Vettery’s Clark Winter sat down with Steven Tiller, Founder of SeaVees to discuss the growing interest in casual culture, the inspiration for his company, and why he loves shoes. Based in Santa Barbara, SeaVees is a men’s shoe brand from the 1960s that pioneered the original way to go casual. While dormant for almost 50 years, SeaVees has been restored creating a vintage shoe in today’s surging sneaker culture.
So I am intrigued… it seems the story goes something like this. You were working in Boston designing shoes for Cole Haan and at the drop of the hat, you flew to Japan to be inspired by the wayward shoe brands of our past, when you stumbled upon a pair of SeaVees shoes and decided to resurrect them to their pinnacle as an iconic surf culture shoe. Am I on the right track?
You are more or less on the right track. I had actually started my career at Cole Haan in Maine where I thought I’d learn the ropes for a few years before moving to California and starting my own brand. Cut to 18 years later and I was still in New England (working for Sperry Topsider in Boston) and not any closer to realizing my dream. With doubt and disenchantment setting in, I began to search in earnest for the right opportunity. Ideally a sneaker brand with a heritage, a once-proud brand in need of a resurrection. It was behind glass in a secondhand store in Tokyo where I found my first pair of SeaVees.
I love casual shoes more than most, in fact I even wrote a post about them (“Kicks”). Unfortunately I didn’t know much about SeaVees at the time… tell me why I should add them to my quiver.
You are not alone. This brand was off the radar for most after going dormant in the early 1970s. I was an obsessed aficionado of the category and even I had never heard of SeaVees. I soon discovered SeaVees was born in 1964 and was the original casual sneaker. With a groundbreaking advertising campaign throughout the 1960s, SeaVees pioneered the transformation of the sneaker from gym shoe to casual shoe. To “Show Up In SeaVees” meant you could enjoy the comfort of a sneaker with the sophistication of a more refined footwear choice. Today we honor the brand’s 1960s origin with a “vintage vibes meets modern tech” mantra by making contemporary amendments to classic design. The result is a timeless sneaker of exceptional quality and comfort that you can confidently wear in any social setting.
California seems to be an woven into the fabric of the SeaVees story (and you for that matter!). What is it about California that resonates so much with you and the vibe of the brand?
California provided the creative origin of the brand back in the 1960s when the Golden State in its golden age defined the coastal casual lifestyle. As a landlocked kid growing up in Oklahoma, I always aspired to be from California so I understand its powerful magnetic pull. Most of us have a reverence for the escapism that is promised with the warmth of the sun. Responding to that lifelong yearning is what resonates with me, is what SeaVees means to me.
A wise man once said, “You spend most of your time in your bed or on your feet, so it’s important to invest in both.” If we opened up your closet, what shoes would we find in your assemblage?
SeaVees. You’d be shocked by the number of shoes in my closet. I definitely have issues - there is literally a sea of SeaVees. I have a pair of Nikes for trail running and a pair for the gym. And I have held on to a pair of Prada Chelsea boots for so long they have now officially taken on vintage status. Other than that I show up in SeaVees everywhere I go, for every occasion.
How do you think about your competitive landscape– is your target demographic currently wearing Vans/Converse or are you hoping to be the first foray into fashionable sneaker for the guy wearing his father’s crusty old New Balances?
Both. Come one, come all. Today’s consumer has grown up in sneakers, and unlike the generations before him, he’s not being told at some point in his life to get out of those smelly gym shoes he wore as a kid. Still, while he respects the brands he grew up wearing, at some point in his early adult life he’s looking for something a little more evolved. A clean and sophisticated design he can easily dress up or dress down and look appropriate for most any occasion. As he comes of age and develops his own sense of style, he’s willing to pay a little more for the quality, comfort and class offered by SeaVees.
Men’s style has certainly has become more casual these days. How do you see that fitting in with the SeaVees brand?
As the category creator of the casual sneaker, this movement truly hits the core of our brand. Today's athleisure or everyday casual style is just a modern day translation or evolution of what SeaVees was initiating back in the day. With the discerning modern sneaker consumer our heritage grants us an authentic voice in this movement.
There is a certain cool factor that permeates throughout the SeaVees brand. In fact, I’ve read that you said, “California in its golden age was the certified hub of all things cool, so I’m equally inspired by Steve McQueen’s hot-rod culture, Jack Kerouac’s San Francisco Beat scene and Richard Neutra’s Desert Modernism.” Who or what in today’s society inspires you/represents all things cool?
I am most inspired by new music and travel. I’m on an undying daily quest to discover my next favorite band. I spend way more time reading music blogs and deep diving on Bandcamp then I do studying the latest fashion trends. And since the day I was dropped in Paris at 19 years old with a backpack, $500 in American Express travelers checks, and not knowing a word of French, I’ve been addicted to the adrenaline rush of foreign travel. Somewhere along the line I converted culture shock to a familiar comforting pang that never fails to inspire.
How would you describe your personal style?
Smart casual or dress casual. I tend to twist the traditional in a thoughtful way. I subscribe to the over/under rule of style. When the occasion calls for casual attire, I will err on the side of being slightly overdressed. For a dressy occasion - when I’m certain most guys will be wearing dark suits and wingtips - I’ll make a less serious statement by slightly underdressing. I’ll leave the tie at home and have my pant leg cropped just-so to show an irreverent bare ankle - and of course to show off my SeaVees. A classic, relaxed elegance is what I’d like to always represent.
What is your favorite SeaVees shoe?
My favorite SeaVees style is the 06/64 Legend. It’s our most iconic style as it celebrates the original brand’s launch in June of 1964 and is the shoe featured in the old advertising campaign. This style is a re-creation of the shoe I discovered in Tokyo, so it holds special emotional status for me. I feel it best defines SeaVees today as it appeals to both modern and classic tastes. It’s familiar in styling but its high sidewall gives it an aggressive edge.
Looking to the future, does the SeaVees brand extend beyond footwear into a fully fledged fashion/lifestyle brand?
I certainly envision a SeaVees future that embraces the 1960s coastal casual lifestyle across multiple product categories. But honestly we’re focussed on improving within our core competency before we move on to other things. Our women’s business is still in its infancy, our international business (with the exception of Japan and Korea) is totally untapped. And while I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made to date, I know we still have a great amount work to do to restore the brand to its rightful place on the top shelf of heritage sneaker brands.
Our favorite question: if you could combine two existing, but unrelated startups to make something totally ridiculous, what would they be?
If you could see the battery usage on my phone, you’d see that most of my power is spent on Spotify and Waze. What if they did a collaboration and provided you with a personalized playlist based on where you are going, when you are going and the duration of your drive. It would know your taste based on your Spotify history and could sense your mood based on where and when you are traveling (i.e. Friday afternoon build up for a coastal drive versus Monday morning chill out for the dreaded commute).
What is favorite social media account to follow?
Instagram is my platform of choice and I tend to gravitate toward photography - especially a group of Santa Barbara area kindred spirits that includes @willadlerphotographs, @morganmaassen, @deweynicks, @nick_presniakov, and @bluegabor.
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