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Steven Tiller

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist


 
Norman, Oklahoma is about as landlocked a place as one can grow up. So at the ripe age of 10, Steven Tiller’s world was forever changed upon meeting California native Tony Patterson.

“I was in the fifth grade, so obviously I thought I had it all figured out,” says Steven. “I had my crew of buddies that I’d been with now for five or six years. And then, that first week of school, there was this kid named Tony Patterson who rolled in on a skateboard. He had sun-bleached, stringy hair, and he had on a surf shop tee, corduroy board shorts, and high socks and slip-ons. He was an alien to us. It was like he was carried to Norman by this rogue wave. And before we knew it, we were all dressing and acting and hanging out with Tony Patterson.”

The story behind Tony is that he was from a surf town. His parents were separated, and his mom decided to stabilize the family and move back to where she was from, living near her parents until things could get sorted out. When Steven said goodbye to Tony at the end of that school year, they would never cross paths again. But Steven was forever changed. From then on, Steven’s soul was deeply intrigued by California. “It was everything about the warmth of the sun and the things that I would see on television, whether it was the Rose Bowl or that golden sun of Pasadena on New Year’s Day when it was gray and dreary in Oklahoma. I couldn’t believe that people actually lived that way. I determined, even that young, that I had a goal to someday live in California.”

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Through the years, Mr. Tiller developed another affection: for style and brand. He worked at a menswear store in Oklahoma through high school and college that sold classic, traditional brands like Ralph Lauren and Gitman Brothers. In the footwear department, they sold Alden and Cole Haan. In college, Steven began doing creative projects, coming up with brands and marketing campaigns, drawing them out in his sketch books and developing names and taglines for the business he’d have some day. “And I always loved shoes. I don’t know why, but as a basketball player growing up, I loved my basketball shoes. I’d only wear them in the gym. They would never touch the pavement. Basically, I loved California, branding, and shoes,” he says with a laugh.

Steven was able to parlay a relationship with Cole Haan into his first job out of college, shadowing elder shoemakers in factories around the world. “I was just open eyes and open ears, trying to learn from these true craftsman. What they did and how they did it. I remember somebody told me long ago that you cannot listen with your mouth open, so I kept my mouth closed and just listened.”

Steven’s plan was to get his feet wet and learn from the company and hone his skill set. And then, after five years or ten years, he’d do what he really wanted: move to California and start his own brand.

Life, however, has a way of deferring dreams.

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Over the next eighteen years, Mr. Tiller moved from Cole Haan to Steve Madden to Nine West and finally to Stride Rite Corporation, which owned two of the great American heritage footwear brands: Keds and Sperry Top Sider. Steven’s career had evolved into trend forecasting and analysis of the global fashion climate, taking him every season to Milan, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. He would shop, speak with customers, and learn what was selling in the influential boutiques. How the window displays were merchandised. The trending color palettes. Whether the prints were simple or complex. Striped or geometric.

Steven was on fire. He was in his element. He’d always had an affection for history and storytelling, and now he was touching two of the great American footwear brands and traveling the world while he was at it. But he also found himself getting older. He started to become aware that he was getting further and further from his dream. “I don’t think I ever lost focus,” Steven tells us. “But I do think, at some point, I became successful at not being true to myself.”

But the path to being true to himself wasn’t so simple. He lived on the East Coast, had a mortgage, was married, and was starting to have children. The responsibilities of life made it harder and harder to justify the risk of stepping out on his own. So if there was a chance for it to work, it would have to be just right.

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During his travels, Steven began to ponder what kind of brand he would develop. And he started buying vintage sneakers. Lots of sneakers. He fell in love with their story. With the nuances that show up from vulcanization, the original process used for fusing the sole to the upper via foxing tape in high temperature ovens. He would pick up an old sneaker from the ’50s simply because it had an original army issued duck cloth canvas. Or he would fall in love with the shade of color on the eyelets of another shoe and buy them for his collection.

When returning home, Steven would bring back his purchases and go down to his basement and dump them into an oversized hockey bag which, after a while, was bursting at the seams. He couldn’t even close it. “It was my ‘someday’ bag. Someday, if I had the courage to take that leap of faith, this bag would provide some of the direction.”

Over time, as his ‘someday’ idea turned over and over in his mind, Steven landed on the idea of finding a heritage brand that was respected, but not too well known. One that he could, perhaps, steer and guide in a new direction. And in all his trend research, he had zeroed in on the mid-century American market. “There’s something truly magical about the ’50s and ’60s in America. It’s so classic. It’s so timeless that, since being conceived, it’s never truly gone out of fashion. It’s universal in its appeal. And then, somehow, if it was connected to California in some way, or had some creative origin there, that would be cool too.”

As Steven lists off his criterion, it becomes evident that even he realized the absurd specificity of the list. There was no reason to expect that, when touching down on his next trip to Tokyo, he was about to find it.

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After researching all day in boutiques, from Gucci to Prada, it was late in the day. Time for some ‘selfish’ time, as Steven refers to it. Time to hit some secondhand stores and, if he was lucky, find another shoe for his hockey bag back home. Steven wandered into a shop that reeked of Americana (as is the norm on the back streets of Harajuku), merchandised with workwear, flannels, old vinyl, and post cards. And vintage sneakers.

“They were behind this horseshoe glass case,” Steven tells us. “The normal culprits: Vans from the ’60s and Converse from the ’70s. And then I get around to a shoe that I didn’t recognize, so I asked to see it. As far as the style goes, it wasn’t that different; it was a classic CVO — what most people refer to as a plimsoll or deck shoe. But there was something about the shoe that caught my eye. First there was this beautiful logo: what we refer to as that ‘license plate logo’ that’s always centered on the back of the sneaker. I noticed this one was just slightly askew. It was still on the back, but just slightly to the side…just a little off center. And then it said ‘SeaVees’.”

