While the sneaker game has been focused on Nike Dunks and Air Jordans in recent years, there is a whole world of footwear that has been driven by pop culture for decades. For many of the popular sneakers that we love, their origins are a part of every retro release we see. For instance, Nike’s Air Force 1 often wears the lace tag with the year of its origin, 1982, right across the top of the shoe at the bottom of the laces. The same summer that the iconic AF1 was released, Vans had one of the biggest product placement successes ever with their legendary “Checkerboard” Slip-ons.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a coming-of-age comedy that starred some significant actors of the time, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, and Phoebe Cates. However, the perpetually stoned Jeff Spicoli, played by Sean Penn, was the only name that has stood the test of time for the last 40 years. Released on August 13th, 1982, Spicoli’s portrayal of a Southern Californian surfer is still celebrated to this day. For sneakerheads, the story of Spicoli’s Vans Slip-ons and how Vans capitalized on the opportunity to put the shoes in the film has been somewhat forgotten.
First, it may seem obvious that 1982 was a different time, especially when it came to sneakers. There weren’t release dates, blogs, or any modern conveniences. It was rare that people outside of the footwear industry, or sports like tennis or basketball, even discussed something as utilitarian as shoes. We think of basketball and sneakers as the birth of sneakerhead culture, but in fact, other sports played a huge part in making sneakers mainstream. Vans, and the skateboarding movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s, could (and probably should) be given way more credit than they have been throughout the years.
When Fast Times at Ridgemont High was released in theaters, Vans gave away 1,000 pairs of the now-iconic Checkerboard Slip-ons through a raffle with a partner radio station. In hindsight, it might be the very first use of what today we would call “hype” to sell drum up demand for a sneaker. Not only that, the “I’m Wasted” scene, where Spicoli opens up his pair of Checkerboard Slip-ons and smacks himself on the forehead with them, could easily be considered the world’s first sneaker unboxing. Although, the tradition of unboxings has become a bit more, um, professional over the years.
Throughout the film, Sean Penn’s character can be seen “living the California Dream” in the unmistakable sneakers. Something that nowadays, with the internet giving us access to what life is like nearly anywhere on the planet, is lost in translation. Films back then were aspirational to many people who lived in other places across the country. While the stoner aspect might not have been as socially acceptable back then, a pair of Vans Slip-ons was just a catalog order away for those that looked at Fast Times as a depiction of the Southern Californian lifestyle of palm trees, beaches, and surfing.
So did the Jeff Spicoli Vans scene and the subsequent giveaway really work? It seems like a minimal effort and low return by today’s standards but Vans Co-Founder, Paul Van Doren once said that the totally revenue of Vans prior to the release of Fast Times at Ridgemont High was around $20 million. Not long after the release of the movie, Vans was on track to hit $40-45 million in sales. By today’s standards, only Jordan Brand with Nike and the adidas Yeezy brand can claim that much of an impact on the bottom line.
40 years later, the “Checkerboard” aesthetic is still a huge part of Vans company culture and revenue, all thanks to Sean Penn’s depiction of a weed-smoking high school student and some strategically placed sneakers.