amazon polo How the iconic shoe brand has kept on surviving
Skaters adopted the thick soled, rugged canvas shoes for their rubbery grip. Actor Sean Penn famously wore a pair of checkerboard slip ons in the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” A kid in Riverside, Calif., last month donned a white pair in a 30 second video and the viral world swooned.
Vans, born in Anaheim, Calif., 50 years ago, started out as a small manufacturing company whose founders had an unconventional idea to dabble in the retail world. In the ensuing years, the company has ballooned into a multibillion dollar action sports brand recognized around the world.
Like the gritty skaters who first made the footwear cool, Vans learned there would be some bumps, bruises and crashes as they leaped high and pushed a subculture into the mainstream.
When the Van Doren Rubber Co. threw open its retail doors at 704 E. Broadway in Anaheim on March 16, 1966, the business was so new many of the boxes on the shelves didn’t even have shoes in them. But there were samples to try on. Somewhere between 12 and 16 customers (accounts vary) placed orders.
Paul Van Doren knew the money wasn’t in manufacturing shoes. If he wanted a successful business, he’d have to go into retail to sell his product directly to customers.
Van Doren, who had experience in the shoe business while working in Boston, opened up the Van Doren Rubber Co. with his brother, Jim Van Doren, and friend Gordon Lee. The doors opened on March 16, 1966 at 7
04 East Broadway in Anaheim.
A sign outside read “House of Vans.”
They had styles on the racks, organized in color coded shoe boxes. Men’s sold for $4.49, women’s for $2.29.
There was one problem: They forgot to put money in their cash register.
As customers showed up throughout the day, Paul told them to pick out their style, then come back with the cash when they picked up the shoes.
“My dad has a lot of faith in people,” said Paul’s son, Steve Van Doren, who works at the Cypress headquarters with the title “Ambassador of Fun.”
Lines soon spilled out the shop’s door, so the founders decided to open more locations. The first stand alone retail shop popped up in Costa Mesa, Calif. The Van Dorens and Lee also would fill up their trucks with shoes and hit the swap meets on weekends. Paul Van Doren would scout new stores to open.
Six of the first 10 stores weren’t profitable. When advised by his accountant to shut them down, Paul gambled and did the opposite: He opened more stores. The way he figured, the more shoes he made, the cost to make them would go down, and he’d bank on the successful stores, explained Steve.
The first decade, the company simply tried to stay afloat.
In the mid 70s word got out about the shoe with extra grip, a thick sole and tough canvas that could handle a battering as skateboarders launched off pool lips and did tricks on their wooden boards. Skaters like Stacy Peralta and Tony Alva who were laying the foundation for what skateboarding is today became team riders sponsored by Vans.
Nike had its swoosh. Adidas had its logo. Vans had to come up with its own unique design, so the shoe got what’s called a “jazz stripe” on the side to make them stand out.
Years later, kids started drawing checkerboard designs on the rubber part of their Vans. The company took note and created its own checkerboard slip on.
A young, up and coming actor named Sean Penn who grew up surfing and skating around Santa Monica, Calif. told movie producers he needed to wear the shoes in the Fast Times movie. In the 1982 film, the perpetually stoned character Jeff Spicoli slaps his head with the slip on and declares, “I’m so wasted!”
The movie’s soundtrack would carry the Vans shoes on its cover.
Checkered slip ons soon were flying off the shelves. Business at Vans instantly doubled, and revenue grew to $45 million from $20 million the previous year.