The Vans Story
The Vans Story
- Words Jacob Victorine and Asaf Rotman
- Date April 13, 2021
From 2008 to 2016, Vans tripled its revenue from $750 million to 2.3 billion, an unprecedented figure even within the sneaker industry. Now, the multi-billion dollar entity is not only the predominant force in skate culture but a major player in sportswear worldwide. Although Vans currently boasts mounting profits, the California sneaker brand has far from a smooth history. The company has filed for bankruptcy, closed factories and changed ownership multiple times in its 55-year history. In many ways, at least up until recently, Vans has survived in spite of itself. Despite questionable business choices and many failed ventures, due to a cult loyal following—and significant help from a slew of iconic skaters—the brand transformed from a casual footwear manufacturer into a symbol of American counterculture and independence.
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Brothers Paul Van Doren and James Van Doren, along with partners Gordon Lee and Serge Delia, officially opened The Van Doren Rubber Company, now known as Vans, on March 16, 1966, at 704 E. Broadway in Anaheim, California. Both Paul and James were born in Massachusetts where they worked for the Randolph Rubber Manufacturing Company—Paul for 20 years and James for 10. The first footwear manufacturer to produce a skateboarding sneaker, Randolph debuted the Randy “720” in 1965. The Randy “720” was nearly identical to a Keds sneaker, except it featured a reinforced “TUFF TOE ’N HEEL” made with “RANDYPRENE” rubber for additional traction since, at the time, skateboards lacked grip tape. The Randy “720” was also the official sneaker of the National Skateboard Championship Inc. and was worn by some of the competitors in the 1965 International Skateboard Championships in Anaheim, California.
In 1964, Paul and James had moved to Garden Grove, California to run a Randolph Rubber factory and, in 1965, they left Randolph to found their namesake company. Unlike their previous employer, the brothers hoped to circumvent wholesale and cut out retailers entirely. Instead, they would sell footwear directly to the public in order to drastically increase profits. The same year, Paul, James and their business partners built a manufacturing plant, which included a 400-square foot retail space—featuring a sign that read “House of Vans”—to sell their sneakers. On the company’s first day of business in 1966, 12 customers showed up to choose from three styles of sneakers—including the #44 Deck Shoe, now known as the Authentic. When they first launched, the men’s models sold for $4.49 while the women’s sold for $2.29, and as the brothers had only produced display models, when a purchase was made the sneakers were manufactured the same day and available for pick up that evening. With little traffic and meager savings, Paul knew they couldn’t afford to advertise for very long and so he hoped to quickly attract customers with the company’s thick-soled, American-made sneakers.
Paul’s plan worked almost immediately. Customers began to line up to purchase Vans sneakers, and the company made the decision to open additional retail locations, starting with a stand-alone store in Costa Mesa, and quickly adding nine more stores, only four of which were profitable. Although Paul’s accountant advised him and his partners to shut down the stores that weren’t making money, Paul decided to do the opposite. He reasoned that by opening even more locations, Vans could produce a higher volume of sneakers which would in turn decrease production costs and increase profits, thereby making up for the failing stores. According to legend, over the next year the company opened a new store practically every week with Paul scouting locations on Monday, signing a lease on Tuesday, remodeling on Wednesday, adding shoe racks on Thursday and displays on Friday, hiring a store manager on Saturday, and training staff on Sunday. Despite his rapid-fire strategy, Paul’s business model was moderately successful at best. For the first 10 years, the company barely stayed afloat.
Vans took small, at times innovative, steps during its first decade in business. After receiving complaints from customers that the diamond tread on its sneakers cracked along the outsole near the ball of the foot, the company introduced the patented waffle sole for improved durability. In terms of customization, Vans was decades ahead of its time. As manufacturing and retail were so closely intertwined, customers could literally design their shoes themselves. If a potential buyer brought in a viable fabric, Vans would make them a unique pair of shoes literally overnight.
