Geoff Rowley has a favorite shoe factory. The legendary skater won't give away its location, but he says that every one of his Vans signature shoes gets produced in this specific factory because it uses more natural rubber in its gum compound, giving him a slightly better grip on his skateboard. “Some people don’t like it too sticky,” Rowley tells SI.com. “But as a skater, [grip] is important. The original 'Made in the USA' Vans could essentially stick to the walls.”
That attention to detail has defined Rowley’s involvement in the roughly 20 shoes he has designed for Vans since 1999. But with his latest signature shoe coming out this summer, he stepped up the meticulous factor one more time, unveiling his first signature apparel line for the California skate company. “I designed the whole pod,” he says, “every piece of it. Down to the graphics, down to the marketing, merchandising and color palette.”
Rowley has skated Vans since 1998. It was in ’99 that he designed his first shoe, and he has mixed in a wide range of signatures, non-signatures, high-tops, low-tops, vulcanized and cup soles ever since. For his summer 2015 version, a shoe that matches his debut apparel collection, he harkened to that original Made in the USA version from 1966.
“They were kind of a different silhouette than you were used to seeing,” he says from his home in Long Beach, Calif. “They were slimmer and lower on the sidewall. The aesthetic and fit of it, the original Vans era, it was the very first skate shoe.”
So that’s where Rowley started this time around. For his signature Solos, Rowley drew inspiration from the height of the collar, the fit. Rowley says his designs always start with the aesthetic of it. From there he builds the concept.
“I start with the silhouette and design into that,” he says. Rowley chooses every detail, selecting a streamlined last with a pointier toe. “I find I skate better like that,” he says. “I have more control if my toes are pointing and the shoe wears out more evenly across the side of the shoe.” The streamlined last has remained one of the only constants along the way, as he has played with differing styles over the years.
But for 2015, since he went off the original ’66 shoe for inspiration, it was a “no brainer” for this shoe to come vulcanized. To modernize it, he added a layer of molded rubber between the bumper of the shoe and canvas backer for increased durability. And he infused rubber into the fabric to make it last a little longer. “It is a modern upgrade,” he says, “to turn an original silhouette into something for right now.”
While Rowley has ridden Vans footwear since 1998, he only joined the apparel team less than two years ago. He now has a signature line.
It all starts with pants. Rowley says he knew what made a quality-fitting pant that gives a range of movement, a style he says was missing from Vans. “It is important to have a pair of pants I could really skate in and wear for years on end and hopefully hold up,” he says. “Let’s make some good chinos with the right kind of weight and durability and build a collection of gear around that.”
His apparel collection, like the shoes, comes with Vans’ original as inspiration. The shoes and apparel were designed together, right from the concept, with everything from labeling, packaging and coloring working in conjunction. Hence the heavy use of canvas. He added a canvas jacket—matching the canvas shoes—a moisture-wicking tee, a basic tee and a hat. The hat, though, only comes in blue. “I did a hat in only one color, because I think blue is the best color for a baseball cap,” he says. “There is no reason to have five different colors for that particular product.”
Rowley also wants practical use to lead design. “This was designed for skateboarders,” he says. “The skate clothing we design is very durable.” He uses stretch and low-grade performance aspects—such as moisture wicking—worked into thick fabrics to up the value. “If I was paying for that particular product, I would need it to perform.”
Rowley says less is more with his line, creating pieces missing from Vans overall skate offerings, but pieces that work in tandem with each other. “You can break it up and spin it around, everything works together,” he says. “Because it was influenced by the original Vans, it is important that the color palette reflected that. You can wear any color of the pant, shirt or jacket with any other color in the whole line and have it work.”
But blue, like the hat, remains the dominant force—with red accents—another echo of the original Vans.
Following his interview, Rowley was headed for a skate. And he was wearing the new Solos, a shoe he has been skating in for about a year. He tests and wears his shoes for nearly a full year before launch and then wears them right through the release. He wants to ensure a product with his name on it passes the performance test. “If I don’t look at a product in detail and find out after the product has hit the market [that it doesn’t perform], that is such an abusive act and damaging,” he says.
He’ll wear his latest shoe exclusively—not dipping back to the past, but always moving forward—and then move onto the next design when that process starts. For apparel, he’s already looking to the next “thing we will try to crack:” denim.
Just know that when it comes time to create the next Rowley signature shoe, he’ll find that one factory that has the perfect rubber compound. It’s a non-negotiable detail. Of course, that’s how he sees all the details.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.