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Vans at 50 : An oral history of the iconic skateboarding brand and a case study in longevity

Vans at 50: An oral history of the iconic skateboarding brand and a case study in longevity.
Words by Robert Brink / Oak Street, July 2016
Photography by Ye Rin Mok

To last 50 years and be more culturally relevant than ever is unheard of for a skateboarding brand. But such is the case for Vans, which celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this year.

Despite its humble beginnings as a made-to-order deck shoe created by Paul and Jim Van Doren in 1966, Vans is the skate world’s longest-running brand and one of the few in American history to become a culture within itself.

So how did the Van Doren Rubber Company go from selling a dozen pairs of shoes on March 16, 1966, in Anaheim, California, to surviving Chapter 11 bankruptcy, family fallouts, multiple acquisitions, going public, and five decades of trends? Some of the company’s most crucial figures break down how it became the iconic $2.2 billion brand it is today.

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Listen to the customer

Steve Van Doren (VP of Events and Promotions and son of Vans founder Paul Van Doren): “We were just a tennis shoe company that my dad started in 1966. He knew he was going to have to do something special because he couldn’t afford advertising. It wasn’t my dad’s niche; he was a manufacturer his whole life. So he made the sole twice as thick as anything else out there. He used pure crepe rubber with no fillers. He used No. 10 duck canvas and nylon thread so the shoes would last longer. He didn’t know it was eventually going to be gripping a skateboard, but all those things, together with the construction, made for a better shoe. So if a mother came in and bought a pair for her kid and found out it lasted longer than other shoes, she’s going to keep coming back for more.”

Tony Alva (professional skateboarder, Skateboarding Hall of Fame inductee, original member of the Zephyr team, Vans-endorsed athlete for 40 years): “We just knew that we needed deck shoes. Vans started, and there was a shop on the corner of 19th and Wilshire in Los Angeles, two blocks away from my junior high school. It wasn’t intentional, but Vans were the best shoes for skateboarding. They were affordable and they lasted. And they would sell me one shoe at a time. If I wore out my right shoe from dragging my foot a lot, I would go over with a couple bucks and buy another shoe, which would keep me going for another week or two.

I was one of the guys that gave them input to start designing shoes for skateboarders, and they called it the Off The Wall series. We took the basic deck shoe but added a bit more padding and used two-tone colors because we were always wearing different colored shoes based on whatever we could get at the time. But what we were all about when it came to Vans was that gum rubber sole that grips a skateboard so good that you don’t want to reinvent it no matter what. The vulcanized rubber and either suede leather or canvas and that waffle sole—that’s all we ever wanted.

Then they went to making hi-tops, which was a completely new level of functionality. That was the ultimate shoe for us because it had that gum rubber sole, but the suede and the canvas combined with the hi-top guarding the ankle bones. That’s what we did—we gave Vans so much input that they started to evolve with skateboarding. It was one of the smartest things they could’ve ever done. And the reason they were able to do it is because Paul Van Doren and his sons were open to it. They were listening and they knew there was something about the skateboarding culture that was synonymous with Vans, and they rode it out. Here we are 50 years later and they’re still riding that wave, which is amazing because what it’s done for them is it’s given them growth through an organic evolution that no other company in the skateboarding industry has or could ever have.”

Steve Van Doren: “Tony worked with my dad and my uncle Jim. We realized that canvas was going to take a beating, so we started putting leather on the toe and the heel and added a padded collar so they had more support. From there, Tony would start suggesting, ‘Hey, we’re getting hit in the ankles with our skateboards when we’re in the pools.’ So we came up with the second shoe, which was the mid-top Old Skool. Then my dad saw how hard they would pull their laces to tighten them up and break the eyelets. Normal people don’t do that. So when we designed style No. 36, they left out the metal eyelets but put an extra layer of canvas so you didn’t have a chance of pulling an eyelet out and ruining the whole shoe. Soon we made an even higher-top shoe, the Sk8-Hi. We always listened to what skaters or kids told us. When kids were drawing checkerboard patterns on their shoes, we just followed their lead. Same thing with skating, they’d ask us, ‘Hey, can you do this? Can you do that?’ And we would.

Later, in 1988, when we made the first shoe for Steve Caballero, he found out eight months later that kids were cutting the top down to make the shoe lower. He came to us and said, ‘Hey, see how I duct taped these after I cut ’em? Maybe we can just make ’em a mid-top.’ And that’s how the Half Cab came about.”

Steve Caballero (professional skateboarder, Skateboarding Hall of Fame inductee, Vans-endorsed athlete for 28 years, creator of the longest-running signature shoe of all time, the Half Cab): “I attribute the success of the Half Cab to a combination of things: timing, capturing a moment, and Vans listening to what the skaters and I wanted. Steve Van Doren is really good at listening and making sure skaters are well taken care of.”

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Stick to what you know

Vans doesn’t deny its mistakes, nor does it make excuses for its failures. The times it suffered were the times it tried to be something it wasn’t. The company made breakdancing shoes in the ’80s, for Christ’s sake. But there has always been an accountability, a sincerity, and an authenticity to Vans that clearly illustrates why it’s been here for half a century and is now more successful than ever. Not a lot of brands can say that. Nor can they say they swung back from the bottom all the way to the top, the way Vans has.

Steve Van Doren: “Vans was going great, the checkerboard shoe was flying, my uncle Jim was president, and he was doing a magnificent job, but he made the mistake of trying to be Nike. We had a running shoe. We had basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, skydiving, and wrestling shoes. We even had breakdancing shoes. We were making really nice shoes, but my dad, who was a great manufacturer and businessperson, kept telling my uncle, ‘Hey, they’re costing us a fortune. We’re losing our butts.’ But my uncle wouldn’t listen because he guided Vans through the checkerboard era, and we were the hottest thing going. All the money we were making on checkerboard shoes, we spent on lasts, dyes, and materials for making athletic shoes. And they weren’t selling. People don’t know Vans for that. You got powerhouses like adidas, Nike, and Puma, and we were getting our butts kicked on the athletic shoes.

Then, from about 1994 to 1999, they [McCown De Leeuw & Co., the private equity firm that bought Vans in 1988] were making all kinds of skateboarding shoes. They were excited about all these new things happening in skate footwear and they were trying to follow the other shoe companies instead of lead, but that wasn’t us. They began manufacturing overseas for the first time and forgot all about vulcanized. They weren’t using our traditional looks or side stripe on the shoes. There were a hundred skate shoes on the wall of shops, and you couldn’t tell which ones were ours. I remember sitting in a meeting and telling everybody they were all full of shit.

‘These aren’t our shoes, guys! We used to make six million pairs of vulcanized shoes a year, and today we make less than a million!’ That was when we signed Geoff Rowley to come on board the skate team and help us get back to basics. Unfortunately, a couple times during the history of the company, I’ve had to call everybody out and tell them they were wrong. Thankfully, they listened. We released Geoff Rowley’s vulcanized shoe and started rebuilding Vans on classics and vulcanized, which is who we always were and what we always were.”

Geoff Rowley (professional skateboarder and Vans-endorsed athlete for 17 years): “I signed a contract with Vans and started to work with the design department on sketches for my first signature model. It was vulcanized, had the Vans side stripe and heel tab, had foxing stripe and the Vans original skateboard logo, and a primary color scheme. This was the opposite of everything Vans and the industry was pushing at the time, and it wasn’t easy to convince upper management that it was the right direction. This is when the fighting started, but the only person in the building that supported my design was Steve Van Doren. He believed in me, and I think he was quietly stoked that a skater had come in wanting to get back to his family’s roots.”

Create and support culture

Vans has invested in the communities it believes in by creating countless contest series, building world-class skateboarding facilities, and sponsoring events, films, and more. Its continued support of what matters has paid off in that its customers, ambassadors, and fans return the favor with fierce loyalty.

It’s what leads to things like Sean Penn hitting himself in the face with a Vans checkerboard sneaker in Fast Times at Ridgemont High or the longest-running concert series in America, the Vans Warped Tour, being recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The recent viral explosion of “Damn Daniel” and his appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show may have been an amazing accident, but Daniel wearing his white Vans in the first place certainly wasn’t. Neither was Kristen Stewart and her Vans footprints during the Twilight cast’s Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony. It’s placement and fandom you just can’t buy.

Steve Van Doren: “If we want to stick around, we have to stick with our roots, which are skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, and BMX. Fortunately, our parent company for the last 10 to 15 years, VF Corp., has been the bank. I don’t have to worry about money like I did in the early days. They’ve given me the tools. Instead of having a van, I’ve got motorhomes. I’m from Boston, so when I see Converse, who is in Boston, stepping it up in the skate game, I tell VF I want to build a skatepark that’ll be there for 20 years, because the kids there haven’t had a skatepark for 13. We just spent $3 million and put a skatepark in Huntington Beach because they didn’t have a skatepark either. Those are nice things that, thanks to our success, they’ve let us invest in. As well as continuing with the Vans Warped Tour, doing the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing, helping the Skateboarding Hall of Fame with their events, doing the Vans Pool Party for the last 11 years, and the new Vans Park Series, which is going to five countries and hopefully going to get park skating to the Olympics.

Five and a half years ago, we opened the House of Vans in New York and three years ago in London. In those two venues, kids come and get a place to skate. House of Vans is also host to lots of great music and events. It’s our clubhouse and we can do anything we want with it. All of the Vans events, except for the Vans Warped Tour, are free, and that’s just our feather in our cap so people know that we give a shit.

A lot of our skateboarders play music, and music is important to us. So Kevin Lyman and myself got together, and we started the Vans Warped Tour 22 years ago. Art is another thing. When we have skateboarding contests, we always try to have an art show because a lot of the skaters will travel, they’ll take some art with them, put it up, and sell it. They have a lot of different talents, and that’s how trends start.”

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Taka Hayashi (artist and Vans Vault designer since 2004): “Vans is basic, clean, and timeless. Our classic models have simple paneling, which gives plenty of room to paint, draw, and tweak on a pattern. It’s a perfect 3D canvas to create on. As a little kid back in the early ’80s, it was a treat to go into a Vans store and go through stacks of fabric swatch books and customize your favorite shoe model. There were so many graphic prints, woven fabrics, suede, leather, and canvas to choose from. That was such an innovative concept at the time. I feel very honored to be a part of a brand that embraces art, music, fashion, and skateboarding. I really enjoy working with other artists and seeing what they come up with. They motivate me to keep pushing design and art to the next level. It’s a never-ending cycle.”

Appoint the right leader

When we talk about doing the right thing and ask how Vans has successfully cemented its place in our culture, all roads inevitably circle back to Steve Van Doren.

Geoff Rowley: “Steve has dedicated his life to Vans and goes above and beyond to support pro skaters and skateboarding hard goods brands worldwide. He is the single most important person in our whole industry, and we all owe a lot to him for his relentless support, hard work, and dedication to skateboarding.

Steve Caballero: “Steve’s one of the main reasons I’ve stuck with Vans so long, because of who he is as a person and how caring and supportive he is of his riders.”

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Tony Alva: “He’s the ambassador of fun. He’s the guy who’s got our backs. He’s been the guy from day one. He enables us to make a living as professional skateboarders. Steve is like a big brother to all of us. He’s taken the money that he’s made and flexed it as a muscle for professional skateboarders. It’s a really positive muscle, and we can do great things with it.

Vans is the American dream story come true. It’s crazy that a little mom and pop family business that manufactured rubber in Anaheim with a small corner store is now a multi-billion-dollar company that makes shoes strictly for skateboarders. But since skateboarders are such trendsetters—always setting the pace for fashion, art, music, and all the things that kids are crazy about—the kids who don’t skate want to wear Vans too. It’s the same reason we wanted to wear them when we were kids. We wanted to wear them because the surfers wore them, and the surfers were the coolest guys in the neighborhood. They were the toughest, they got all the chicks, they were the hardest partiers, they were the dudes. Those were the guys we wanted to be like, and what did they wear? They wore Levi’s flares and they wore Vans.”

Steve Van Doren: “The skateboarders adopted us. I’ve been around the company since I was 10 years old—for 50 years. I’m very loyal to them because they gave us a reason to be, a reason besides just making sneakers.”
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