For a long while Good Clobber has been meaning to do a short history of one of our favourite shoe brands; Vans Shoes – specifically the Vans Slip-On that’s been a mainstay in our shoe collection for quite some years. The story behind Vans is a great one, but it’s rich so there’s a lot to take in (and filter out) so we’ve been putting it off until there was time to soak it up and enjoy it. With the help of this great interview and story on Sneaker Freaker by Jason Le, Good Clobber brings you The (abbreviated) History of Vans.
Paul Van Doren left school at a young age to hang around race courses in Boston, Massachusetts. Punters at the track would pay Van Doren a dollar for the odds on the horses. Van Doren’s mother, keen to put him on the right track made him work with her at the Randy’s Shoe factory where he started by sweeping the floors.
In twenty years of labour, Van Doren worked his way up through the ranks and eventually became Executive Vice President of the firm. In the early 60’s Randy’s became the third largest manufacturer of shoes in the US and the powers that be put Paul Van Doren, his brother Jim and old friend Gordon Lee in charge of a failing factory in California that was losing a million dollars a month. In eight months the trio turned the factory’s productivity around and it became more successful than the factory back in Boston.
Soon, Van Doren, father of five announced that he was leaving Randy’s to start his own enterprise. Van Doren realised that almost all of his profit was going to the retailer - the middle man, who made all the cash out of his shoes. The dream was to make the shoes on site and to be the retailer - sell the shoes themselves.
The trio founded the Van Doren Rubber Company in partnership with Belgium friend Serge D’Elia, a supplier contact who had a lot of experience with manufacturing the shoe uppers. Van Doren shoes, or Vans were born.
An Early Vans patent submitted by Van Doren
The shop selling vans opened in March 1966 and sold 12 pairs of shoes on the first morning. Those shoes were made and sold on the same day - straight from the factory to the customer. The original Vans were pattern number 44 - now known as Vans Authentic.
Van Doren offered bespoke shoes for those who would pay for it - customers could bring in a material that they’d like their upper made from and Vans would turn out a custom pair in the factory. The shoes were popular with schools and cheerleaders, who asked for footwear that matched their uniforms.
In the 70’s Vans were adopted by the skateboarding scene in California and the Skate Hi was created specifically. Van Doren paid up-and-coming pro-skater Stacy Peralta $300 dollars to wear vans shoes for a year. Peralta travelled the world skating competitions and featuring in skate magazines wearing a pair of Vans. The kids paid attention at Vans kept on soaring in popularity.
Remember that film THE LORDS OF DOGTOWN? That was the Vans scene in California back then. Check out the trailer – loads of blue Authentics in there.
Forty years after its inception Vans had started to produce pattern number 48, the classic slip on, and a favourite of Good Clobber. Randy’s shoes had made a slip-on, and Vans adopted the idea.
The popular checkerboard upper has an interesting story behind it too; kids in the 80’s where colouring in the rubber foxing of the shoe with black pen to make a checkerboard pattern. Steve Van Doren, son of Paul, was experimenting with the design and created the checkerboard upper.
At the time, Universal Pictures called up the Vans PR people and asked for some shoes. They sent a load of shoes over, including the checkerboard slip-ons. The shoes were worn by Sean Penn in the teen comedy FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMOUNT HIGH. The shoes feature on the trailer and the poster for the film and orders came flooding in. Check Penn out with long hair in the trailer below – hitting himself in the head with a pair of the shoes and a box on display too – great product placement!
In the 1980’s Paul Van Doren took a lesser role in the company and Vans branched out into new areas, to compete with other sports shoe brands. With so many styles, the companies’ resources were spread thin. In ‘83 Vans were forced to file for bankruptcy and a re-think was needed.
Van Doren told his staff that he couldn’t promise a raise for any of his staff for at least three years and all advertising for that period was cancelled. Van Doren was proud of what he had created and wanted to dig the company out of the hole quickly and with dignity. In three years they paid off the debt. In 1988 Van Doren was in no debt and was offered 75 million dollars for the company. He handed the reigns over to his son and retired in comfort.
Since then, the company has passed through various owners, but Steve Van Doren continues to be involved at a high level. In 2000 there was a vast resurgence in retro footwear and Vans profited from the change. In 2001 the Forbes list recognised Vans as one of “America’s Best Small Companies”. Users of today’s Vans Customs website can create their own custom shoes from the Era, Slip-On, Old school and 106 vulcanised patterns.
It’s a great story and has a hint of The American Dream about it; a hardworking factory boy from humble beginnings pulls himself up from nothing and creates an internationally known, successful company, all based on a simple, well-made product. The fact that Van Doren was immensely organised and methodical about his work also appeals to me; the guy didn’t mess about.
They’ve made a success out of what’s a very simple design; Vans are essentially a vulcanised rubber sole, with a canvas upper - that’s it, but it works with so many variations of clothing. I’ve had six or seven pairs of Vans Slip-Ons over the years, each worn until they broke. They’ve been to festivals and job interviews and everything else in between. It’s a versatile shoe that’s very comfortable.
Most importantly for Good Clobber, Vans are affordable. They’re a good value shoe that looks good. What more do you need? Vans = Good Clobber.
Vans are widely available in the UK. If you want to check out their site, check out this link.
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