Omar Quiambao has been there, done that and seen everything under the sun in the world of streetwear and sneakers. He founded the influential boutique Commonwealth back in 2004, and today Commonwealth boasts locations in Virginia Beach, Washington DC, Los Angeles and Manila. Besides his rich retail roots, he’s also a project director and designer who’s worked with everyone from Stüssy and Anti Social Social Club to New Balance, PUMA and ASICS. However, through all the projects, productions and cultural changes, Quiambao keeps coming back to one sneaker: Vans‘ timeless Slip-On.
Quiambao has been wearing Slip-Ons since he was a skateboarding-obsessed kid growing up in Virginia Beach, and still loves them just as much today — if not more so. He describes them as a sneaker that’s democratic and accessible but still desirable, no small feat in today’s scarcity-driven market where the right collaborator or a high resell price can dictate taste moreso than the actual product itself. For his installment of Hypebeast’s Sole Mates series, Omar Quiambao discusses his decades of history with the humble, laceless model, why he thinks it’s been able to remain trend-proof while still being appealing and how the sneaker game has changed since he first set foot into it more than two decades ago.
What got you into sneakers?
Skateboarding. My older brother skateboarded, so naturally, I followed in his footsteps, started skating too and realized “I need to have specific sneakers to take part in this lifestyle.” Before that, “specific” footwear to me was stuff like baseball and soccer cleats, but skateboarding introduced me to Vans and I was off to the races.
Do you remember the first pair of Vans you had?
It was a pair of Old Skools, which were still known as the Style 36 back then. My friends and I called them “Jazz Vans” because of the Jazz stripe [Vans’ familiar swooping logo] on the side. They were really important to me — I’d only wear them for skating. I was breakdancing at the time as well, and when I’d go do that I’d take my Vans off and put on a pair of PUMA Suedes instead. Having the “right” shoes on for the right activity was super important to me.
“The Slip-On is a very practical style and a perfect example of a ‘less is more’ design ethos.”
The Old Skool was your first pair of Vans, but the Slip-On is your absolute favorite. What keeps you coming back to it?
It’s so pragmatic. The Slip-On is a very practical style and a perfect example of a “less is more” design ethos. Of course, there are times when the Slip-On is perfectly on trend — who can forget Frank Ocean wearing them to the White House, right? — but it exists outside of that trend pendulum.
It really is a timeless sneaker, isn’t it?
Yes, and it’s so versatile too. To this day, I still bring a pair of Slip-Ons with me when I travel. They’re easy to get through the airport, more than presentable enough to wear for a meeting and can fit into pretty much any lifestyle lane as well. I’m from the era where you wouldn’t get into a club if you were wearing “athletic footwear,” and even back then they’d let you in if you were rocking a pair of leather Slip-Ons.
“[The Slip-On] doesn’t give off an air of elitism. It’s affordable and accessible, and can’t be pigeonholed.”
You mentioned earlier that the Slip-On manages to exist outside the trend pendulum, but is still occasionally on-trend, and that’s reminiscent of Vans as a brand: they know what works for them and stick with it instead of chasing fads. Why is it so important for a brand to do that, and why have they done such a good job of it?
It helps that they have so many classics — shoes with decades and decades of history. Those shoes have earned the kind of prestige that can’t be “bought” and only comes with time. They do a great job of telling the stories of those classic shoes and are careful with brand partnerships around them. In the case of the Slip-On especially, part of the reason it’s so universal is that it doesn’t give off an air of elitism. It’s affordable and accessible, and can’t be pigeonholed. Sure, it’s associated with a West Coast lifestyle and skaters, but it’s involved in so many other subcultures as well — punk, hip-hop, streetwear, you name it.
It’s interesting that in our world — one that can be obsessed with exclusivity and value — a shoe that anyone can get, like the Slip-On, is still such an icon.
Exactly. That really speaks to how loved it is and how democratic it is.
How did it feel to go from a lifelong Slip-On wearer to a full-on collaborator on the model? [Commonwealth and Vans dropped co-created Slip-Ons and Eras in 2019]
It was really exciting. We wanted to make something that would be a staple for us, so the design process was centered around restraint and small nods to Vans history. We took off the toe bumper, changed the waffle sole out for a deck sole to salute the Van Doren Rubber Company and used a tiny version of the checkerboard pattern on the midsole foxing for a salute to where the original idea for Vans’ checkerboard print came from — kids drawing the pattern on their shoes by hand. It was a labor of love, and fortified my appreciation for the Slip-On.
What’s the biggest shift you’ve seen in sneakers since Commonwealth first opened?
The internet. It’s changed everything. Reselling first took off on eBay and now there are billion-dollar aftermarket businesses. Online drops and all the information that’s available online have opened the game up to a much wider audience. When I was coming up, you’d have to travel all over the world to see different shoes, learn their stories and even buy them. It’s crazy how much easier it is to participate now.
Do you think that level of accessibility is a good thing or a bad thing?
I think it’s just a change we have to get used to, man. As much as I like feeling like an individual, exclusivity is somewhat elitist. We just try to promote gratitude and appreciation — the latter of which isn’t so easy when everything feels so accessible, but that’s just part of the business. There are different levels of commitment in streetwear and sneaker fandom, just like in sports. You’ve got those people that love their teams through thick and thin and then you have the weekend warriors that just want to go to a game and enjoy themselves. As long as the proper appreciation for the culture is there, either way is fine!
Why are sneakers important to you?
Sneakers helped me love skating and breaking as a kid, and have led to a lot of fulfilling creative opportunities for me as an adult.