Steven Tiller took the long route to California. The Oklahoma-born shoe designer turned SeaVees C.E.O. spent his formative years in the flat-as-a-pancake university town of Norman obsessing about the Pacific Coast after a real-life Californian transferred to his school and started spinning stories of sunny women and beautiful days. “We were wearing Okanui board shorts and being skate and surf kids in a flat, landlocked state,” Tiller remembers. After graduating, he did something he’d never dreamed of and moved to the East Coast, settling outside Boston and making a comfortable living designing shoes for Cole Haan, Ted’s, and Sperry’s.
“I was successful, but I wasn’t true to myself,” says Tiller. “I had always been a good employee, but I started being a contrarian. I was about to turn forty and this new part of me was coming to the surface.”
Arguably, the new part was just an old part that had been pushed down so deep it had solidified into something gem-like and sharp. Tiller wanted to run his own business and he wanted to move. He decided to find a brand that needed his help, bought some plane tickets and started scouring the world’s vintage stores, picking out deadstock sneakers and sending them home to his increasingly cluttered basement. He “kissed a lot of frogs” looking for something worth resuscitating, but when he hit Japan he hit the motherlode.
“On my first day in Tokyo, I found this old pair of SeaVees, which I had never heard of even though I was being paid to know every stitch in every brand,” says Tiller. “I did my research and realized that these guys pioneered sneaker culture.”
Tiller had found his future and, more importantly on some level, his ticket to California. He moved his family to Santa Barbara and started digging through his new brand’s old-school roots. In the mid-sixties SeaVees had billed itself as “the new way to go casual.” The rubber for the soles came from tire factories and were vulcanized using a process no longer practiced stateside. Tiller had to find a Chinese manufacturer capable of replicating the process and creating something that he describes as “familiar.” The goal, after all, was not to win any design awards - Tiller has a tendency to say things like: “We’re not going to win any design awards” - but to create something wearable and reminiscent of the sixties, when America went haywire and California found itself in a haze of violence, music, drugs, and Big Sur fog.
The shoes, which have been selling like, well, really great sneakers at boutiques across the country are rapidly becoming a menswear staple along the lines of Vans or Converse. Tiller says he wants to grow a global lifestyle brand, that it might be irresponsible not to. But that’s all in the future. The goal right now is getting more people to look for his kicks and to recognize them when they see them.
“California,” he points out, “is a global idea."
Tiller designed shoes specifically for the California he’d spent most of his life daydreaming about. That they happen to work in the California he moved to and lives in either is a coincidence or an unexpected byproduct of that deep-seeded desire to go west. Today, Tiller wears his SeaVees to the beach when he goes surfing. He’s a “nook,” a newbie, but he can stand up on a board and that’s something for a guy from Oklahoma. He’s not totally Californian yet, but he’s working on it.