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Decades After Sean Penn Helped Make Vans Explode In Popularity Thanks To Fast Times At Ridgemont High, The Owner Found A Way To Thank Him

 Sean Penn, Ava Lazar, and Lori Sutton in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Sean Penn, Ava Lazar, and Lori Sutton in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

In 1982, Fast Times at Ridgemont High not only became a seminal teen comedy and one of the best movies of the '80s, capturing the essence and angst of high school life in the early part of the decade, but it also catapulted a particular pair of shoes worn by Sean Penn into the stratosphere of pop culture. Now, the creator of said sneakers is thanking the actor.

Sean Penn's portrayal of the laid-back surfer Jeff Spicoli, with his sun-bleached hair and carefree attitude, was iconic, and it was a role that launched the actor into superstardom. Yet, Spicoli's choice of footwear—Vans' checkered slip-ons—unexpectedly shared his spotlight. Thanks to the film, this casual skate shoe was suddenly in the limelight, fundamentally altering its path in fashion history. Decades later, the owner of Vans expressed his gratitude to Penn, revealing he'd found a special way to thank the actor for his unintentional, yet significant, contribution to the brand's success.

Steve Van Doren, the son of Vans co-founder Paul Van Doren, recently shared an intriguing story about all this on The Nine Club With Chris Roberts, a show where skateboarding and pop culture intersect. During his appearance, Steve recounted the journey of Vans and the serendipitous moment the brand's iconic checkered shoe became a film legend. Beginning with a memorable encounter with the beloved Fast Times star in Hawaii about a year ago, he explained:

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I met Sean Penn maybe a year ago over in Hawaii… (The owner of the restaurant) comes out and says, ‘Sean Penn is inside the restaurant.’ I said, ‘I’ve got to go say hi.’ So, I go inside, and I said, ‘Hi, Mr. Penn. I’m Steve Van Doren from Vans.’ ‘Hey, how are you doing? This is my daughter.’ His daughter looked like she was in her early 20s. I said to the daughter, ‘Your father is my hero because he narrated Dogtown And The Z Boys but really because he was Spicoli.’ (Then I said to him) ‘You made my life so much better (because of what you did) for the brand.’ So I thanked him and left him alone. Maybe an hour later, we were leaving and I didn’t want to go back inside; so, I gave the owner my credit card. I wanted to pay for their dinner. I’m way over here. He comes across the restaurant and said, ‘Steve, you didn’t have to.’ I said, ‘I wanted to. Thank you so much. I just wanted to buy you dinner.’ It was pretty cool.

The journey of Vans shoes from California skate parks to Hollywood stardom is as unexpected as their surge in popularity. Initially crafted for the skateboarding subculture, these shoes symbolized the relaxed and underground vibe of California's skate scene. Their leap to movie fame was a mixture of chance and deliberate selection by the movie’s young star. Van Doren continued:

I just thought Betty Mitchell, who was our PR person, brought shoes to the studio, Universal/ Sony Pictures, she told me... exactly what happened. Sean Penn went in and bought it (himself). When he (went to film), he had the shoes on. Sony Pictures/ Universal calls up Vans and says, ‘Hey, our star here has a pair of these check shoes. Can we get some more?’ So, Betty drove up with two dozen shoes and gave it to them, and the rest is history.

Decades after the release of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Steve Van Doren’s story (which you can see in the video embedded below) emphasizes the sheer unpredictability of the film industry and life itself. Who could have predicted the shoe’s monumental success–or the movie's success as a whole, for that matter?

With Fast Times, director Amy Heckerling had a great first movie and launched her career with the iconic film, solidifying its place as one of the most memorable coming-of-age movies available to stream. And with Clueless also listed in her filmography, her ability to capture the essence of youth culture is undeniable.

You can enjoy Sean Penn's unforgettable performance as Jeff Spicoli, along with his iconic checkered Vans, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High by streaming it with a Peacock subscription. Alternatively, if you're interested in exploring contemporary teen stories, these seven Gen Z coming-of-age movies are worth checking out.