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Vans: A Brief History

  • Words by: Emilie von Unwerth
  • Images by: Vans Archives
  • File Under: Mens
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For over five decades, Vans has been designing and creating shoes for those who do: skaters and artists, punks and businesspeople. The brand is a connector between people from all generations and walks of life: a timeless yet perennially cool, accessible-to-anyone common currency.

Brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren, along with partners Gordon Lee and Serge Delia, opened the doors to the Van Doren Rubber Company—which housed the factory, atelier and storefront—in Anaheim, California in March 1966. That morning, twelve pairs of their #44 Deck Shoes—now known as the Authentic—were ordered, manufactured the same day on-site, and picked up in the evening.

“The number one thing my dad stressed was that you have to be a people person to succeed. You have to care about what you’re doing, love it or leave it—110 percent all the time, every day, and in every way you can.” Writes Steve Van Doren—son of Paul Van Doren and Vans’ Vice President—in the foreword to Vans: Off The Wall.

Initially, Vans gained notoriety for their custom shoes, charging a one dollar premium to take a third of a yard of any fabric that absorbed water (which was necessary for the vulcanizer) and make a pair of shoes with it in 19 days. “Business was tough those first six months. [My dad] opened 10 stores, and his accountant told him six of them were losers. His response? He needed 10 more losers—and went out and opened 10 more stores,” recalls Steve Van Doren.

When the skating movement began in the early ‘70s, guys like Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta started hanging around the Vans stores, attracted to the shoes for the rubber sole that would keep them on the board while still allowing for the agility required to pull off the laybacks and aerials they were pioneering.

“We would always wear out the shoes on our back feet faster from dragging them as a break or turning pivot, and we would wear the toes and heels out of the shoes all the time,” writes Tony Alva. He and Peralta asked Paul and Steve Van Doren to make them something that retained the gum-rubber sole but increase the padding around the ankle—and to make it bright.

The following decade, three more classics were added to the mix: the Old Skool, Classic Slip-Ons, and the Sk8-Hi.

In 1982, Sean Penn burst onto the screen as Jeff Spicoli wearing a pair of the now-iconic checkerboard Old Skool slip-ons. “When I finally saw how they were going to be used in the Fast Times at Ridgemont High billboard,” Steve Van Doren writes, “with Sean Penn wearing the shoes, and the soundtrack album with the checkerboard all over it, I was on it.” Vans PR manager Betty Mitchell sent 1000 pairs of the shoes to radio stations all over the country to give out when they played Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby” from the movie, and Vans went from a $20 million company to a $45 million one almost overnight.

“All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I'm fine.”
— Sean Penn, Fast Times at Ridgemont High

The company went through some rocky financial times in the ‘80s when it over-diversified its styles, but has come back with a vengeance in the decades since. By walking the line between icon and ever-changing, Vans has stayed fresh while never alienating the core skate cred that first made it a big deal.

As Doug Palladini, Vans Global Brand President, writes, “That collected dust of our history—so reviled by those fixated on the latest, the newest, the most cheaply made, brought to you the fastest—is in fact the very substance giving Vans what cannot be bought, copied, or otherwise appropriated.”

 

 

All quotes from Vans: Off the Wall (50th Anniversary Edition) by Doug Pallidini. Copyright 2016, Abrams Books, New York.

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