The History of Vans: Steve Van Doren Interview
I’ve found there are two common ways people remember Southern California. One is tales of traffic snarls, tourist traps, fast food and Disneyland. The other is Hollywood, Rodeo Drive and cosmetic enhancements. For me, it’s always been the simple, everyday icons the locals have grown up with and take for granted: endless sunshine, double doubles (animal style) and Wahoo’s Fish Tacos.
These were the happy thoughts I had in my head as I strolled down Flinders Street in Melbourne on the way to learn more about another SoCal legend – the sneaker company known as Vans. I was about to interview Steve Van Doren, whose father co-founded the company in 1966. Having spent most of his life immersed in the business, this was a history lesson straight from the horse’s mouth
1966: The Birth of the Van Doren Rubber Company
Paul Van Doren was born in 1930 and grew up in the Boston area. When he reached the eighth grade, he realised he didn’t like school and promptly left. He had a passion for horses and at age 14 he made his way to the race track where he was known as ‘Dutch the Clutch’. For a buck he would give you odds on the race. Paul’s mother couldn’t stand the fact her son wasn’t working or going to school. She dragged him into the shoe factory where she worked and got him a job sweeping the factory floor. This was to define the young Paul Van Doren’s future.
In 20 years, Paul worked his way up the ranks to become vice president at Randy’s, a Boston-based shoe manufacturer. Randy’s was well known at the time and made canvas shoes for Bob Cousy, the flashy Boston Celtics legend who was later voted one of the top 50 NBA players of all time.
During the early 60s, Randy’s had become the third-largest manufacturer of shoes in the US. But they had a factory in Gardenvale, California, that was losing a million dollars a month. Paul Van Doren, his brother Jim Van Doren, and longtime friend Gordon Lee were given the task of straightening out the factory. After eight months, they turned the West Coast factory around and it was doing better than the one back in Boston.
Three months later, Paul Van Doren sat his five kids down and announced he was quitting his job to start a new shoe company. ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to be fine!’ he said to his children, who weren’t at all concerned. Their dad was fanatical about cleaning and they were hoping this meant they only had to wash his car every second day instead of every day.
Paul had been making shoes for most of his life and the most he ever saw the company make was a dime a pair – and they were making hundreds of thousands of shoes. Van Doren knew the retailer was the one making all the cash. His dream was to have his own factory and his own retail stores. He was a great businessman, his brother Jim was an amazing engineer and their friend Gordon was an excellent manufacturing manager. Together they formed the Van Doren Rubber Company with Serge D’Elia who had been supplying shoe uppers from Japan to the US.
The company was formed with Paul and Serge owning 40 per cent each, and Jim and Gordon owning 10 per cent each. It took a year to set up the factory at 704 East Broadway in Anaheim. It was built from scratch using old machinery they bought from all over the US. Since 1900, there had been only three companies that had manufactured vulcanised footwear in the US: Randy’s, Keds and Converse. Now there was Vans.
So when did Vans open the doors for business?
Well, they were building the factory throughout 1965 and they had ‘Opening January!’ painted on the front, but it wasn’t ready. This was the year of Maxwell Smart and Get Smart, so they had ‘Would you believe February?’ added to the sign. It actually opened, I believe, on the first day of March, 1966. The factory, the office and the retail store were all located at 704 East Broadway.
The way they had the company set up was unique at the time. How did it all work?
The very first day my dad had probably 10 racks with empty boxes on them. Blue boxes were for men, orange boxes were for boys, red boxes were for kids and green boxes were for women. My dad was always a systems guy. If you’re looking for men’s shoes, they were in the blue boxes, so you don’t have to go any further than that.
The first day they open the doors, 16 people came in and they had a sample of all the styles. We didn’t even have names, we had numbers. Style #44 was our authentic deck shoe. In the #44, my dad had navy blue, white, loden green and red. We didn’t have black at first – it became our bestseller in later years.
The women’s styles for Vans were smaller styles in the same deck shoes. We had a lace-up, we had a two eyelet, we had a slip-on and the styles were called #16, #19 and style #20 respectively. Then we had a leather deck shoe, a leather boat shoe, style #46, and a canvas boat shoe, style #45. These were the original styles with children’s shoes called style #15. The original price on the shoes was $2.29 for women and #44s were $4.49.