Still, even with innovations in next-level personalization, the company did not truly gain its footing until the mid-’70s when it made the decision to start producing skateboard sneakers. Numerous California surfers and skaters were already wearing Vans, including Tony Alva and Stacey Peralta, who approached the company in 1975 with the idea of producing a custom sneaker made specifically for skateboarding. Utilizing Paul and James’ experience with the Randolph Rubber Manufacturing Company over 10 years earlier, Vans came up with the #95. Now known as the Era, the model was released on March 18, 1976, and featured a padded ankle collar, a diamond waffle sole and the company’s now famous “Off the Wall” logo.
While the sneakers were produced by Vans, Alva and Peralta were the driving force behind their success. The pair was a core part of the legendary Zephyr Competition Team (aka Z-Boys), who were originally sponsored by Jeff Ho Surfboards and Zephyr Productions, a groundbreaking surf shop in Venice Beach (aka “Dogtown”). Not only did Alva and Peralta give Vans instant street cred, they also helped design the sneakers, providing inspiration for colorways and the infamous logo.
As the story goes, Alva was skating an empty pool and caught air while still gripping his skateboard. Amazed, Z-Boys co-founder Skip Engblom said, “Man, you just went off the wall.” The “off the wall” phrase was quickly adopted by other skaters, eventually making its way onto the Vans logo once the Van Doren brothers became aware of it. According to Paul’s son Steve Van Doren, who began working for Vans as a 10-year-old and is still with the company today, Alva also inspired the company’s first two-tone shoes: “Actually, the reason the first two-tone shoes came out was because Tony Alva came in one time, needed a left shoe and didn’t care about the color, so ended up wearing one navy blue shoe and one red shoe. So, the first two-tone shoe we came out with was navy blue and red,” he said to Vice in 2011.
In the late-’70s, Vans fully embraced its predominantly-skater customer base, introducing three additional skate-friendly models in the span of two years. In 1977, the company released the #36, aka the Old Skool, which featured leather panels for increased durability and the debut of the Sidestripe.
Originally known as the “jazz stripe,” the logo had humble beginnings—it started out as one of Paul’s haphazard doodles—but eventually played a major role, helping Vans compete against the easily identifiable logos of sneaker brands like Nike. That same year, Vans introduced the #98, aka the Classic Slip-On and, in 1978, the brand released the #38, aka the SK8-Hi, a groundbreaking high top that helped protect skaters’ ankles while simultaneously showcasing the recently introduced Sidestripe logo.
Vans got an additional boost in 1980 when Universal Studios called to ask for sneakers for a movie it was producing, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. One of the young actors in the film, Sean Penn, had grown up surfing and skating in Santa Monica and told the producers that his character—the stoned surfer Jeff Spicoli—needed to wear Vans for the film. The brand sent Universal a few pairs of sneakers, including a recently redesigned pair of Slip-Ons featuring a checkerboard design inspired by the patterns young skaters had been drawing on their white Vans for years. The film performed well at the box office, grossing over $27 million—six times its budget—and became a cult classic. In 1982, the year the film was released, Vans saw its revenue more than double to $45 million dollars from $20 million the year before.
The early-’80s marked a major turning point for Vans, albeit not a great one. Instead of riding the skate and surf wave, the Van Doren brothers and their partners seemingly forgot what made their brand successful and tried to rapidly expand into as many markets as possible. The brand produced sneakers for everything from running and breakdancing to football and strangely enough skydiving. In 1984, only two years after the release of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Vans filed for bankruptcy. Paul replaced his brother James as President and made major cost-cutting changes, including notifying employees that they wouldn’t receive a raise for three years and eliminating the brand’s marketing budget. Miraculously, Vans emerged from its $12 million debt and Chapter 11 bankruptcy three years later, paying back every cent it owed.
