The iconic brand Vans has carved out a unique place in fashion history by supporting the cultural profile of skaters, rockers and others who might otherwise go unnoticed. In the process, though, racial representation has been neglected. Now, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, the company is making a new effort to reach out and do its part raise the voices of Black artists and professionals.
Since its beginnings in 1966, Vans has been associated with a side of youth culture and creative expression that is dominated by white males. The company’s connection with skateboarding and BMX is legendary, and its sponsorship of the long running Warped Tour has earned it a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. These fields are not exclusionary, but the overall effect has been to wash diversity into the backwaters of cultural phenomena.
One sign of turnabout occurred in 2018, when Vans joined up with A Tribe Called Quest and Sony Music’s The Thread Shop to celebrate hip-hop culture.
That is quite a contrast to 2007, when diversity was an afterthought among the 14 artists Vans recruited to produce a line of sneakers featuring characters from The Simpsons. Similarly, a joint venture with the Museum of Modern Art in New York City yielded little in the way of exposure for Black artists.
The Black Lives Matter movement seems to have jolted Vans into action, and focus more specifically on Black voices.
Black Lives Matter predates the protests of 2020, having been formed by three women in the aftermath of the 2013 murder of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by a self-appointed white neighborhood watcher. The movement experienced a powerful rebirth of energy last summer following the murder of another unarmed Black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer. Unlike the Martin case, the minutes-long, tortured killing of Floyd was captured on film by a Black bystander and circulated on social media for all to see.
In the months that followed, public outrage swelled over racial injustice and many corporate leaders took a long look at their diversity programs, and Vans was among them.
On May 31, just days after the Floyd murder, Vans’ Global Brand President Doug Palladini posted a public statement in which he highlighted a pattern of empty promises on racial justice in the U.S., and pledged that Vans would seek a path toward permanent change.
“For Vans, this is where we draw the line. This is where we promise to never forget, to never stop living our values of inclusion and being open to anyone. This is where we take action and keep acting for as long as it takes,” Palladini wrote.
That pledge took concrete shape last fall, when Vans detailed new diversity targets on its website under the title “Empower.” In doing so, the company has set a standard for others to follow. Rather than simply outlining a new diversity policy and giving itself a round of applause, Vans begins with a self-critical assessment, and positions itself as company that has the power to make a difference by transforming itself.
“We acknowledge that we have not been a strong ally nor spoken up on topics of racial and social justice. The unrelenting violence and racial profiling impacting the Black community is evidence that our society is only at the beginning of change. Going forward, we commit to take action that always supports equity and justice for marginalized communities,” Vans writes.
As part of Vans’s self-critical assessment, the Empower page is illustrated with several charts that demonstrate how far the company has to go.
“Our store associates often reflect the communities in which they are based and are as diverse as the consumers we serve. We cannot say the same for our corporate office. We know we have work to do to improve the diversity in our corporate office and are committed to doing so,” Vans explains.
Among the steps Vans has pledged, one key element is to double BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) representation at the brand’s headquarters. That also involves expanding its work with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and other organizations and businesses dedicated to cultivating diverse talent, including The One Club and the Black-owned design firm PENSOLE.
The new policy also establishes a platform for employees to discuss, learn, and lead on dismantling institutional racism, and it sets goals for increasing BIPOC representation in Vans’ creative and promotional ventures, including its artists and brand ambassadors. That also involves an additional layer of effort in cultivating more BIPOC participation in the action sports promoted by Vans.
“Saying nothing implies acceptance, and the Vans Family cannot accept the status quo any longer…Vans alone cannot cure what ails this world, but we will not sit idly by and watch it race to the bottom,” the company concludes.
Vans’ renewed efforts already appear to be having an impact on its public profile. In February 2020 the company celebrated Black History Month with custom designs by four Black artists, an effort that resulted in relatively little media attention for the artists themselves.
This year the spotlight has turned up. Among other media notices, Vans' 2021 Black History Month venture took the number 3 slot in Elle magazine’s list of “Hottest Designer Drops of February 2021.” The publication chose a photo of Vans 2021 artist Rewina Beshue for the lead illustration, making Vans the only company on the list to be personally represented by Black talent.
Along with California-based Beshue, the 2021 Black History Month artists are Chris Martin, Sydney G. James and Tony Whlgn.
In addition to showcasing the artists’ work, the Vans website provides a platform for each artist to articulate their purpose and vision.
As the featured artist this week, Martins discussed the impact of racism on the Black experience in America.
“My Blackness is completely inseparable from all aspects of my life. The ideology and bigotry of American history shaped the consciousness of all souls inhabiting Black bodies. Through my work I’m able to hold a mirror to this dark experience and share perspective, inform, and gain the attention of anyone willing to take part in the uneasy American truth,” he wrote.
Martins’ message is also one about the power of activism.
“I'm focused on what I'm willing to give rather than what I would like for others to take away -- like telling a story of how we stood up seven times to continue fighting instead of the six times being knocked down, flipping the negatives into positives, showing off our scars as a sign of strength rather than focusing on the pain endured. It's the same story, just a different mindset - triumph instead of turmoil,” he wrote.
With the explosive rage of white supremacy on full display during the failed insurrection of January 6, it is all the more important for companies to follow Vans’ lead to take Martins’ message to heart, and step up to fight for equality and justice.
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Image credit: Vans e-commerce site
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.