My dad had never been in retail before, so it was new for him. He could basically look at your foot and say, ‘Hey you’re eight and a half!’ so they had a shtick to make the customers feel good. They would then find out what style they wanted and what colour they wanted. Basically, those first 16 pairs had to be made that day, and the customers came back the next day to pick up their shoes, just because they wanted to get open so quick. They started filling the boxes in the store and by the third or fourth day they had filled them in.
How did the idea of making custom shoes come about?
One day a lady came in and said, ‘That’s a nice pink but I really want a brighter pink!’ and then she picked up the yellow shoe and said, ‘That’s a nice yellow but it really is too light!’ My dad thought to himself, ‘For crying out loud, I can’t afford to carry five different colours of pink. So he said, ‘Lady, why don’t you get a piece of fabric, whatever colour pink you want, bring it back and I’ll make a shoe for you.’ So it was almost the first day that they started charging extra to do custom shoes.
In the 60s, we had Catholic schools and made shoes out of their plaid uniforms. Plus we were making shoes for all the cheerleaders and drill teams all over Southern California. It was a big business for Vans.
What was the original design concept for the Vans #44 shoe?
Similar to what my dad had made before. He was too cheap to spend on marketing and his whole concept was to make, with my uncle Jim, the moulds for the waffle soles twice as thick as PF Flyers, thicker than any shoe out there. We used ten-duck canvas, which is really strong. We’d use nylon thread instead of cotton and the compound was pure crepe rubber on the outsole, so it was going to outlast anything. My dad’s whole philosophy was to make shoes like Sherman tanks, they were really built tough and you’d have to tell your friends about it. We had a sign from the very first day: ‘Tell a friend about Vans’, and the marketing was my family and me passing out flyers. We did our very first store outside of the Anaheim area in Costa Mesa where we lived. The first manager was my mother.
So from that one store, how many did you grow into?
We opened 10 stores in 10 weeks! Within the first year and a half we had 50. My dad’s accountant, who was there for 24 years, said, ‘Paul, six of those 10 stores are losers.’ My dad says, ‘Well, I need 10 more losers then!’ because his whole thing was if he made one pair of shoes and it cost him $10,000 for all the manufacturing, it was $10,000 a pair. If he made 1000 pairs it was costing him $10 a pair. If he was making 10,000 pairs it only cost him a dollar.
In the 70s I remember going to San Francisco. My uncle was on the sales side and had moved from Boston, so there was always lots of family involved. He moved up to the Bay Area and put in 13 stores. In 1973 we were stretched too far and the San Francisco stores were bleeding the company dry. At one point we decided to close them down; people knew Vans and they liked them, but it was costing too much. So he stayed and started selling shoes to places like the Oliver Bike Shop and that’s how national sales started in the early 70s. It was the first time we had sold shoes outside of Southern California.
When did the company realise skateboarders loved the brand?
Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach are where they started coming in and making custom shoes. In the very beginning we sold tons of the #44 blue deck shoes. Then the custom orders started coming in. We let that run for a few months then we came up with a stock shoe: navy blue and gold, navy blue and brown, then beige and brown.
We would watch the custom orders come in and make them brown, beige and brown if everybody ordered customs in those colours. You had school colours, team colours, skaters and BMX kids who came in the late 70s and those guys really liked the wild colours.
There was no leather around until 1976 when we finally came up with the Old Skool, which had leather in the toe and heel because skaters were wearing the hell out of them. Leather would last longer than anything else. The outsole never wore out, the side wall of the material would never wear out, and they could get it down to where there was just a little bit of fabric but the sides would still be good.
Was the Sk8-Hi the first shoe Vans made specifically for skaters?
In 1975 we had the blue deck shoes, but the guys over in Santa Monica, like Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta, wanted to make customs. We decided to add padded backs, an outside heel counter and the ‘Off the Wall’ label, and that was our new skate shoe. It came out on March 18, 1976. The Sk8-Hi had padded sides so when the board flew off the pool and into their ankles they didn’t kill themselves. That was a big thing and it saved lives – skaters loved them.
