Fast Times at Ridgemont High. An exert from the Book, OFF THE WALL, STORIES OF SOLE The Vans Story, published by Harry Abrams
IN 1982, WRITER CAMERON CROWE AND DIRECTOR AMY HECKERLING CREATED A TEEN COMEDY THAT CAPTURED THE ESSENCE OF VANS’ SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA-BASED, OFF THE-WALL ATTITUDE. WHEN SEAN PENN’S JEFF SPICOLI CHARACTER SMACKED HIMSELF IN THE HEAD WITH A BLACK-AND-WHITE, CHECKERBOARD SLIP-ON, VANS HURDLED INTO THE NATIONAL LIMELIGHT AND A STAR WAS BORN.
Jeff Spicoli walks in late to his high school class. His sun-bleached blonde hair is slightly wet and wavy, looking like he just got out of the ocean. He is wearing ripped jeans with a bagel stuffed in the waistband, an unbuttoned white shirt exposing his tan chest, and he eats an apple with one hand while carrying his black and white checkered Vans shoes in the other. It’s one of many classic scenes that everyone knows. “Wait a minute, it’s not my birthday party,” he says causing his classroom full of teenage peers to laugh.
If there was one character who was created to wear Vans it’s Jeff Spicoli, Sean Penn’s iconic slacker character in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Cameron Crowe’s book of the same name. For Jeff Spicoli, life is a constant party. He falls out of a VW Bus surrounded by smoke and friends before school, orders pizza to history class, gets on stage to sing with the band at the high school dance, takes his shirt off at the burger joint, has a dream sequence of winning the nation’s best surf contest, and gets away
with causing lots of trouble due to his lovable spirit.
The character and the popular 80s movie bring Vans fame as Spicoli wore black and white checkered Vans, hitting himself on the head with them in a scene where he is stoned out of his gourd. The movie’s Director, Amy Heckerling, who was in her 20s when the movie was made, said the idea for the shoes, was entirely Sean Penn’s.
In those days, a lot of actors could decide what they wanted as their costume. This was before the days of product placement and before you had to clear products before using them on film. I grew up in Bronx, New York, and when I came on to direct the movie, I wasn’t really familiar with Southern California culture. Sean Penn, who played Jeff Spicoli brought in the Vans checkered slip-ons himself, and I really liked them. I grew up back east during an era where everyone wore white sneakers and I just loved how Vans looked. They were so different than what I was used to seeing, and they had so much personality. When Sean showed me the
shoes for his costume, I trusted his judgment. The assistant cameraman, who was the son of our director of photography
and a cool southern California kid, also wore blue Vans with a black palm tree pattern to the set, so I knew the brand was
Once the movie hit video stores and kids saw it over and over, the phones at Vans started ringing off the hook.
STEVE VAN DOREN
In the early eighties, we were not a company that marketed our products. We only advertised in skate mags and then all of a sudden this huge movie came out that featured the shoes and the brand blew up nationwide, and eventually worldwide. The movie introduced everyone to what this crazy company, Vans, that makes checkered shoes is. Everyone thought, “Hey, Spicoli is a cool dude, I want to be a Southern Californian cool dude, and I want to wear Vans. So that’s why people started calling up. It was really the beginning of national sales for us.
The movie was the first of its era that talked that openly talked about real high school life issues like teen sex and pregnancy in a way that resonated with the audience. For that reason, the movie has never gotten stale, and neither have the shoes.
The movie first came out with a very limited release and there was almost no advertising whatsoever. First, the studio released it on the west coast, and wanted to see how it did before releasing it on the east coast. The only true advertising we had were a few flyers. One of Sean Penn (Spicoli) with his head poking out from behind two girls, and the other just had a picture of the Vans. Those shoes became one of the most iconic things about that movie. As time went on, the shoe never died, and now I see those checkered Vans everywhere. I even see a lot of rip offs imitating them and I even see products called “Spicoli” that look like them. It’s pretty funny.
Today I can’t get on the subway or go anywhere in the city without seeing those shoes.
The movie came out a few months after Vans developed the black and white checkered shoe. It was designed as a reaction to kids who would draw the checkered pattern on the rubber outsole of the shoe. Vans moved that idea up to the canvas top portion, and there was nothing like it at the time.
STEVE VAN DOREN
In the early 80s, we had already developed the checkerboard pattern, which we first put on the rubber part around the bottom of shoe. We took that idea and moved it up to the canvas fabric part of the shoe. Right around the same time, Betty Mitchell, our PR director, received a call from someone at Universal Pictures saying that they wanted some black and white checkered slip-ons for an upcoming movie they were working on. She hand-delivered a box directly to the studio, and the rest is history. They put the shoe in the movie and then the shoes were all over billboards advertising it. Then the soundtrack came out with the famous Jackson Browne
song, and on the album cover, there was a huge picture of the checkerboard shoe. After it came out, I sent a thousand pairs of those shoes to all the radio DJs around the country so they would give them away to listeners while they played the soundtrack from Fast Times. Later on, we even made 1000 pairs of checkered shoes with “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” on the bottom. It was the first time we sold a million shoes of that style.
Steve Van Doren says to this day there has never been a better brand ambassador than Jeff Spicoli.
First of all, he was a surfer. Since he surfed, he probably also skated. He was also in a band, so that was cool. And he was a high schooler,” Steve says laughing. Here we go, we’re a company that caters to 16, 17, 18 year –old kids — kids from Southern California, fun-in-the-sun type kids and here comes Spicoli who epitomizes just that. And the best part is that he was an “Off the Wall,” kind of guy. He was a very original individual who would do whatever he wanted, like order a pizza to class, Steve laughs again. That’s why at the sales meetings, I’ll sometimes get pizzas randomly delivered to the breakout rooms. The thing about Spicoli that is so unique to Vans is that he replicates everything that our company is about – we have music, we have sun, we have Southern California, we have surfers, we have skateboarders. Dude, he is it! And he is Off the Wall.
Spicoli was a Southern California surfer, stoner-type guy, but he was also more than that. There are a lot of surfer, stoner type guys, but Spicoli was much more universal because he had an incredible good naturedness and sweetness to his character. He was just very lovable and fun.