Although the company survived its terrible business decisions, the slashed marketing budget had its own shortcomings. Between 1984 and 1987, Vans missed a number of opportunities that allowed other brands like Vision Street Wear, and even Nike, to poach crucial skate customers. For example, in Stacey Peralta’s groundbreaking 1987 skate movie, The Search for Animal Chin, all the members of the legendary Bones Brigade—including Lance Mountain, Mike McGill, and Steve Caballero—skate in Jordan Is. Tony Hawk wore Vans Sk8-His, but only because he’d had a pair on ice. It’s doubtful that Jordan Is would have had as much screen time—or even been in the film at all—if Vans had had the marketing budget to send the skaters pairs during the turbulent time.
In 1988, Vans introduced its first signature skate shoe, the Steve Caballero—a padded high top similar to the Sk8-Hi—as well as Mountain Edition sneakers constructed using weather-resistant materials. That same year, as the brand cruised back into financial solvency, venture investment firm McCown De Leeuw & Co. bought Vans for $74 million and Paul and his partners retired; the firm took the company public three years later.
While the acquisition and IPO marked an end of the Van Doren era, their legacy of innovation—and collaboration with skaters—was still omnipresent. In 1992, Vans released one of its most iconic sneakers of all time, the Half Cab, a mid-top version of the Caballero featuring a padded tongue, suede upper and double stitching. A direct reflection of the skate community at the time, many skaters felt that while the additional padding was appreciated, the high-ankle was cumbersome and irritating. So, they began literally cutting off the top of the Caballero (Cab). In fact, it was Caballero himself who, after cutting down a few of his own pairs, approached Vans with the idea of producing a mid-top version. The result was one of the most successful skate sneakers of all time.
Throughout the rest of the ’90s and the early-2000s, McCown De Leeuw & Co. sought to reestablish Vans as a bastion of surf, skate, and counterculture, but Vans' reemergence was not without its road bumps. In January of 1995, the company laid off 450 employees. Five months later, it closed its manufacturing plant in Orange County and laid off an additional 1,000 workers, moving even more of its production overseas. Despite the layoffs, Vans sales increased and, that same year, the company sponsored the first Warped Tour, a summer rock festival featuring bands from Sublime to No Doubt. After being a sponsor for six years, Vans bought a controlling interest in the tour, and oversaw the production for its 25 year lifespan. Then, in 1996, the brand sponsored the inaugural Triple Crown of Skateboarding—a series of contests named after the surf competition that “crowns” the best surfer in the world. It was that same year that Vans collaborated with then-fledgling New York City skate shop Supreme on a series of co-branded Old Skools, the first of numerous collaborations between the two brands. The following year, Vans purchased the Triple Crown of Surfing—the very same it had named its skateboarding competition after—and by 2000 the Vans Triple Crown Series was broadcast on ESPN2 and included a bevy of action sports such as, BMX, wakeboarding, snowboarding, freestyle motocross and supercross.
In 2001, Vans assisted with the production of Dogtown and Z-Boys, Stacey Peralta’s film on the early days of skateboarding. Insistent on not missing another opportunity as it had with Peralta’s first film, Vans fully committed, and in doing so helped cement themselves into cinematic (and pop-culture) history. Narrated by another major player in Vans' history, Sean Penn, the film took the Audience Award and Best Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival. That same year, the company made deals with NBC Sports and Fox Sports Net to broadcast the Vans Triple Crown Series, rounding out a concerted push into media apart from its successful apparel business. Rather than push too far out of its comfort zone as it had in the past, Vans slowly made forays abroad and outside of skate and surf over the next two years. First, it sponsored its skate team on its first-ever international skate tour, “Pleased to Meet You,” helping to push the Vans narrative overseas. Then, it launched the Vault collection, “An offering of timeless footwear melding the worlds of high-fashion and premium design to Vans’ classic silhouettes,” in order to enter the premium sportswear market.
