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Like his swirly nocturne painting so loved by many, Vincent van Gogh’s legacy is nothing short of starry.

One of the most recognisable artists in the world today, it is easy to forget that the Post-Impressionist painter wasn’t always successful. Before his posthumous fame, Van Gogh was only able to sell one painting while he was alive. This was one out of over 900 works. Now more than a century later, sneaker giant and skater brand Vans has teamed up with the Van Gogh Museum to celebrate the Dutch artist’s legacy in what is perhaps the ultimate stamp of validation in present day: wearable art. Spanning sneakers, t-shirts and caps, these literal masterpieces contain a sk8r boi edge so absent from the world of auction houses, retrospectives and art history textbooks.

I spoke with Diandre Fuentes, footwear designer at Vans and Rhode Island School of Design alumni, about matching style with substance, grappling with legacy, and the art of the collab. Hear directly from the (very stylish) horse’s mouth below.

Diandre Fuentes, Vans Global Footwear Design

Hi Diandre! Lovely to meet you, right off the bat I must say I really love some of your independent illustration work. So what is it like then to be part of Vans, a skater brand and global footwear powerhouse that is arguably so defined by its graphic print collaborations?

It’s an honour to be part of this company! Like you said, the graphic print legacy of Vans is strong and can be traced back to the 1960s when the brand was just starting. Skaters and other customers would bring in their own printed fabric to our Orange County store to get custom shoes made. And of course, kids (like me) would buy a plain white pair of shoes and doodle all over them. That’s what I find so cool about Vans – the DIY culture and the encouragement to express your uniqueness and do your own thing.

Vans has seen a flurry of cool collaborators from artists to fashion labels and even Nintendo! How did the Vans x Van Gogh Museum collaboration come about?

After multiple seasons of working with very cool contemporary collaborators like Karl Lagerfeld and Lazy Oaf, we found that collaborating with Van Gogh would be the perfect opportunity to tell the story of an original, expressive creator through the Vans lens. In addition, it was an opportunity to educate ourselves as well as Vans fans on Van Gogh’s life, technique, as well as his lesser-known paintings.

Let’s talk about the art of the collab. Vans is a footwear legend in its own right, but so much of its hype also has to do with collaborations. How does Vans pick the artists that it collaborates with?

With all the vibrant artistic talent in the market, it’s important that Vans focuses its energy on artists that reflect Vans culture in some way- whether that is found in the art itself or perhaps in the artist’s life and story. The Vans culture is all about being authentic, weird, passionate, gritty, and subversive. We try to find artists that we can welcome into our band of misfits.

Can you tell us more about the design process of the Vans x Van Gogh Museum collaboration?

The process of designing any collaboration is always challenging, but we found the prospect of working with the Van Gogh Museum especially exciting and intimidating. Van Gogh is a true master with a widely known legacy.

To help us better prepare for the design process, members of our team visited the Van Gogh Museum and got an in-depth tour of Van Gogh’s works and life story. After the research period, the design team began working with the museum to pull sketches and paintings that could work for the collection from both a storytelling and design point of view. The actual design period entails a lot of trial and error, hard work, fun and design magic. Our team is very happy with how the Vans x Van Gogh Museum collection turned out!

The press receives a tour of the Van Gogh Museum – spot P!

I imagine the 19th century artist must be quite a departure from Vans’ more contemporary collaborators. What is your approach to re-interpreting not only his existing motifs, but a tremendous legacy at the same time?

When designing any collaboration, our team’s first priority is always to stay true to the spirit of the collaborator’s work and legacy. This is usually done through authentic storytelling. Instead of simply putting a painting on a shoe, our team worked hard to tell Van Gogh’s story by designing the footwear collection as a whole.

Each painting that was selected for the collection tells a chronological story of Van Gogh’s life, starting from his skull paintings (which he painted because he did not have any models to pose for him), moving to his iconic Sunflowers and Self-Portrait, all the way to his final Vineyard sketches that exemplify Van Gogh’s iconic painting style.

My favourite pieces that we pulled from the Van Gogh Museum archive were the letters that Van Gogh wrote to his brother and best friend, Theo. These letters really bring an intimate and tender element to the collection that drives the goal of authentic storytelling home.

The handwriting artfully wrapped around the slip-ons

What is the most challenging part about making art wearable?

That’s a good question. Usually when we do design a shoe with art, we first focus on balancing the amount of colour and details that the art itself has. Then we will tie it back to our iconic build so that it’s wearable. Then there are other times we go all out and design a shoe for the person who wants to express themselves with the shoe they wear. It really depends on the project but usually the shoe will be determined by how each of our Vans fans would choose to wear it. 

And the most fun?

The most fun part is that there are no rules to it. As long as we keep design in mind, there are endless ways of what outcome the shoe can be. That’s the exciting part.

The classic Van Gogh masterpiece from 1889 Sunflowers inspired this design

From associations with BMX, skateboarding, hip hop collectives and rock festivals to a Post-Impressionist Dutch painter, Vans has a finger in every pie. What was it like working with a museum institution?

It’s always energising and inspiring to collaborate with organisations that are hyper-passionate and knowledgeable about their field. While working on the collaboration, the museum team taught the Vans team so much about Van Gogh’s life and artistic technique. It felt like being in art history class again, but way more fun and in-depth. Hearing the museum’s reaction to our footwear designs throughout the process was also very energising. These experts know Van Gogh’s paintings inside and out, and if we can delight them with unexpected and unique interpretations of the paintings the result is very rewarding.

You’re of Filipino descent with an art school background, are you familiar with the Southeast Asian art scene? Do you have an artist in mind who you think will be a terrific fit for a future Vans collaboration?

There are so many talented artists from Southeast Asia that are doing amazing things! Thanks to social media, it has been exciting and empowering to watch a new wave of youth culture explode across the globe. The way the youth continues to use art as a tool to express their identity and reactions to the world around them has always been a part of Vans’ culture. There are just so many rad artists, it’s hard to choose!

Last question – what is your favourite design from the Vans x Van Gogh collection?

My favourite piece from the Vans x Van Gogh Museum collection would be the Old Vineyard Old Skool. For the design, we worked with the Vans development team to make sure we were able to wrap the canvas all around the shoe as if Vincent himself was finishing his late piece on our Old Skool silhouette.  As for the art, this was one his last paintings in his life and it was interesting that he chose to paint a subject that reflected his earlier sketches as an artist.

The designer donning her favourite pair of sneakers

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Note: The feature image and all images in the Vans x Van Gogh Museum collection are courtesy of Vans.

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