A while back I came across the Pillow Heat Instagram and was immediately drawn in by all the colourful old Vans models, most of which are instantly recognisable, though some I was too young - or too ignorant - to remember.
Wanting to find out how someone had made collecting, sharing and re-selling vintage Vans their livelihood, I reached out to Henry who was kind enough to agree to an interview. As you'll see his passion for the shoes, knowledge of the brand and everything that goes with it is just as impressive as his collection of Vans products.
When did your obsession with Vans start?
Maybe 1999/00, I was a late bloomer. I flirted with skating late 1980’s and mid 1990’s but I wasn’t wearing Vans. The release of Dogtown & Z Boys however was the point of no return for me.
Do you remember what your first pair were?
Like many in the 1980’s my first pair was a black white checkerboard Slip-On. They were made in China, the seeds of USA-made Vans had only just been planted at this stage by an American buddy. When those seeds sprouted I immediately sold them on eBay and found the same but made in USA! I've never looked back since.
When did you decide to start the shop?
In 2006 I moved to London from Sydney. I had already been playing with the idea to sell in some capacity, a market stall, eBay shop, e-commerce, whatever. By 2008 I was looking for a location and things fell into place in 2009.
What’s your favorite Vans shoe?
The style #95 Era, specifically the blue/red/blue Era which crystallised Vans official link with skating in 1976.
What’s the most an item has sold for?
I sold some Fast Times Slip-Ons for £666… but Madrid Flys are the holy grail and can go for upwards of £2000.
"Madrid Flys are the holy grail and go for upwards of £2K"
Is it difficult to source stock? Without giving too much away, what’s the process?
Yeah it’s super difficult. My website and the shop inventory is not an accurate indication of global availability, the shoes are out there but it’s certainly not easy to find them. I refined my techniques over many years, it’s less about the process and more about the unrelenting pursuit. Undeniably the majority of leads surface online, it’s unrealistic to expect to find product out there in the wild.
Are there many others vintage Vans retailers such as yourselves?
There is nobody really specialising in original Vans like I do. Luckily nobody had thought to do it previously… or were crazy enough to attempt it! Of course the scene in Japan is out of this world, but nobody is exclusively old waffles.
Do you still skate? If so who’s your favorite person to watch?
I can skate ok but it's mostly only for transport these days, or at the park with my nephews when I’m back home. I’m stuck in the past, obsessed with the era wherein the Vans were facilitators. I like watching Matt Hensley, Gonz, Ray Barbee, Danny Way, game changers. But then I like people with perfect flow such as Gino and Tom Penny, or pure power like Pedro Barros.
"Vans became associated with skateboarding almost by accident so were always on the back foot."
What are the main differences between the vintage stuff you sell and their modern counterparts?
The main differences are the shape, a tapered fit, pointed toe, higher foxing, better quality materials… but more importantly the feel. The density of the rubber compound, the traction, the rubber has a life of its own and becomes an extension of your feet.
I’d imagine you’re mainly into the classic models, but what do you think about the time around 2000 when Vans fully jumped on the Osiris band wagon with shoes like the Cab 7?
Yeah I’m a purist but there is something curious about that moment in time. Following the leads of other brands was nothing new for Vans, Vans became associated with skateboarding almost by accident so they were always on the back foot. It was fortuitous how it happened and Vans never claimed to be at that innovative forefront until later. Yes the Old Skool was an original idea and the Sk8-Hi I guess… but the Madrid and Native American were in answer to what brands like Vision and Airwalk were doing. I think this is a similar thing with Osiris in the early 2000’s.
Have you been involved in many exhibitions? People must love seeing this kind of stuff.
There’s nothing better than the maximum impact of a curated exhibit. I joined forces with Dimitri Coste and Jurgen Blumlein a few years back in Berlin, that’s probably still the high water mark. Of course the 50th celebration displays last year were epic, the best is yet to come though. Global collector tour perhaps?
Do you ever get any strange requests or questions from customers?
The whole operation requires explanation so there plenty of questions. I’m normally the one making strange requests of people and wanting to get into their loft or shoe closet or pilfering their family photo albums for incidental Vans heat!
"Geoff Rowley is super stoked on what I do"
Any famous visitors to the shop?
Tony Alva and Christian Hosoi have been through the shop which was epic. Geoff Rowley is super stoked on what I do and welcoming him was rad. Steve Van Doren was the ultimate however, a dream come true. His dad is next on my list… and Weird Al Yankovic.
Is there one piece you’ve always wanted to get your hands on but haven’t been able to?
I’m ticking items off that list as time goes by, there’s not many now that have eluded me. There’s one elusive skate model from the 1970’s I’m pursuing and a piece of skydiving genius which are top of the list. Of course it’s then trying to find them and others in my size!
Are there any models you’d love to see a re-issue of?
Yeah, but I’m holding out in the hope that one day old-world vulcanisation will be revived and Vans come knocking with that question in mind…
If it’s possible to narrow down, what would you say was the best year for Vans?
That’s a tough one. There were several floods of appeal, 1976-78 and the release of the #95 Era, #36 Old Skool, and #38 Sk8-Hi - linked with the skateboard and BMX revolution. That was special.
Then there was freestyle BMX boom early 1980’s and the Jeff Spicoli checkerboard moment. Equally the moment of evolution from full Caballero to the Half Cab in the early 1990’s was momentous.
"The brand was made on family values, the Van Doren spirit"
What, in your eyes, made the brand? What’s so special about a canvas shoe? What’s Off the Wall?
The brand was made on family values, the Van Doren spirit, nothing at all is special about a canvas shoe – it’s how it’s delivered. Fun, playfulness, integrity, attitude and gratitude.
The Van Doren rubber company came from humble beginnings, they were forced to go that extra length to survive and that meant being flexible, making a superior product and forming lasting bonds at street level with the kids who would represent the brand with style and charisma - the Alvas, the Spicolis, the Caballeros.
Offering them one shoe at a time, flavouring them with checkerboards and unicorns, agreeing to decapitate their first signature shoe. It’s a brand with a set of belief systems and personality, a brand for the people.
To find out more about Henry, his shop and his collection head to pillowheat.com