In 2004, Vans launched Vans Customs via its website. Akin to NikeID or adidas’ customization platform, Vans Customs allows online shoppers to apply hundreds of color and pattern combinations to various models—essentially an online version of what the Van Doren brothers offered from the very beginning. The year’s major milestone, however, was the purchase of the company for $396 by major fashion conglomerate VF Corporation. Much like the 1988 purchase of Vans by McCown De Leeuw & Co., the 2004 sale would mark a new stage in the company’s financial success. VF immediately funded an 18-month survey of 26,000 consumers in 12 countries which helped determine Vans target customers as “Expressive Creators,” and subsequently evolved its brand strategy. “When I was at the brand previously, we would say our pillars were art, music and street culture and they rested on a foundation that was action sports. When I returned to the brand [after Lucky Brand] I said I would like to turn this a little and think about art, music and action sports sitting on street culture, which is interchangeable with street fashion,” Kevin Baily, President of the Action Sports Division of VF corporation said to Business of Fashion in 2014. Vans also expanded its social media footprint with its digital Off the Wall station, with the aim of more authentically connecting with customers.
Increasing its physical footprint was a major goal, with Vans opening its first retail store in Shanghai in 2008 and a (since closed) House of Vans event space in Brooklyn, New York in 2010. The following year Vans significantly ramped up international expansion, through numerous channels including distribution in India, collaborating with international partner stores Off the Hook in Montreal, Vans by Fly Streetwear in Shanghai and opening the first company-owned Vans stores in Mexico. The same year they partnered up with streetwear shop Dave’s Quality Meats to open the Vans DQM General in SoHo, a storefront featuring limited releases and premium products.
Like fellow VF Corporation brands—The North Face, Dickies, Eastpak, Timberland and, most recently and notably, Supreme—joining the massive conglomerate provided its perks, including a vertically integrated supply chain, shared resources, and additional opportunities to collaborate (you can bet you will be seeing a lot more Supreme x Vans sneakers in the near future). More than just a more robust distribution network and ample resources, joining VF Corporation provided Vans with much needed market visibility. Now, rather than fight with competitors for increasingly competitive market segments, knowing what was coming down so many former competitors and rivals' pipelines ensured that Vans’ offering remained unique. While in the past the ready-to-wear segment or more niche sub-labels felt redundant, with the backing of VF corp. Vans is more unique and streamlined than ever.
Vans continued its upward trajectory into the 2010s, not only expanding but doubling down on research. Apart from the massive 3,000sqm House of Vans location in London (opened in 2014) under Waterloo station and an immersive 330sqm store in the high-fashion district of Apgujeong in Seoul, Korea, Vans also renewed its dedication to skate shoe technology. In 2012, the brand introduced UltraCush Litetechnology in its LXVI footwear line, “a custom blend of foams designed to provide superlight cushioning” and WAFFLECUP, the first-ever vulcanized cupsole, meant to increase the sneakers’ support and durability while simultaneously offering better board feel.
By 2012, Vans had made its way from a street necessity to high fashion commodity. Then Céline creative director Phoebe Philo began regularly wearing slip-ons and even debuted a Céline version made with python and ponyskin, opening the high-fashion floodgates for other brands from Saint Laurent to Givenchy to produce similar homages. It was not only Philo at Céline that recognized the power of the Slip-On. Her eventually successor Hedi Slimane too was a fan, so much so that his take on both the Slip-On and Authentic became collection staples during his celebrated tenure at Saint Laurent Paris from 2012 to 2016. Today, with ’90s and early-2000s skate style a key reference point for most menswear collections, every brand from Maison Margiela to MIHARAYASUHIRO includes some sort of Vans homage, the latter’s comically thick-soled “Authentic” being one of the most hyped fashion sneakers in recent memory.