At the time, did you think skateboarding was just a phase?
It seemed big because so many of these kids started organising contests. I remember my dad had no budget, so I was driving a van bringing guys from the Valley over to a contest in Santa Monica. Tony Alva and those guys, the board companies looked after them, and we supplied shoes. The first cheque we ever wrote was to Stacy Peralta; I think we were paying him about $300 to wear the shoe and he was travelling worldwide. Each store manager had seven or eight guys they were supplying shoes to as well.
We got our first team manager, Eric, in about 1977. He had a van and a Plexiglass ramp and he would travel around doing demos and make sure the guys got their shoes. Kids were buying whatever they saw in the skate magazines.
Where did the Slip-On design come from?
The company my dad worked for before made a slip-on and he interpreted that into our own style known as #48. It was actually a generic model with a non-skid sole for boating.
The checkerboard Slip-On is probably the most recognised of all Vans styles. How did they come about?
In the late 70s I was just out of high school. I noticed kids were colouring in their Vans with a checkerboard pattern, so we started making shoes like that. We sent a box of checkerboard shoes for the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. We had no idea! They liked them so much they ended up on the cover of the film’s soundtrack. And Jeff Spicoli, played by Sean Penn, was hitting himself over the head with the shoes in the movie! It was magic – we sold millions of checkerboards after the film came out!
How many times have you seen the movie?
At least 50. Doing the film Dogtown I got to meet Sean Penn years later. It was really enjoyable getting to say, ‘Thank you so much for being Spicoli, you made my life a lot easier!’
Has anyone ordered a pizza in the middle of a sales meeting?
The theme of sales meetings a few years back was Fast Times. Everything was checkerboard and I ordered 10 pizzas and asked them to just barge in the middle of the meeting and bring the pizzas right up the front. It was great because after my dad left, sometimes the company may have been a little too stuffy. You know suits and ties and stuff. It was perfect and I’m bit of a prankster.
What else do you think added to Vans’ success?
The thing about Vans is that we had a run from 1976 to 1980 with all the two-tone colours and that rolled into solid-colour Slip-Ons and then straight into checkerboard. We didn’t rest on our laurels.
We started doing red and white, green and white, two-tones, any kind of combination, because again, we only had a vulcanised shoe. We don’t have what Nike has – all kinds of athletic stuff. We had a canvas shoe and we’re trying to make it look like a marquee diamond. So how do we do that? With colours and fabrics.
We also used to get kids to draw up what they would like to see on the sides of the shoes. Every month we’d pick a winner, bring them down to the factory and take their family to Disneyland. All of a sudden we had things that had ‘Rad’ on them, plus we had unicorns and rainbows. When you get 200 designs with strawberries, we’d do a strawberry shoe. So that’s how we would do it and having our own factory, I could have a new shoe out tomorrow.
Have you ever thought about resurrecting those contests?
I’m proud to say, at least in the States, that we’ve brought back our custom shoe programme and it’s going sensationally. We do about 2000 pairs every month.
We talked about possibly putting a page in a book with just a silhouette of the Slip-On and let kids develop patterns or designs they want and have a worldwide contest for our 40th anniversary. We will actually print the fabric, make the shoes and maybe make 500 pairs and give a royalty to the young person who designed the fabric.
Well, eventually the bank – we had a note like when your house is mortgaged – they called up and said, ‘Hey, pay my note back!’ and we couldn’t do it. We didn’t have $11 million.
During the early 80s, Vans diversified and started making basketball shoes, baseball shoes and then had that little Chapter 11 thing. What happened?
What happened was that my dad, who was a great manufacturer and a great business person, was trying to back off just a little bit. Checkerboard was flying, Vans was going great, my uncle Jim was president and he was doing a magnificent job, but he made a mistake trying to be something that Vans is not. He wanted to be Nike, you know, the next big thing.
Jim was very talented. We had a five-star running shoe in Runner’s World. We had widths from 4E to 4A, wide to narrow in every one of the athletic shoes we had. We had basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, skydiving shoes, wrestling shoes. I mean, we had breakdancing shoes! They weren’t vulcanised, they were cold cure which was all made overseas. We were making really nice shoes but my dad kept telling my uncle, ‘Hey, they’re costing us a fortune and we’re losing our butt!’
