Steve Van Doren was in town recently as part of the annual Vans Warped Tour. From helping his father Jim Van Doren (founder of Vans) in the showrooms as a toddler to managing retail stores in his teens, Steve proved that he had a natural flair for marketing and PR that money can't buy. It might have something to do with his penchant for feeding fast food to the masses. After all, nothing breaks the ice like a waffle on a stick! We caught up with Steve just before Bowlarama went down to find out why Vans still seems like a family company.
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY JOSH ROBENSTONE
Hi Steve, first of all, welcome to Australia.
Thanks! This is my fifth year back here back in Bondi, but probably my tenth time in Australia between the early days of the Vans Warped Tour in the ‘90s and now. It's one of my favourite places in the world, and when we bring new riders here, they don't wanna go home!
I bet! You're described as an ambassador for the brand. Did this job exist or did you create it for yourself?
Yeah! It worked out really well because my dad started Vans in '66 and I've been doing it for 44 years, from being a child watching him build the stores to helping out in my teens. I actually got involved in making the shoes and was put in charge of a warehouse in my late teens. Then I got married and moved to retail sales and was in charge of that from the ‘80s until the ‘90s. When my dad sold the company, I basically started doing marketing. My dad would never give me any money for it though, so we never really had marketing except for me going to skate events with Caballero and Alva and handing out flyers and stickers. When we were purchased by another company, we changed from being a manufacturing company (which made shoes in the US) and from '95 on Kevin Lyman started the Vans Warped Tour. So this is the 16th year for the Vans Warped Tour in the States, seeing 630,000 kids every summer... I've been on the tour every year. I'm getting to know all the bands and getting to meet the musicians and stuff... The Tour now includes skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, wakeboarding, motocross, BMX... It all keeps me on a roll.
What about competitive hot dog eating?
Yeah, hot dog eating, right! That's where it all came from, I wanted to meet everybody. I mean, I knew our riders but how do you meet 330 snowboarders when they have goggles, helmets and jackets? So I brought a grill out and started BBQ'ing and they had to take the stuff off to eat, and I'd shake hands and get to meet ‘em. So every event for the last, like, 14 years, I normally bring the grill out. We do the Downtown Showdown with 3000 people there. I make 3000 hamburgers or hotdogs and get a chance to talk to everybody instead of just sitting in the stands and meeting, like, five. So it's kind of in the tradition. It's not that I like food or anything - which I do, (laughs) - but it's just a way that I kind of try and make you feel like Van Doren's still involved.
And what does that entail?
To me, to do that, you have to be involved, you have to be there. You have to be on site. You have to talk to people and listen to what the riders say. ‘Cos there's no events unless you have riders. If you don't have the backing of the skaters and surfers and snowboarders and BMX guys and motocross, you don't have an event. And as we've been trying to promote our brand through Vans Warped Tour events we've got to have a friendly alliance with the riders. I know to take care of them first before anything else. And sponsors who've worked with us over the years, of course you want to take care of them because they're tied into your brand.
How did the title ‘Vans Ambassador' come about?
The ambassador title I gave myself because everywhere I go, I'm going to have a good time. Last night I took everyone out to the Flying Squirrel and we got to sit down and have beers and talk to them about what's going on in their lives. I'm looking forward to being at the Bondi Bowl here on Saturday because I get a chance to talk to customers and media as well as get to watch the best bowl riders in the world. Every one of ‘em is here. Young guns that are coming up too, we push them. We've got a really nice line up of about 40 competitors that are going to be out here on Saturday. But the main thing is if I come to a country that I get to know what their culture's like, you know. Like I know pavlova. (Australian desert, kinda like a meringue cake)
Well I haven't really grown fond of that one.
I haven't met an American yet who has!
Yeah I'm kinda passing on the mayonnaise with fries, you know... But by being an ambassador, I listen a lot, I look a lot to see what the kids are wearing and if I see any trends going on...
What's going on at the moment? All I see is black vulcanised shoes.
