure, but it’s the diversity, too. We’ve got young guys like Curren Caples, but we’ve also got Steve Caballero! Vans don’t just discard people like they’re disposable commodities. If you stand behind your people as a company, then your people stand behind you. That includes everyone from musicians to surfers, skateboarders and the BMX guys. Some of our riders, like Jeff Grosso, have been hurt and Vans stuck by them no matter what. We’re not out there to be cool or popular. We don’t care how many likes we get. It’s not about that.
You had a direct involvement with the creation of Style 44, or the Era as it’s now commonly known. What do you remember about that period?
We weren’t just a bunch of kids trying to get a free pair of shoes, we were trying to be part of something that we believed in.
With a little feedback, we thought we could take skateboarding to the next level. Thankfully, Steve realised we had something useful to say, and that skate shoes were a viable proposition. Stacy Peralta had a lot to do with that process. I was more rogue, behind the scenes like, ‘Yeah, whatever… just give me some shoes!’ But Stacy was right in there, going ‘I can help you design this shoe!’ He had his own print ad for Vans, and I think he had the first pictures in a magazine of anyone riding with Style 44s on their feet.
Is skateboarding all about perseverance?
Absolutely. We can fall and snap bones, but our spirit doesn’t break. The spirit that comes from skateboarding is kind of like surfing meets punk rock. We’re gonna go out and not be conquered, no matter what. That spirit still lives in skateboarders today, regardless of what age they are, or their skill level. You can see it in a five-year-old kid on the street at the park, all the way up to old school guys like myself. When you first start out, you have that moment where you’re like, ‘I can do this. And not only can I do this, maybe I can do it higher and a little bit more radical, a little bit faster and on a bigger wall.’ That’s where the Off The Wall thing came into play. It was like, ‘Off the wall? Yeah that wall!’ That’s what skateboarding is all about.
What does skateboarding mean to you at this point?
At this point, skateboarding is all about refining my technique. I’m not going to go out and do a 20-stair handrail. I leave that to guys like Kyle Walker. I just love to go out and do what I do and not compete with anybody. I don’t worry about that stuff anymore. I don’t have anything to prove to anybody. And I’m definitely not doing it because I want to be worshiped as somebody’s hero, mentor or muse.
You never pass any of your hard-won wisdom onto the young bloods in the Vans team?
Only if they ask for it. A lot of the guys have been through the lows and highs. If they ever reach out to me and ask for direction, I share it with them. I don’t force feed anybody my ideals. It doesn’t really work that way. You have to be ready to absorb something like that.
I can definitely say that the way I used to act on tour, compared to how I am now, that’s proof anyone can change. To destroy yourself drinking and doing drugs, getting involved in dodgy relationships with chicks, and stuff like that, was destructive. That doesn’t happen in my life nowadays because I don’t use alcohol. I used to drink like a fricking pirate! Abstinence is much easier than perfect moderation. My general rule is one day at a time. I don’t use drinking as a crutch anymore. I don’t smoke dope, don’t use any drugs, chemicals, or any mood-altering substances. That way I set a better example for everyone that is into surfing and skateboarding and rock music, because it shows you can do all that stuff and still have fun being sober.
I’m sure that helps you get out of bed each morning.
Oh yeah, especially with surfing! I get out there first thing and I’m the only guy out there not hungover, and I get the better waves. I play bass in a really good band right now, His Eyes Have Fangs, and we have a really cool line-up. We’re all sober but you know what, the quality of the sound and our performances is so much better than some of the bands that I was involved with in the past. It used to be about playing as loud and as raunchy as possible. If you really want to be a performer, and be the best that you can be, then take the drugs and alcohol out of it.
After all these years, are you still proud to be part of the Vans family?
When I look back, one of the best things I everdid was to not jump ship away from Vans. You’ve gotta ride that wave, man! I wish a lot of my friends were still alive to hear some of the things I shared with you, there’s a lot that has happened in my life. Everything I did back then is what got me here today. Vans have always been the right sponsor for me. They make great products, and they treat me like family. I get the respect that I think is deserved, not owed to me. Steve Van Doren has been one of the most benevolent influences in my life, way back to when I was a teenager. Vans stands for what Steve and his father Paul visualised when they started the company. That’s why the Era is so important. It goes beyond just being an actual skate shoe. It goes way, way beyond all of that.