The sneaker was from the ‘60s. It was vulcanized. And in it’s name was the allure of the sea. Steven bought the shoe for his collection. On his way back to the hotel, notwithstanding his intrigue, Steven found himself downplaying his discovery, figuring the brand was something made for the Japanese market or owned by a global fashion brand. That, despite his research and obsession with the category all these years, he’d simply missed it.

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Upon returning to Boston, however, Steven couldn’t shake the feeling in his gut. After researching the brand, he discovered an ad campaign that had run in Playboy magazine in the 1960s. ‘Show up in SeaVees. The new way to go casual.’ the tagline read. Steven realized that he wasn’t just looking at another CVO. He was looking at a category creator. The SeaVees brand was one of the first — if not the first — to pioneer the sneaker not as a gym shoe, but as a casual sneaker for wearing anywhere. SeaVees championed the sneaker not simply as footwear, but as a lifestyle. And, serendipitously, the ads exhibited a coastal, California casual lifestyle. The kind of lifestyle that Steven had dreamed of since his fifth grade encounter with bleach-blonde Tony Patterson.

From there, he did more research, discovering that BF Goodrich, the tire company, had repurposed their excess rubber to launch SeaVees in June of 1964. It was a men’s and women’s sneaker line with its origin in California. It was around in the ’60s until being sold in 1969. And then, within two years, the US Justice Department identified the current company had a monopoly on the US sneaker market, and SeaVees was shut down in 1971. Buried. Left for dead. And now, Steven had rediscovered it. But who owned it now?

After hiring a lawyer and crossing his fingers for eighteen months, Steven got a phone call: the brand was available for only the price of attorney’s fees.

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“It’s one of those things in life where you’re finally granted your wish, and now you have to decide if you’re really in or not. Ironically, at that same time, I was entertaining a job offer as global designer for a major, major footwear company. At some point in my career, I could honestly have defined it as my dream job. There’s that moment of truth where I’ve got to pick a door.”

Door A: to risk it all on an idea; on a dream about a brand that’s completely unknown; to uproot his family and career and begin again. Or Door B: to step into a position that, in almost every way, he could only classify as the ultimate dream job.

“After thinking it over, I realized that, while it’s a dream job, it was somebody else’s dream at this point. I don’t even think the choice was mine. I think the choice was fate.”

So, after months of market research and building the groundwork of infrastructure for SeaVees relaunch, Steven quit his job, and his family packed up their belongings to head west to California. To set up shop “in a Santa Barbara studio with open windows,” says Steven. “With the cool breeze of the Pacific blue. To live between mountains and sea. The way I’d always dreamed to be. To breathe new life into something old. Something authentic. Something long lost. But rediscovered.”

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Now, eight years in, Mr. Tiller has breathed new life into SeaVees and then some. The brand is finding traction in the market. They’re expanding their line of vintage-inspired yet modernly-designed sneakers to include new styles and colorways, all while holding true to the brand’s historic origins. Today, Steven is just as inspired by California, if not more so, than the day he finally moved west. The day he finally moved “home”.

Every shoe that Steven designs is named after, or is inspired by, an event in 1960s California culture. Whether it’s the first skateboarding competition, or the first time a surf competition was televised, or when the winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley in 1960. It’s all part of keeping a tight reign on the connection point — the dotted line, as it were — between the SeaVees of today and the SeaVees of the past.

“I don’t refer to myself as the founder,” says Steven. “Somebody else founded SeaVees in 1964 long before me. So whenever I have a question — whether it’s social media or the integration of a new season or a new website design — the answer lies on the pages of those old Playboy ads. Truly, every single answer is within the confines of that old advertising campaign. If it doesn’t make it through the filter of the old brand, I don’t do it.”

The shoes certainly respect the integrity of the original designs. On the outside, the Legend — the OG style based on the original CVO he found in Tokyo — appears to be an exact recreation of the original. But the likeness is only canvas deep. The new Legend features the modern accoutrements of today, like outsoles made of natural gum rubber (which offers longer wear) and perforated custom contoured footbeds (which provide cooling and cushioning). In a nutshell, that means your feet stay comfy all day (and all night) long.

SeaVees features this same mantra of “vintage vibes meets modern tech” throughout their entire line. From high top chukkas to low-profile slip-ons, it’s hard not to find a sneaker (or five) that fits your personal style. The line is evolving from season to season, but it’s tight. It’s focused. So many brands overextend their reach, meandering in and out of categories without a compass. But it’s clear that, under Steven’s guidance, SeaVees knows where they’re going and how they’re going to get there.

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“For me, it’s truly something that I just love,” says Steven. “You’re constantly tinkering. You’re on that quest for perfection that you’ll never reach. But man, you just keep trying and trying and trying. There are people that have been doing it as long as I have, but they no longer enjoy the grind. While some people can’t wait to be promoted to a position where they don’t have to do that anymore — I can’t imagine not doing it.”

He pauses. As if, suddenly, he’s reflecting back on the fact that, while his struggle used to be about finding his dream deferred, it’s now about living it. To reveal it. To uncover it and grow it into what he always wanted it to be. “There’s always that fear, for me. But paranoia is a great motivator. When it’s on your shoulders to deliver, it’s that feeling like you can’t deliver. So, you absolutely must.”

That quote may define Mr. Tiller. A man that, albeit circuitously, is delivering exactly what he must: the promise to see his passion come to fruition. To move to California. To find his path. To breathe life into a long dormant dream. And to see it through. A dream that was, all along, waiting to be found. Found, perhaps, by him alone.
 


Shop the SeaVees collection at seavees.com, and keep an eye out for our product feature going live later this month.