I know, I know! Which is nice in a way, it's kinda like meat and potatoes, bread and butter. I mean I was talking to my dad who turned 80 this year, who started our company Vans, and the shoe that was our number one back in '66 is the shoe that's number one today! With the economy being so crappy for the last 15-18 months we just had our best year ever, so you can't complain about that. People can afford a canvas shoe that they can throw in the wash. They know what they're getting, and at the same time it's our roots, it's our strength. I'm just done seeing the 2011 line that will be coming out and there are a few nice new styles and colours coming out, as well as a few new collaborations.
You know, I saw drawings of Rolling Stone and I'm pretty excited, I hope they make the cut. I saw drawings on the wall, no shoes yet but that's kind of exciting. There's some new styles like the mystery Chukka which is a style we haven't had for 40 years and it's doing very, very well. They have a new shoe that's called the 106 that's a little inspired by that. We also have the Off the Wall collection and then we have a Cali collection, two new collections that are more inspired by Vault, which are our top-of-the-line shoes that go to boutiques, but they'll take it into more channels of distribution. I've been seeing a lot of really, really cool solids right now, focusing on textures and materials. We like it when prints sell but I like it when vulcanised sells. You know, as many things as they do with new skate shoes, last night I saw the new Anthony Anthony Van Engelen on one of the guys, which was really nice but really plain. And you know, there's not a lot of lines to things now, it's kind of stepping back from the athletic-inspired, puffy shoe and we're taking advantage of that, and that's why Vans has been so hot for the past few years.
You're not bringing back those breakdance shoes are you?
Not yet! (laughs). Actually, we have about 120 stores in the USA and in our marketing office we have guys that do a video every month and put it in our stores. I'm in charge of going through my archives and retrieving old tapes and there was a breakdance video which I put in last month's video, it was sick! We had three breakdance teams in '83-'84. It's funny ‘cos I know that back then when checkerboard was popular, the follow-on was neon, and that's exactly what's happening now. There's a lot of bright stuff coming out.
And how has Vans handled being bought by a big corporation?
Since VF Corp bought us six years ago we've tripled our sales and grown, so things are working well that way. It is a public company. We're owned by a gigantic, huge corporation. But I do as much as I can try to keep it like a little family thing, even though it's much bigger than that. It's nice that they let me do that because I think it's the best place for me to be. I'm always an advocate for authenticity, we have a new campaign that's out right now, it's up across the US, and it has a lot of root elements in it. Like it shows a picture of a crazy stage diver at a Vans Warped Tour. And one of ‘em says ‘The Godfather' with a picture of me on one side with a guy with a big mohawk. And it's got a lot of things with surf, skate and snowboarding that's about our roots.
Speaking of roots, seems to me, watching you guys last night, you've been with Cab (Steve Caballero) for 18 years or something ...
20! 20 years with a signature shoe.
And even though technically it's not a family business anymore, there's definitely a family sort of feeling amongst you guys as well. What do you put that down to? Because not many companies have that.
Yeah, that's one of the things that kinda gets back to grassroots. That's why I travel with ‘em. I've known them all for years. I know Alva really, really well. Stevie's about two years younger than me. Then you get Geoff Rowley, we've had a shoe with him for 10 years. I took him on a couple of trips with me, last one was to South America in a motorhome, cruising across the country for four or five days. I think it's real important that they know we really care about ‘em. And the only way you can do that is spend time. A lot of executives in many companies never come out and mingle with the guys that are building their brand.
Yeah it's all numbers to them. We have a new president, Kevin, who does an awesome job. At the anniversary party of the Warped Tour, he was in the pits. So he's the closest thing to my inspiration, because he enjoys music and stuff but he interacts and comes down and finds out what's going on with different sports. Anybody who doesn't take the time away from their schedule can never understand it. My wife of 34 years just knows that's where my passion is. I've been lucky that we've got really quality people, we don't have to change ‘em every two years so it means there's some consistency there. One thing about us is that when we're trying to get younger riders, they can look at us and think, ‘If I go with that company, I'm going to be there a long time'. As long as they understand what the older generation knows, like giving interviews. Yesterday they had five hours worth of interviews, they'd skate for 45 minutes then come off and do a 10-minute interview. All day. Or sign autographs. We did a Vans book last year because there were a lot of different stories and a lot of people that have been with Vans for over 40 years, and we did a book signing, Cab and me. We did like five or six in different cities around the US and every time we were getting three hours-worth of people. There's a lot of people that respect and know us. So being part of that and creating that, putting the time in, it pays off I think.
