Shoe Review: Vans Sk8-Hi Xtuff “True White-Bran” (2014)
Release: Jun 2014
Price: $85 retail
In 1978, the Van Doren Rubber Company quietly debuted its first high-top skate shoe. First released in a subtle blue/grey colorway, the unassuming “Style 38” (as it was then known) had none of the hallmarks of a big-time sneaker release. There were no splashy campaigns, no celebrity endorsers – unlike its older brother, the low top Old Skool, the shoe didn’t even a catchy nickname. Besides, this was the late 70’s: Converse dominated the high-top market. From LA punk to the London underground, the Chuck Taylor reigned supreme. Given the above, if you’d never seen the shoe, you’d have probably called it a commercial failure.
Good thing people saw the shoe.
The Style 38 was a canvas-and-rubber skate shoe built as a high-top variant of Van Doren’s Style 36 (“Old Skool”) low sneaker. The Style 38 was built for the needs of action sports athletes, and offered skaters and riders alike the one thing they so desperately wanted but seldom received: ankle support on a waffle outsole. On the sides of the shoe, pillowy canvas laced high provided both comfort and support after even the toughest fall. The shoe was an instant hit with the SoCal skate scene. Before long, the Style 38 had a catchy nickname of its own: the high-top skate shoe became known as the (wait for it) Sk8-Hi. Creativity abounds.
By the mid-80’s, Los Angeles counterculture had spread across the country, and wherever it went, skate shoes came right behind.
Not everyone who bought Van Doren shoes was a skateboarder. Many liked the shoes’ pared-back aesthetics and SoCal sensibility, especially after Sean Penn immortalized Checkerboard Slip-Ons – and the West Cost mindset – in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even if leading Vans silhouettes like the Sk8-Hi would become sold out collector’s items, for generations of teenagers from the 1980’s to beyond, it was bigger than shoes. Vans, as the company was now known, didn’t just make great skate shoes – they made cultural artifacts.
Oh man. Next to Flyknit Racers, Sk8-Hi’s are my favorite sneakers of all time, so this may run a little long. I’ll start at the top: I bought my first pair of Sk8-Hi’s in Fall of 2014 after two years of convincing myself that I wanted Optic White Converse All-Stars.
Let me explain.
I thought I really wanted Optic White Converse All-Stars. If I ever wavered from my Converse desire, I’d return to this one super sick, man photo of a faceless figure rocking a Supreme fishtail parka and – you guessed it - white Chucks. It was dope. Ergo, the generic white shoes were dope. I remember getting so far as even trying on white Chucks, convinced that this shoe purchase would make the equivalent of a permanently alt-tabbed photo.
And then, I actually tried on a pair and realized how skinny and feminine Converse highs look on me. That was all it took.
I loved the look of triple white monochrome high tops – clean, sophisticated, futuristic, all of it. I even had a black fishtail parka (ASOS, not Supreme #poorboiz) ready to go when I found my pair. That pair would just no longer be a pair of Chucks. Between the rubber toe cap and flaccid canvas sock upper, I just hated how they looked. Sorry, kids trying to colormatch their tailgate outfits.
I went back to the drawing board, and soon found an infinitely more dope photo of another figure in white monochrome high tops. This guy didn’t have to flex logos to look cool – he just did. The colors worked (they’re white shoes, of course the colors worked), the photo was part of a larger #inspo album I guess I was really feelin’ at the time, and best of all: these shoes looked substantial. The soles were chunky, the sides were built, and even in triple white, they looked mean. Screw the Supreme parka - I was in love.
I had to have them.
A reverse image search later, the shoes had a name, and suddenly, Baader-Meinhof took over. The second I recognized them as Sk8-Hi’s, I started seeing the shoe everywhere in every colorway imaginable. It seemed like every streetwear forum I visited was built on the Vans Sk8-Hi. And it made sense: here was a masculine high-top infinitely cooler than its contemporaries.
Every others canvas high top on the market was sheets of fabric glued to a sole – but the Sk8-Hi was a sneaker with substance. From the ridges on the side to the thick skate shoe stitching, the Sk8-Hi seems built while others are simply made. First impression of my “Xtuff” all-white pair: half sneaker, half astronaut boot. Dope, indeed.
After two years of weekly abuse, I can safely say that the Sk8-Hi’s tough guy persona also walks the walk. For a canvas shoe, they have held up remarkably well. Some stitches are beginning to pop, but even after two winters of my Vans pulling the “it’s hailing out but still gotta stunt” short straw, the shoes themselves feel as durable as ever. There are few shoes, let alone canvas sneakers, for which I could ever say the same.
Finally, we come to wearability. These shoes are not for everyone – the traditional “slim fit sleek” style doesn’t work quite as well with Sk8-Hi’s as it does, with say, a pair of Chucks. If you wear a lot of button-ups (guys) or blouses (girls), maybe hedge your bets and go for the Cons. Ultimately, you’ll be happier with a less-complicated traditional shoe.
However: if you prefer jeans to khakis, know Dr. Who is fictional, or have an opinion on Meek vs. Drake, get Sk8-Hi’s. Believe me, you won’t regret it. As compared to Cons, these are chunky shoes, and therefore, firmly casual. No pretense – just good looks. Wear them with tees, sweats, whatever, as long as it isn’t your uncle’s navy blazer. As for triple white vs. black/white: if you have the confidence for whiteouts, choose these every time.
My True White Sk8-Hi’s are my go-to high tops, and a constant companion to my black selvedge denim, a role I couldn’t fill as easily with the traditional colorways. I’ve taken my Sk8-Hi’s on urban exploration missions in and around Metro Detroit, washed them off, gave ‘em a shine, and then to a fashion magazine shoot the very next week. Calling my True White Sk8-Hi’s “versatile” is an understatement. If you need additional proof, here's a massive inspiration album by reddit user IMNEWTOSTREETWEAR (lol) with hundreds more examples of Sk8-Hi greatness.
Overall: The Sk8-Hi is like the Big Lebowski of the sneaker world: chunky, informal, and a little bit vulgar (not just talking about that one ‘Preme collab). But that’s why you love it, and why, decades later, it’s still cool.
It’s a big, durable high-top that’s counterculture without being cute about it – no CDG hearts here. In other words, it means business and looks the part. Vans Sk8-Hi’s are a canvas high-top sneaker for people who think canvas high-tops suck out loud.
If you’re a dude who wants high tops and doesn’t currently own Sk8-Hi’s: buy Sk8-Hi’s. You can wear it with tapered jeans without looking feminine. Hell, you can even skate in it. If you’re a girl who likes how it looks but read the above and doesn’t want to lace up some testosterone brick: the Sk8-Hi makes an incredible ladies sneaker because it projects the same badass attitude that makes it so dope for guys. Destroyed jeans look better in Vans, and that’s just a fact.
Regardless, buy them and love them – after two years of parties and tailgates, fashion shoots and cross-country travel, you can trust me when I say that Vans Sk8-Hi’s only get better with age. I will wear my pair until they disintegrate, then buy another just like it.