Not only serving as inspiration, in the past decade Vans has become a regular fashion collaborator, particularly in Japan where its Slip-Ons made in partnership with Nepenthes—first at Engineered Garments and more recently with Needles—WTAPS and even Undercover helped cement a quickly growing interest throughout the country. Of course, between artist, streetwear, fashion and retailer exclusives the sheer amount of Vans collaborations is endless, but the fact that a half-century old brand has managed to penetrate nearly every facet of culture speaks volumes to its growth and marketing following the VF Corporation acquisition.
In 2016, Vans celebrated its 50th anniversary with a series of House of Vans parties and a special 50th-anniversary edition of the Authentic featuring the phrase “Off the Wall Family,” which the company distributed to its 9,000 employees. Last year, Vans opened a new 180,000-square-foot corporate headquarters in Costa Mesa with skateboarders in mind—all the floors are concrete so the entire space can be skated.
In the five years since, business has continued to boom, and—the pandemic notwithstanding—Vans today is a major player in footwear proper, up in conversations alongside Nike, adidas and so on. No longer on shaky ground and boasting robust sales in key sectors, Vans has recently embraced a new frontier: social justice. Most notably with the company’s “creator” series, Vans has tapped individuals from various backgrounds, subcultures and socio-economic status to add their personal touches to iconic Vans silhouettes. More than a simple collaboration, this on-going initiative is akin to Nike’s celebrated Doerbecher series, raising funds and awareness for the Portland, Oregon children’s hospital. Unlike that laser-focused project however, the creator series highlights everything from LatinX communities to creating regional specific sneakers only available at certain music venues to support black record stores. Though the lifestyle and fashion capsules which range from a “bandana” pack to Wacko Maria continue to drop on a nearly daily basis, it is these more unique, grass-roots projects that are defining the conglomerate’s vision for the future.
In 2021, Vans launched Channel 66, a livestream television network broadcasting around the globe with programs ranging from world music DJ sets to surfing and skate competitions. Essentially a one-stop shop for all things that encompass the Vans universe, this new endeavour is the company's effort to tackle a new forefront—independent media and streaming. With daily news coverage and live action sports broadcasts, it is the first venture of its kind and while off to a rocky start (streaming numbers are somewhat trivial still), the direction feels promising. In fact, it’s precisely this ability to maintain relevance that makes Vans feel so special. Even after five decades catering to the skate and surf community, the billion dollar corporation still feels like an integral part of these respective subcultures. Even in snowboarding and BMX, where the company is a relatively new presence, it has still managed to foster the support and acknowledgement of those respective communities. For a company that releases lighter-capped sneakers with luxury streetwear label 1017 Alyx 9SM one day to then go ahead and drop a signature sneaker with Jimmy Gorecki or Anthony Van Engelen a few months later may seem like an attempt to be everything for everyone, but with a focus on authenticity, community and—most notably—functional product, Vans has managed to ingratiate itself within nearly every facet of modern culture. Today, wearing a pair of Vans is just as likely mindless as it is a style or cultural statement, which is precisely what makes the company work. No matter the consumer, Vans finds a way to connect.
Will Vans’ recent, and significant, growth lead to enduring success, unlike the company’s haphazard attempts in the ’60s and ’80s? VF Corporation seems to think so: “We are still under-distributed—even in the US—and just taking that into consideration, we don’t see an end to our growth […] We do believe this brand has a very broad and long runway ahead of us if we continue to activate it,” Kevin Baily said to Business of Fashion. While Baily’s confidence feels a bit disconcerting considering Vans’ past blunders, the situation seems different this time around. Not only has the brand attained global recognition that it could only dream of in previous decades—just glance one of the many 2017 articles tracking the ubiquity of the Old Skool—but Vans also has the resources and financial leverage of a major fashion conglomerate to recover from any small missteps. For a brand that has billed itself as an authentic product of surf and skate cultures for forty of its fifty-plus years, there is some irony to its current success; while Vans can’t claim the authenticity it once could as an independent brand, it’s doubtful it would still exist today without the help of skaters and corporations alike.