At its core, Vans is an easy-going West Coast skate company, fixated on creating footwear and apparel for actions sports. It’s a company with a hierarchical corporate structure, a part of the massive VF Corporation, with no real desire to be a major player in the fashion world—with the important exception of Vault by Vans. A premium offering that rivals the likes of NikeLab and adidas Consortium, the imprint is an effort to revitalize a business with decades of history.

Founded in 2003, Vault is Vans’ top tier of product, available through a select network of partner stores across the world. Originally designed to reinvigorate Vans’ range of Classics—Authentics, Old Skools, Sk8-His, Slip-Ons and Eras—the label has since developed into a fully-fledged offering of premium footwear and apparel.When Vault was founded, the majority of the Vans business was focused on action sports with resources poured into burgeoning outdoor-focused product line—simultaneously, the brand’s DNA, the five Classics, had largely been forgotten, of little concern to the design team since the turn of the century. Steve Mills, Director of Lifestyle Footwear for the California-based company, explained to HYPEBEAST in 2013 that the ultimate goal for Vault was to “open up the best accounts in the world and do some limited production that would set the bar for the Vans Classics line [with the hope] everything else would trickle down.”

Since 2003, Vault has become Vans’ canvas for experimentation, partnering with the likes of WTAPS, Undercover, Marc Jacobs, Kenzo and countless retailers to create limited edition product that is not only innovative, but unique. According to Mills, the average production run for a Vault release is between 500 and 1500 pairs, minuscule compared to both Vans’ usual runs and their competitors “limited” releases.

Vault’s offerings are divided into distinct categories that occasionally overlap for special projects and releases. The first is their endless list of collaborations, which have easily garnered the most attention over the last decade and a half. While now associated with heavy-hitters, the original list of partners was hardly filled with household names—the first Vault releases were collaborations with Luella Bartley and Rebecca Taylor. Today’s collaborators have injected a tremendous amount of energy into the brand in various markets; from relatively niche brands like Sasquatchfabrix. and Engineered Garments to mainstream players like Stüssy and The North Face. When brands work with Vault, the shoes are available through a worldwide network of Vault dealers, a select list that includes ranges from independent boutiques and to major department stores and fashion powerhouses. Retailer specific collaborations, such as Boston-based Bodega’s Sub-Rosa pack, are location specific, as to be expected.

In addition to its collaborative efforts, Vault is also a platform for reviving Vans’ archival styles, with releases often coinciding with a silhouette’s anniversary or just prior to their reintroduction into the main line. Over the years, Vault has been responsible for bringing back the Style 36 (the precursor to the Old Skool), the Prison Issue (now known as the Style 23 LX) and, most recently, for re-energizing the Half Cab and Full Cab silhouettes to mark the 25th anniversary of Steve Caballero’s namesake models. Apart from the high-profile collaborations and reissues, Vault offers luxurious, premium takes on the brand’s classic silhouettes. The quality of all Vault product is generally above reproach, but some releases rely solely on providing consumers with exquisitely crafted shoes, whether through the use of high-quality materials like Horween leather, or by partnering with Mexico’s Huichol tribe to create hand-crafted pairs.

Finally, tying everything together, is Vault’s on-going partnership with celebrated designer Taka Hayashi. A former graphic designer for Stüssy, Hayashi joined Vans in 2008 before taking a design position at Vault. Hayashi’s seasonal collections have become the core of Vault’s DNA, and helped to clearly differentiate it from the rest of Vans’ offering. Hayashi’s approach has been to "create a high-end quality product that ties back to [Vans'] skate/surf DNA with a twist,” he explained to Sneaker Freaker. The results have blended premium materials with silhouettes both foreign and familiar to Vans, with an attention to detail practically unmatched in sneaker design. While the likes of Slip-Ons and Sk8-His have featured in Taka’s collections over the years, albeit with subtle modifications, he has also introduced more formal silhouettes like derbys and engineer boots to Vans. According to Mills, there are few “parameters on Taka’s signature line, [and] even though [he] is pushing the envelope on traditional sneaker design, a lot of the time he ends up with strong ties back to [Vans’] heritage.”

At its core, Vault is about more than just innovative and creative footwear design, it’s the embodiment of a mentality and lifestyle, made evident by their apparel and accessories. Ranging from luxurious leather bicycle seats produced in collaboration with Brooks of England, to hand-crafted blankets made Pendleton, Vault has developed a range that stretches from footwear to lifestyle product, continously offering an increasingly important range of apparel that includes Taka’s seasonal collections as well as recent collaborations with Our Legacy and Braindead.

Today, Vans as a whole is in its halcyon days and, while it’s hard to attribute the success to a division that brings in so little income to multi-billion dollar company, it’s also impossible to deny the positive impact that Vault has had on the business. Mills sees Vault energizing Vans as a whole, leading to sales of “the Classics business [being] off the charts [without] any new distribution.” The only thing holding Vault back from being a more important player on the sneaker market is, well, Vault itself. The franchise was designed to succeed off little to no marketing, with no intention for the imprint to significantly impact profits. That retailer collaborations aren’t available through the rest of the Vault network is a testament to this fact— other brands, like adidas Consortium, maximize their network of retailers to move more product and increase visibility for collaborators. For Vault, the goal has never been to win over new fans, but to keep the loyalty of those “who knew about what [Vans] was doing.” Any subsequent growth is a direct result in an increased interest in Vault’s well-crafted product and extremely limited releases.

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Tags: our-legacy, the-north-face, wtaps, taka-hayashi, vault-by-vans