Jon Warren has been with Vans for over 10 years, and now, he holds the spot of Senior Creative Director of Lifestyle footwear – meaning he oversees the creative direction and overall aesthetic for a plethora of Vans brands and sub-brands. This fall, he’s been working on two upcoming projects: The Van Doren Series (a series of limited edition reissued prints and patterns from the archives) as well as the Vans x Skateboarder Magazine collection (a range of shoes that is inspired by the inside pages of the 1970’s publication). Here, Warren fills us in on what influence Vans has had on him over the last decade.
Life+Times: You joined Vans in 2002. What was your original position with the company?
Jon Warren: My original position was to design skateboard shoes for Vans’ pro athletes as well as help refocus the skateboard category. I worked with Geoff Rowley, Steve Caballero, Tony Trujillo, Jim Greco, and a long list of amateur skateboarders. At the time, all that was selling in the market was puffy skate shoes with air bags. Rowley was pushing back against that trend and we wanted to get back to designing shoes from our heritage, the shoes Vans’ is know for. It was cool to be a part of that resurgence with product that resonated with so many people
L+T: You’ve now been with Vans for over 10 years. If you were to look back at your almost decade with the brand – what have you learned most about yourself?
JW: I have learned that everything I thought I knew as a designer just starting out has been flipped on its head. I have been given challenges I never thought I could tackle and I have grown as a designer and as a businessman. The passion I carry for the brand is insane and we have done everything in our power to design product that we could look back on and be proud of. I have been surrounded by some of the most intelligent and inspiring business directors, designers, sales teams, and marketing creative’s and they have helped me understand design from a number of different angles. I am still learning things everyday and everyday brings new problems to solve, it’s that challenge to make it better that keeps me coming back for more.
L+T: In your role, you act as the Senior Creative Director of Lifestyle Footwear. What exactly does this mean? And, in your role, what are your responsibilities?
JW: I work with a really talented team of designers that come from very different backgrounds. We work together every season to push the brand forward with new styles, prints and fabrics. I really believe in the strength of a design team because diversity gives the line a more well rounded feeling rather then it just coming from one person. My role is to guide the creative direction of each category that I oversee. That said it is the tone or mood of the line that I am driving for. I am there to challenge my team to push the brand forward and hopefully make product that consumers like. I still love designing and am involved in creating shoes in each category; it’s the best part of working at Vans. We get to make shoes that we want to wear! On top of that, our team gets to work and collaborate with other amazing brands and artists, which in turn inspires us all over again.
L+T: You oversee the design of Vans’ flagship Classics line, the high-end California collection, the collaborative Vans Syndicate collection as well as the limited boutique line, Vault by Vans. In your opinion, what are the main differences between these?
JW: Classics is our heritage line that people from all walks of life wear. Classics is my favorite line because it is the hardest to design. Because this line reaches so many people, we have to cover an assortment of trends that move the line forward but at the same time maintain Vans’ DNA. It has grown into our largest collection, our Women’s line continues to grow into fashion and the kids shoes offer a lot of options that are new and are designed just for them.
The California Collection is a refined take on our Classics product with a twist to keep it modern. We wanted to make product for someone who grew up in Vans and is looking for a shoe that looks more grown up. Every season we develop prints, colors, and materials that allows our team the freedom to experiment with product that is classic.
Syndicate was created to tell the untold story of late ’80s/early ’90s skateboarding, a time when it was considered dead. We wanted to tell the stories of the guys who really pushed skateboarding to what it became today and Vans was the only brand that could do it right (Jason Jessee, Max Schaaf, Steve Olson, Andy Kessler, Shawn Stussy, and Eric Dressen to name a few). It was the other side of Vans, a hardcore story that you had to be a part of to understand it. I still cannot thank Vans enough in believing in our idea and letting us create such a category.
Vault was created to allow total creative freedom with the footwear design. It’s where we get to work with high end designers and push the brand into areas that we might not be known for. It’s nice that Vans recognizes the importance of having such a limited program because it allow us to change directions every season and be more playful. The goal is to see what works, how far we can push it, and what we do in this line usually works it’s way into other categories. It’s creative freedom that is unheard of and is category that I am proud of every season.
L+T: I know you work closely together with your design team to conceptualize footwear that resonates both with the masses and the fashion conscious while staying true to Vans’ Southern California boardsports roots. What steps do you take to ensure this is achieved?
JW: To quote Alexander Hamilton “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.” We challenge ourselves every season to remain true to the brands roots. We have been offered all sorts of projects from brands and artists that we had to turn down because they didn’t jive with our direction. Steve Van Doren still works in the building and we are proud and passionate about what we do for the namesake. It’s a punk rock spirit that still exists and I believe that internally we are our harshest critics, we are really brutal when it comes to design but it makes for better product and categories.
L+T: You’re also a photographer. What do you like to shoot?
JW: I like shooting travel photos, landscapes, and environments. I have a very simple set up, one lens, one camera, like I did when I shot film as a kid. My life is so full of products, schedules, plane rides, and computer monitors that I need to get out an see the world. Travel has and will always be my biggest inspiration for everything that I do. Vans has been kind enough to let me shoot all the California Collection catalogs. It was a dream come true to design the shoes and to top it off I get to photograph for the look books as well. It’s allows me to really create the mood I am envisioning and blends my two passions, travel and photography.
L+T: There’s clearly a reason you’ve been with Vans for so long. As a culture, what’s it like to work there?
JW: Vans has given me countless opportunities to grow as a designer and has also been a part of my own personal growth. It’s a culture that embraces the weirdos and the creative’s but doesn’t change us, instead it allows us to do what we do best. Obviously surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding will always be the roots of Vans and its a cool thing to know that the majority of the people that work for Vans are not just talking about those sports but are actually practicing daily. We got into these sports because we were outsiders and with them we are all introduced to the music, art, and fashion associated with each sports culture. It’s a mentality that really speaks to us and at the end of the day I feel translates out to the world.