Upon further investigation, Tiller learned that SeaVees was founded in the 1960s by B.F. Goodrich—along with Jack Purcells and PF Flyers. Later, it was acquired by Converse, then finally discontinued. This sneaker, with its “strong heritage and unrealized potential,” was exactly what Tiller, then a successful VP at Stride Rite, was dreaming of when he sought to open his own California-inspired shoe business.
Today, SeaVees has been revived to preserve the same casual surf vibe of the originals. And Steven Tiller is living the California dream he’d always envisioned.
We thought we’d get the story straight from Steven himself. Read on.
What influence does skate & surf culture have in your life—and in your designs?
“As a kid growing up in Oklahoma, I always wanted to be from California. My buddies and I were frustrated, landlocked surf kids with our OP corduroy shorts and ringer tees with surfing graphics. We’d skate on the school blacktop and listen to Beach Boys records. So the influence was deep and resulted in a lifelong desire for me to live the California dream.
Today, to honor the founding of the original SeaVees brand, every shoe I design is derived from an inspirational occurrence in 1960s California culture. Of course surf and skate play a vital and recurring role. But 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.”
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.
What clicked in that Tokyo store to inspire you to kick-start SeaVees—after so many years of the brand lying dormant?
“I’d been searching for a long time for a brand to resurrect. I spent years collecting vintage sneakers from my travels around the world. I’d purchase [a pair] for the texture on a toe bumper or the particular grade of a canvas—anything that stood out to me about the design. I kept the shoes in my basement in our Boston home in an oversized duffle bag. It became known as my ‘someday’ bag; someday, if I ever had the courage to start my own brand, I knew many of the answers would be contained in that bag.
Somewhere along the way in my career, I had fallen in love with the art of vulcanizing—the time-honored manufacturing process of genuine sneakers. I wanted something with a strong heritage but with unrealized potential. From my years of trend research and forecasting [at brands like Cole Haan, Steve Madden and Nine West], I had determined I wanted something from the mid-century, of American origin, with timeless design and universal appeal.
The old shoe I found behind glass in that Tokyo vintage shop was the first SeaVees I had ever seen. It was deadstock—never worn—and from 1964. The design itself was familiar. It was a CVO [Circular Vamp Oxford] or deck shoe—the style that launched most heritage sneaker brands. But I immediately noticed ‘trust marks’—unique brand identifiers from which I could build: the sky blue herringbone sole, the license plate logo slightly, beautifully, off center. In the name was the seduction of the Sea. Then, a large distinctive wishbone V. I knew this was what I’d been searching for, tried to be cautiously optimistic but was afraid it was too good to be true.”
What’s your favorite part of SeaVees’ long & interesting history?
“While I love the old ad campaign and the archive of classic product from the history of the brand, I have my own selfish favorite part of SeaVees. For me it has to be that day, that chance discovery in a Japanese thrift store that led to the rebirth of a forgotten American original.”
Anything you learned (about yourself or business) along the journey of getting SeaVees up & running?
“How gratifying it is to play to your strengths everyday, to be able to combine a love of history, shoemaking, brand building and storytelling—and have it connect to your intended target. And while I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made with SeaVees, I know we still have a great amount work to do to have the brand recognized by today’s modern consumer as a category creator—the original casual sneaker since 1964—to restore the brand to its rightful place on the top shelf of heritage sneaker brands.”
How do you think sneaker culture has evolved since the acceptance of “athleisure” as everyday style? And is “athleisure” a term you embrace?
“While ‘athleisure’ is not a term I personally embrace, I certainly embrace the movement. It’s the modern-day translation of what SeaVees was pioneering back in the day. When the old brand advertised in Playboy magazine throughout the 1960s, its campaign was ‘Show up in SeaVees. The new way to go casual.’ It was groundbreaking in that you could ‘show up in SeaVees’ with confidence at a yacht club, a country club, any social affair and enjoy the comfort of a sneaker with the end-use of a more sophisticated, more refined footwear choice. It was not only the transformation of the sneaker from gym shoe to casual shoe, it was the origin of sneakers being marketed as a lifestyle—the birth of sneaker culture as we know it today. Today’s ‘athleisure’ is just a continuation of this movement.”
It was groundbreaking in that you could ‘show up in SeaVees’ with confidence at a yacht club, a country club, any social affair and enjoy the comfort of a sneaker with the end-use of a more sophisticated, more refined footwear choice.
What style rules do you—personally—live by?
“I live by the ‘Over/Under’ rule of style. If the occasion calls for casual attire, I will show up slightly over-dressed. For instance, I’ll wear jeans with a slim blazer or suit jacket, a striped tee and SeaVees. I’ll still be comfortable and casual, but a step up from the guys wearing shorts and flip-flops. For a dressy occasion—when I’m confident most guys will be wearing dark suits, ties and dress shoes—I’ll make my statement by slightly under-dressing. I’ll wear a slim suit with an open-collared shirt, my pant leg will be rolled or cropped just-so to expose a bare ankle and SeaVees. I’ll pop the look with a patterned pocket square that makes up for my lack of a tie.”
What’s next for sneakers? Anything interesting you’re seeing on the horizon both industry-wide & at SeaVees?
“Sneakers in general will continue to get more refined as we find ways to apply innovations in comfort and materials. This will blur the lines even more between sport and dress and make sneakers appropriate for most any occasion. For SeaVees, we will continue with our ‘vintage-vibes meets modern tech’ mantra. We will design and craft footwear that endures trends with a passion that is often lost in the demand to make things en masse. And rest assured, we’ll keep it casual.”
Want to try out Steven’s sneakers? Stitch Fix carries SeaVees! Request a pair from your personal stylist.