Being on the road so much, you strike me as the sort of guy that might enjoy a prank or a practical joke...
Or maybe you're on the other end of some as well?
Yeah! I am sometimes. My daughter is 32, and we'll be doing a show on NBC, or a BMX or skate event and all of a sudden I'll get pied. My daughter will get some hanger-on to do it; ‘Go pie my dad, he'll love it!'. We make it a good time.
I think it's going to be an even better year for Vans. Everything's going your way, as far as trends.
The best thing is we have all of our designers travelling the world, finding out what sort of things are going on, and although I see many copies out there of Vans, that's keeping the trend going too. Hopefully our shoes always fit and perform better than the copies.
How's your collection of Hawaiian shirts going?
Good! Actually I got a new one on today. But the one person who's got more Hawaiian shirts than me is Weird Al Yankovic.
Oh yeah. He'll come down to the warehouse once a month and I'll show him where all the seconds and discontinued things are and he'll just sit there for hours. When I was in Australia last year, I went to a fabric shop, ‘cos when I go somewhere I like getting some fabric and then I go and I make my own shoes ‘cos I like having something that nobody else has. So there was this fuzzy stuff I found up here in this place in Bondi Junction, rainbow-coloured, fuzzy, hair sort of stuff...
Sounds like Weird Al, he's fuzzy...
Ha! Well I made a pair of high tops out of it and Al called in - and he wears the same size shoe as me - and I saw he was looking at them, so I said, ‘Okay, alright, I'm giving these up ‘cos I can only wear these on Halloween or something anyway man...', he loves them. He's a good guy. He's got something like a 100 plus pairs of Vans and he's got 300 Hawaiian shirts.
The pair you had on last night were really cool. Are they going into production?
They are, they're actually a Vault shoe. A guy by the name of Donnie Miller used to work for us in our skate area and he's a designer. The Donnie Miller slip-on we called the Slip Up because it was painted to look like a lace-up. So all the laces and stitching were painted on but it's a slip-on. I went up there for the launch party in my motorhome with my waffle machine and I was making waffles out the front and about 300 people stopped by to check out the new Slip Ups.
You never stop having fun do you?
No, I gotta keep doing that... That's another food thing though. At the tradeshow last month we made 350 waffles. What it does is it stinks the whole place out, and everybody's like, ‘Ooh, it smells like waffles, what is it?' and then they follow it ‘til they get to us. We say hi, give them the waffle on a stick which looks like the sole of our shoe except on the stick it says Vans, and in two minutes I can make six waffles on sticks. Just another way to say hello to people and break the ice.
Do you think you'll be working at Vans forever?
I guess until the day I don't feel this way anymore I'll keep working here. Some day I gotta have a restaurant though. I gotta talk to VF and tell them, I think we gotta have a Vans restaurant that's a combination of my favourite things in the entire world. A combination of In-N'-Out Burger with eight layer cakes and these special chips that I've had once... You know Hard Rock, with music? Think of that with all the sports that we do. But it's gotta be a fun place, like every three months I'm changing the face of it. So when somebody on Friday night says; ‘Where are we going to go eat?' they say, ‘Let's go down to Steve's!' They're gonna be dancing on the tables and having a good time. Everybody tells me you lose your ass in restaurants but who knows. I'm 54 and having a good time.
You might have to retire to a desk job or something, just kind of take it easy.
That'll never happen, I like travelling too much. I just gotta get my wife to travel with me more, that's all.
READ OUR MEGA-FEATURE WITH STEVE VAN DOREN HERE.