My uncle wouldn’t listen because, you know, he guided Vans through the checkerboard era and we were flying. We were the hottest thing going. All the money we were making on checkerboard, we were wasting it on all of these lasts, dyes, materials, everything you could imagine on these athletic shoes. And it wasn’t selling. People don’t know Vans for that. You got big powerhouses like adidas, Nike and PUMA and we were just getting our butts kicked on the athletic shoes.
Well, eventually the bank – we had a note like when your house is mortgaged – they called up and said, ‘Hey, pay my note back!’ and we couldn’t do it. We didn’t have $11 million. So we filed for Chapter 11, my dad went to court for the first time, and the court saw what was happening and asked my uncle to leave. That was a very sad day. My dad didn’t know if they were going to ask us or my uncle’s side of the family to leave. The courts sorted it out and from that day my uncle has not been involved with the company. They asked my father to come out of semi-retirement, with Gordy’s help and Serge as a silent partner, to get Vans out of trouble.
In 1984, my dad got the whole company together and told them, ‘Hey, if you need a raise in the next three years I can’t give it to you. We owe probably $15 million. I’m going to pay this back 100 cents on the dollar.’ My dad was very proud of what he built. A lot of people get out of Chapter 11 by paying 10 cents on the dollar and it costs millions in legal fees. He said no to that.
So we had a plan. It started in 1984 and every six weeks my dad would go in with a business plan. He’d come back and say, ‘This is what we sold, this is what we are going to sell’ and he did that every six weeks. At one point he had an extra seven or eight payments and told the bank he wanted to give it to them in case something slowed down. The bank said no but they could take it from the back end. Dad at that point had a piece of land and sold it and the next week he paid the bank fully. He wanted to pay the last $50,000 in pennies but found out he would need a dump truck. He hated them because they were trying to liquidate us at every second. One thing about surviving Chapter 11, I realised that everything my dad ever had in his life, he was this close to losing it, and that wasn’t fair.
They sound like tough times. What got you through?
It was back to the classics. We didn’t advertise one penny from 1984 to 87 and that’s when companies like Vision Street Wear came through. They started to advertise heavily and we couldn’t do anything except just let them go. We couldn’t pay skaters or anybody else to wear our shoes. All we could do was give some shoes away. Basically, we just put blinkers on and just tried to get the money paid back. In 1987, we finally came out of Chapter 11.
You had an ownership change at the end of the 80s and sold some shares at the start of the 90s. Was it the corporate changes that forced the end of manufacturing in the US?
In 1988, these men offered my dad $75 million for the company. He didn’t owe a penny at the time. With my uncle not involved anymore, there were politics and we’d never had that in the company before. Dad didn’t want to see that happening in the future and he called me up to play tennis. He didn’t play tennis and he said, ‘What would you say if I told you someone offered $75 million for the company?’ I said, ‘Sell, you’re ready to retire, enjoy life. Whatever happens, I’ll be fine.’
What happened was Black Monday. One of the last deals Michael Wilkin (a famous investor who went to jail) did was Vans. It was 1987 and the market fell and that messed up the deal. It was meant to happen again in December the same year but the market fell again. The deal actually happened in 1988 for $60 million. The promise was when they went public they would pay my dad the rest of the $15 million.
So in 1988 the deal went through and McConval-Deluit bought the company. The two men behind it acquire companies, grow them and take them public. They owned the company for about the next 10 years. They took Vans public in 1991 and we were a public company until 2004.
From 1988 to 1993 everything was going fine. Then things started slowing down a bit. We started buying snowboard boots from overseas and by 1994 we were sourcing everything overseas and people forgot about our classics. Trends happen, but, you know, we just went away from it for way too long.
We had a factory in Orange County and when we were public we started getting new management in. They went and built another factory in San Diego, all high-tech and stuff that my dad knew for 50 years wasn’t good enough. Dad was gone, and these Harvard graduates thought they knew more and they went and spent a ton of money on a factory that never, ever made the volumes or ran with the efficiency that the old factory did. They screwed it up. That was the point where they shut down all manufacturing and moved everything offshore.
