Photo by Ryan Songalia
TAGUIG CITY, Philippines - Wendell Cunanan remembers his first pair of Vans sneakers. They were all white — and high maintenance — requiring daily cleaning so they'd be immaculate for his drum corps competitions at a Los Angeles high school.
A little over 20 years later, Cunanan is wearing his own custom spiderweb Vans, overseeing more than 20 concept stores as CEO of Vans Philippines.
Born in Manila, Cunanan immigrated to the United States in 1986 at 13. To that point, he had never heard of skateboarding. "When I first moved to the States, the first ever foreign sports to me were basketball and even volleyball, tennis and golf," recounts Cunanan. "But what was this skateboarding thing?"
In the '80s, skateboarding was just beginning to emerge from its relegation as a small niche to a ubiquitous counter culture, and Southern California was ground zero. In Huntington Beach, Santa Monica, Venice Beach and all over the Valley, more and more kids were grinding on park benches and "ollying" over gaps.
Vans was the sneaker brand that stood atop most skateboard decks due to their ability to grip a surface. The brand subsequently became synonymous with the movement.
"I remember my first ever skateboard; that sucker was heavy," says Cunanan. "It was one of things that you buy at K-mart; that's what my parents could afford. Actually, I had to beg my parents for it.
"My parents, they didn't understand it. For me, it was like all the kids — I wanted to belong because we just moved there. I was more of a recreational skater. When (my friends) started doing the tricks, I just watched."
Though Cunanan concedes that he can only go "from here to there" on a skateboard, his passion for the sport and the brand closely associated with it remained. So when asked in 2008 if he would be interested in leaving his job as athletic wear buyer at the now-defunct Shoe Pavilion to join Vans, only a slight moment of hesitation preceded his firm acceptance.
Five years later, Cunanan and his small, tightly-knit team continue to cultivate a brand that wasn't visible in the country when he began vacationing here in 2005. Vans sneakers first appeared in 2009 in Manila department stores, before the first boutique opened the following year at Robinsons Galleria in Ortigas Center, Pasig. They are scheduled to open another store in July at Gateway Mall in Cubao, and already have locations in Cagayan de Oro, Cebu, Subic, Palawan, Davao and Zamboanga, among other cities.
"I think the execution part is the biggest challenge for brands such as Vans because it's very unique," said Cunanan. "You've got to have a certain understanding of the brand, its core value, where it came from, so you can properly set it up in any country. You have to stick to the core; anything around it will follow.
"In the Philippines, cost is a big factor: the lower it is, the more affordable it is for the masses," continues Cunanan. "Which is great; you need everybody to have a share in things. I think we're known to be shoe collectors, just by virtue of who we are as Filipinos and that came from Imelda Marcos.
"Your biggest shoe collectors out there are really Filipinos. A lot of the well-known street shoe designers are also Filipinos. You've got the boys from Crocs, a couple of the designers used to work for Vans. A couple of Vans designers were Filipinos, street cats. I believe Creative Recreations are Filipinos."
Events have been an integral part of driving the brand in the Philippines, such as the 3rd annual Go Skateboarding Day, which takes place on June 22, Saturday at the World Trade Center in Pasay City. Winners of qualifying tournaments in Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao and the National Capitol Region (NCR) will compete in a day-long series of events like Highest Ollie, Game of Ledge and Best Open Run.
They will be followed by the Championships with cash prizes totaling P85,000. All qualifiers from outside Metro Manila will be flown in and accommodated, all expenses paid.
"We changed it because last year...the problem was, if you didn't make it to the qualifying, you'd be sitting there watching everybody skate for the rest of the afternoon," says Cunanan. "It's a 'Go Skateboarding' day, so we changed it up this year."
The event is free to the public. It begins with registration at 8am and includes two free skate periods. It will conclude with live performances from Filipino rock bands Wolfgang and The Chongkeys at 9pm. The skating area will include more audacious challenging ramps than in previous years, says Cunanan.
Vans also hosted its first Summer Music Jam last May at the SM Mall of Asia Arena. It featured 7 local bands, including Kamikaze and Urbandub. Cunanan says he hopes to stage the next one outdoors, complete with an on-site skate ramp.
Fighting for their right
Though less celebrated than the country's boxers and basketball players, Filipino skateboarders have figured prominently in the global scene. Willy Santos, a native of Subic Bay, was called "one of the best street skaters during the dark early 90′s" by Thrasher Magazine and had a Vans sneaker named after him in 1997. Aldrin Garcia, a Filipino-American from San Diego, CA, held the Guinness World Record for highest ollie — with a 45-inch measure — in 2011.
For Filipinos to improve, they need a place to skate. As Cunanan sits at Jamba Juice in Bonifacio High Street, walking distance from a Vans store at Market! Market!, concern sweeps over him. Bonifacio Global City, which has become a popular destination for skaters, has become a sort of skating battleground following several incidences of skaters being detained in the area.
"It's very much like the '80s, I remember all of it. It's like deja vu for me," says Cunanan, recalling the harassment that skaters faced in the States. "There were issues where skaters were stopped by local police or guards, they weren't allowed to skate. [The police] had machine guns and stuff, but these were skaters. They will probably take off and ollie above you before they do anything."
Earlier this 2013, Vans Philippines created a 12-minute YouTube video titled "Let Us Sk8" featuring testimonials from local skaters pleading to be allowed to ply their craft. "Sometimes the security guards don't give us any warning, they just confiscate our skateboards," said one skater, whose name wasn't given. "Just like what happened in The Fort. They just hauled skaters inside a security van."
"We're not angels either," says Cunanan. "But that's why I tell the riders, 'Let's be responsible for our own actions first. Let's be responsible so that maybe some people will allow us to skate.'
"But if we start breaking rules and do stupid stuff, then it's going to be harder to get them to let us do what we want."
Cunanan says that creating skate parks where skaters can ride unrestricted would be the best solution to the problem, but that the adequate public spaces are usually earmarked for basketball courts. He has already had commitments from the mayors of Cavite City and Quezon City to allow them to build skate parks, and has met with Senator Manny Villar to discuss the possibility of future parks.
"Hopefully, once the community is solidified, we'll have more skate parks built," says Cunanan. "But it takes patience, a lot of patience and a lot of talking. I tell the riders, 'No promises except that I promise to try my very best.'
"In the mean time I'll create a lot of these skate events in the community." - Rappler.com
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found atwww.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia