Vans’ founder Paul Van Doren died earlier this month at the age of 90. The company he built has been around for more than fifty years. That’s positively geriatric in streetwear terms and yet the brand manages to be as culturally central as ever to the youthful demographic that’s long been its bread and butter. Just look at the numbers: Since 2004 when it was acquired by VF (the company that also owns Dickies, Timberland, The North Face, and Supreme), Vans’ revenues have increased more than tenfold and the brand currently books roughly $4 billion in sales annually.
But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing — or skating, as the case may be.
Van Doren founded the company with this his brother James, along with partners Gordon Lee and Serge Delia, on March 16, 1966. It was originally called the Van Doren Rubber Company, located on 704 E. Broadway in Anaheim, California. But despite Vans’ beachside SoCal rep, the man that gave it its name hailed from New England.
Paul Van Doren was born near Boston in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1930. After dropping out of high school at age 16, he made a living for a while working at a race track and in pool halls. His mother wasn’t having it, though, and got him a job at the Randolph Rubber Manufacturing Company, a Massachusetts-based operation that made canvas sneakers. Mrs Van Doren clearly had the right idea — Paul worked there for twenty years and went on to found one of the world’s most iconic sneaker brands.
Vans’ original business strategy was simple: make good quality sneakers for a low price right on site. By locating both manufacture and retail right there on Anaheim’s Broadway, they were able to boost their profits by cutting out wholesalers. Twelve people showed up on the first day. They could pick from three different models which sold for $4.49 for men’s and $2.29 for women’s. The brothers had only made display models at that point, so you had to pick the kind you wanted and collect them later that same day.
Without skateboarding, Vans may never have made it out of California. After the shoes began to take off, Van Doren quickly opened ten further locations, most of which weren’t profitable. Rather than closing up shop, however, Van Doren kept them open and for about a decade just managed to keep the business afloat. Luckily, Vans had developed a following among local surfers and skateboarders who liked the grip offered by their hardy, diamond-patterned tread. Since their business model already meant that customers could readily give feedback and request custom details, Vans was well-positioned to make a shoe based on skaters’ custom preferences, which is exactly what they did. Working in collaboration with skater pioneers Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta (of Dogtown and the Z-Boys fame, a film whose production Vans aided), Vans got down to making shoes specifically with skaters in mind.
In 1976, this birthed the #95 or Era, a version of their earlier #44 deck shoes (now known as Authentics) but with a padded ankle collar, two-tone red and blue colouring, and the famous ‘Off the Wall’ logo. The next two years brought two subsequent — and equally classic — designs in the form of the Old Skool, which debuted the iconic Sidetripe, and the Sk8-Hi, their first high-top shoe.
This rapid rollout gives some sense of the demand for these shoes among skateboarding kids. Setting the tone for the future of the sport, Vans offered free shoes and sponsorship to professional skaters like Alva and Peralta, garnering a cult following along the way. By the early 1980s, they had as many as 70 stores open across the US. However, their customer were still mostly skaters, surfers and BMXers. That would all change, though, when Universal Studios came calling.
They were producing a film called Fast Times at Ridgemont High and one of its actors, a young man named Sean Penn, felt that his character should wear Vans. Penn, who had grown up skating and surfing in Santa Monica, was playing a stoner surfer named Jeff Spicoli and Penn’s childhood sneakers seemed the perfect fit for the role. So Vans sent along a recently-minted pair of their Slip-Ons featuring a checkerboard pattern (inspired by the patterns skaters had been drawing on their shoes for years) and the rest became film and sneaker-buying history. The movie was a hit, grossing over $27 million — six times its original budget — and led to a windfall in Vans sales. Their revenues shot up from $20 million to $45 million dollars in 1982, the year of the film’s release.
It wasn’t all good news, though. The early 80s saw another period of expansion that proved too rapid, causing the company to file for bankruptcy in 1984. Four years later, the Van Dorens sold the business. It was a period of ill fortune that meant Vans lost ground among its key demographic to brands like Nike and Jordan for years to come.
Regardless, they managed to remain relevant to their core fanbase through various sponsorships, like the inaugural Warped Tour and the first Triple Crown of Skateboarding contest. In 1996 they embarked on their first collaboration with a Supreme, then still a new-kid-on-the-block NYC skate shop, on a series of co-branded Old Skools. This got the ball rolling on countless high-profile future collabs with just about every brand, designer, and property imaginable, including Karl Lagerfeld, Takashi Murakami, Public Enemy, the Beatles, Star Wars, The Simpsons — you name it. In 2003 they launched Vault, their entrée into high fashion and premium sneakers, and in 2004 came Vans Customs, essentially an online version of the Van Doren’s original shop.
Today the brand is stronger than ever. It continues to be popular among younger people, though no longer just with skate-, surf-, and snowboarders. In the wake of Sean Penn and Jeff Spicoli, Vans became costume stapes on shows like The O.C., Big Bang Theory, and Stranger Things. Julia Roberts even sports a pair in Notting Hill. Famous folks also regularly wear them IRL, some of whom include Kristen Stewart, Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, Kanye West, and Justin Bieber, as well as NBA players like Nick Young and Jordan Clarkson. Frank Ocean even wore a pair to the White House to meet President Barack Obama. Not bad, you might say, for some canvas kicks flogged by a high school dropout.
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