There was also demand for new types of shoes and we couldn’t do them in California for environmental reasons. We couldn’t do the shoes our competitors were doing. So we changed the direction of the company from manufacturing to marketing.
The 90s arrived and Vans were getting involved with the Warped tour and skate events – what was driving that?
A guy named Kevin Lyman came to us. I said I wanted to do a skateboard contest nationwide and Kevin said his music tour was going nationwide as well. So we came up with the Vans Warp Tour. Well it was the ‘Warped Tour’ in year one and then the ‘Vans Warp Tour’ in year two.
Kevin was a hardworking guy but never had the money so we bought 15 per cent. A company bought the tour during the dot.com era, but a year later they went out of business. We got it back for a dollar, now we’re the majority owner of it and it continues to go strong.
I think it’s one of the best things we have ever done. Basically Vans is a company that sells to teenagers – 65 per cent male and 35 per cent female. What did a teenager do before he was 16 and could drive? He skateboards, surfs and rides bikes. Then he finds the sheilas and needs a car to go do stuff. But both boys and girls like music, so we tied ourselves into a punk rock scene because a lot of the guys that were in bands loved Vans.
Next we decided to do some skate events. At first I tied in with the Hard Rock Café and Transworld and did the Triple Crown. We made a deal with NBC that we won’t do horse racing, but we’d like to do a triple crown for skateboarding, surfing, snowboarding, wakeboarding, BMX, freestyle motorcross and supercross. So for the last eight years we have done 20 events.
first event we did was in 1995 at the Hard Rock Café in Newport Beach. There were 11,000 people. Ben Harper played and Tony Hawk won the skate event. There was an existing Triple Crown of surfing, so we bought that for a good sum of money in 1996. That was the second Triple Crown and the third one was the Triple Crown of snowboarding. Then we did BMX, wakeboarding and so on.
Who owns Vans now?
VF Corporation bought Vans in 2004. They are a unique company, they actually researched Quiksilver, Billabong and Vans, but they kept doing market surveys and Vans kept coming back as a cool company and that’s why they bought it for $400 million. When my dad sold the company for $75 million we were doing $40 million in sales. Now our sales are around $360 million.
Vans’ big movie experience was Dogtown and Z-Boys, which documented the Zephyr team. Was it an expensive exercise?
We dabbled in that and put out about $800,000 for Stacy Peralta to buy the rights for the music as well as do the direction and put that documentary out. In the end, we basically got our money back.
Are you surprised Dogtown became a Hollywood film?
I was excited about it because I thought the documentary was fantastic and that it would get to a lot of theatres, but it just didn’t. I saw the director’s cut a few months ago with Skip and Tony Alva and it was great.
I would just say, ‘Fuck ’em! I’m going to make my own shoes and put them out there!’
The massive consumer thirst for retro footwear seems perfect for Vans, but was it easy to reintroduce the classics?
Back in the early 2000s people were saying, ‘Why can’t we get this and why can’t we get that?’ I was in charge of events and we had other people in charge of product and we had a problem, they weren’t listening. I would just say, ‘Fuck ’em! I’m going to make my own shoes and put them out there!’ And you know what happened? We sold a lot of shoes and people started saying that’s what I remember and love about Vans. The ball started rolling and we were getting our mojo back again with all the retro stuff.
I’ve had the most fun in the last year and a half. It was the first time I’d been over to China and saw where our shoes were made. Before we closed our factories in the States, I snuck 200 rolls of fabric out and hid them in the warehouse. I’d just cut the fabric in squares, go to my cousin and he’d print my material. So when I went over to China I’d have fun and go make a pair of shoes. I made up a bunch of different ideas and brought them back to show the designers. That’s how it was in the old days. You could walk out the back and do a pair of shoes anytime you wanted to. It’s harder now.
The last trip I went back and got them to make a mould for a size 66. So I actually have a size 66 Slip-On now and I’m going to use them to display in stores all over the world. I made up a couple black pairs, a couple of red checkerboards and some black ones too. I also made giant shoe boxes for display and the shoe actually fits inside.
It seems like every Californian remembers their first pair of Vans. It’s part of the culture there, isn’t it?
