When SeaVees founder Steven Tiller wandered into a vintage shop in Japan, he had no idea he would stumble upon a pair of sea-washed sneakers that would change his whole life.
By reviving the 1960s sneaker brand and updating its classic silhouette with more modern and sustainable materials, he helped give SeaVees a second act.
We sat down with Tiller to talk about moving from Oklahoma to California, how the sneaker industry is changing for the better, and what's next for SeaVees.
Tell us a little bit about how you discovered that pair of SeaVees in Tokyo. Did you know right away what the brand could become someday? What do you think it was that first drew you to them in that shop?
I was a disenchanted brand designer and trendspotter for a large corporation. Even though my travels took me all over the world, I’d been trying to find the courage – and the big idea - for a while to go out on my own. I’d been collecting vintage sneakers for several years that I would acquire on my trips. In my free time in the evenings I’d wander the streets, listening to music, hitting thrift stores in search of the latest addition to my collection.
It was behind glass in a second hand store in Shibuya – the first time I laid eyes on a pair of SeaVees. They were deadstock from the 1960’s. They had the seduction of the sea in their name and a beautifully distinct light blue herringbone bottom. I knew right away I had to have them. They’d either be the most random and rarest addition to my collection or perhaps that opportunity I’d been privately planning for – to finally start my own brand.
What did California represent to you while growing up in Oklahoma? Do you feel like you were chasing the California dream even as a kid?
For a landlocked kid in Oklahoma, California represented the last great frontier. Extended family members had moved from Oklahoma to California through the years, so we’d visit them occasionally. I’d return home sun-kissed and changed - emulating California surf and skate style down to my corduroy OP shorts, surf shop ringer tees, and striped tube socks.
Do you have a favorite classic SeaVees ad from the 60s? What do you love about that one in particular? Do you think you still draw inspiration from that era?
My favorite ad has to be the original – the first one SeaVees ran, and the first one I discovered. It’s from June 1964 when the brand launched and it ran in Playboy magazine. It has a couple sitting on a dock in a marina and features a light blue chambray version of what is now called our Legend style. (Side note: I just got my hands on a vintage pair of these from Japan – the oldest pair known to exist.) I definitely still find inspiration in the old ad. I keep it in my office and refer to it often. It’s become a filter that I use, that I pass new ideas through, that keeps me from straying too far from the brand’s origin.
Tell us a little bit about SeaChange — your first collection of almost entirely recycled shoes. What made you want to create that program? How has it changed the way SeaVees creates its shoes? Were there any challenges along the way?
The footwear industry has a long way to go when it comes to reducing its impact on the environment and in an effort to create positive change, we’ve been challenging ourselves, our factories, and our suppliers for years - asking ourselves how can we do better? How can we lessen our footprint? How can we expand these changes across our brand?
With this persistent push, we were eventually able to make numerous inroads and implement these changes throughout our product range. Our SeaChange collection represents the accumulation of those efforts.
With SeaChange, we’ve been able to create a line of sneakers that are almost entirely recycled. Every shoe in the line features recycled and consciously-sourced components from recycled cotton uppers to post-consumer recycled plastic laces to recycled rubber outsoles. Other styles are made with biodegradable wool upper or recycled fleece. Additionally our partners at the nonprofit SeaTrees work to regenerate one foot of carbon-sequestering kelp forest for each pair of SeaChange sneakers sold.
Our hope for the future of SeaChange is that we are able to expand these characteristics across the full range of our product line – making it integral to all of our product offerings.
What do you think make SeaVees and Arvin Goods such a great fit together?
Aside from the obvious shoe and sock combination, we acknowledge a great deal of connectivity between Arvin Goods and SeaVees.
There is of course the commitment to protecting the planet and taking strides to lessen our impact. The celebration of individuality and providing goods for everyone, across a range of styles and forms of self-expression. Showing up as yourself. And of course a drive to create products that offer the highest level of quality and comfort so you look good and feel good.
What's a piece of advice you would give to someone trying to start their own company? What values have helped guide you in creating SeaVees?
You have to believe in your vision when no one else in the world can see it, and believe in it no matter what.
When I was growing up, people called me stubborn - oftentimes expressed with a negative connotation. But what I’ve learned in the business world and through my experience of starting SeaVees is that being stubborn is actually a virtue. You have to be steadfast, you’ve got to learn to take rejection, to go left when everybody goes right. It all comes down to determination if you’re going to make your vision a reality.
As for values, I’ve always considered a brand to be a living, breathing being; it needs to be fed, to be nurtured, and - like all of us - it’s always evolving, is in a constant state of work-in-progress. So I feel that what makes a good brand is similar to what makes a good human - strong principles need to be at its core. And you must have the courage to stand for what is right even at the expense of turning some customers away from your brand.
What's next for SeaVees? What makes you excited to keep challenging yourself and the brand?
Day to day I’m most excited about our team of impassioned people – the SeaVees crew. They inspire me and challenge me in the most amazing and rewarding ways on a daily basis. I’m 13 years in on this quest but it still feels fresh and like we are just getting started.
What has me the most excited about the future of SeaVees is the opportunity to open our own stores – a true physical manifestation of our brand vision and the chance to share who we are with the community. There’s something so gratifying in creating a space that embodies everything about our brand. A California clubhouse of sorts where people can walk in and immediately understand who we are without us having to say a word or explain it. It also gives us the opportunity to foster relationships with and carry incredible goods from friends and like-minded brands who inspire us, like Arvin Goods.
While we just opened up our flagship in Santa Barbara last April and our second shop in Newport Beach this past month, I’m already daydreaming about where we’ll open one next…