If I talk to people from New York and say ‘Vans’, older people don’t know what I’m talking about. You ask a Californian and they always know. If I’m on a plane and I’m talking to someone and they ask, ‘What do you do?’ and I say, ‘Have you heard of Vans shoes?’ They always go, ‘Oh yeah, my cousin had a pair’, or, ‘I remember my custom pair I made when I was at high school!’
I remember a lady coming in with a mink coat who had just divorced her husband and didn’t want the coat anymore. She made a pair of mink Vans. I remember Jackson Brown sent some pants down to us; they were a snakeskin-looking fabric and we made him shoes out of them. People definitely loved them in Southern California. If we had the penetration of Southern California around the world, we’d be an $8 billion company. There was that kind of east versus west thing going on. Converse on the east and Vans on the west. My dad’s philosophy was we took whatever the public would give us and made whatever shoes you needed. If you were size 8 in one foot and size 9 in the other, in the old days we’d give you exactly that. We’d do things the other people weren’t going to do.
Do you remember the last time you actually had to pay for sneakers?
Not really. A couple of times I’ve bought them for friends. I remember when I was in fifth grade, I was into Hawaiian shirts – I have hundreds of them. Two surfers, Nathan and Christian Fletcher, well, their grandfather owned a Hawaiian fabric company down in Irvine. I’d get 10 or 12 different samples of fabrics and go to the factory and make my own Hawaiian shoes.
Do you have a personal stash?
I probably have 50 pairs I’ve kept from over the years. I wish we kept a pair of everything Vans did, but no. Maybe for the last 10 years, but not from way back.
We had the guys from Pearl Jam say, ‘Hey, we remember that rust-colour Sk8-Hi, can we get some?’
What do you consider the most way-out pair from over the years?
The breakdancing sneakers were pretty rad. We have never replicated them. It had a big wing out the back and it was a high-top.
Have you noticed the trade of vintage Vans?
I hear about it all the time from the developers and stuff, that this shoe went for $100, this shoe went for $200. There was a pair I made for a crazy brother-in-law who was getting married for the third time. It was a fabric that you could say was R-rated and I made one pair for him and one for me, with a bow tie and cummerbund to match. They would go for a lot of money on eBay. They’re great, I still have them. I actually made them at midnight, when there was no one around the factory so I wouldn’t get into trouble with my dad.
Any other special make-ups that you’ve done over the years?
We had the guys from Pearl Jam say, ‘Hey, we remember that rust-colour Sk8-Hi, can we get some?’ So I made 10 pairs of those for the band. One time MTV called and they wanted a surprise band to perform at our skate park. It was the Red Hot Chilli Peppers!
Nobody was to know until a half hour before the show. In nine days, the art department made up a bunch of Chili Peppers designs. I had 12 pairs of shoes made between Sk8-His, Sk8-Lows and Old Skools. They were red and when they came to play I gave each guy a pair. I kept one pair and gave a pair to my daughter.
My favourite Vans are the Full and Half Cabs. Steve Caballero has been involved with Vans for a long time. Can you tell us about the relationship?
I really got to know Stevie well in 1987. He’s been riding for us forever. He’s my favourite athlete, we do a lot of things together. The Half Cab started because everyone was taking the Full Cab and cutting them down. The shoes are still around today too. It’s not a big number driver, but it’s more successful now than it has been in the past 10 years.
What does the future hold for Vans?
We’re never going to have air pockets like Air Jordans and stuff like that, so we have to get creative with materials. The thing that hasn’t come back totally yet are all the fun, crazy things we did with prints. That’s an area that still has a long run for us. I know Grant, our head designer, has a really great idea, but if I told you I’d have to kill you. He’s got something that he’s been working on for a year and a half. If he comes through with it, it’s really going to be cool. There’s also a new line called Syndicate. We just showed it at ASR, it was on a corner parking lot under a big army tent. It’s got four or five different styles; the Half Cab is one, the Old Skool is another. There is tattoo art on an Authentic model and it looks great. These are packaged really cool and it’s a special brand for our best, core skate shops.
Just to finish off, what shoe would you pick to sum up what Vans is all about?
Definitely the checkerboard Slip-On.
Written by Jason Le and published in The Ultimate Sneaker Book. Buy your copy HERE!