Until the skateboarders came along, Vans had no real direction, no specific purpose as a business other than to make the best shoes possible. . . . When skateboarders adopted Vans, ultimately, they gave us an outward culture and an inward purpose. – Paul van Doren
Back in 1966, brothers Paul and James van Doren took a calculated risk. Benefiting from business lessons learned from their inventor-father, work experience at a Massachusetts sneaker company, and $250,000 from an investor, they started the California-based Van Doren Rubber Company. Their goal? To both produce and sell high-quality yet inexpensive footwear. By locating the store adjacent to the factory, they would cut out the middlemen—wholesalers, distributors, retailers—keeping costs down and increasing operating efficiency.
The van Doren brothers’ strategy was ambitious and unorthodox for a shoe company. The unique manufacturing and retail setup enabled the company to fully cater to what customers wanted and needed. Your left foot is a half size bigger than your right? No problem. You only need to replace one shoe? Sure thing. You don’t see a color that you like? Supply the fabric and we’ll make a pair for an extra 50 cents.
To match their novel business approach, the van Dorens offered a canvas sneaker, now known as the “Authentic,” that was unlike any other. According to Steve van Doren, Paul’s son, “When my dad built the company—the shoe—he made the outsole twice as thick as the other competitors at the time.” Not only that, the shoe bottoms were made using a proprietary rubber formula that made them extremely grippy.
A 1967 Vans advertisement solicited “cheerleaders, drill teams, band members and individuals . . . [with] customade (sic) shoes to match their uniforms or ensembles.” Little did the van Doren brothers know that their sneakers would quickly become sought-after athletic footwear. In the Van Doren Rubber Company shoes—or Vans for short—the burgeoning local teen skateboarding community found sneakers that were more durable and performed better than others on the market.
Initially, skaters had no grip tape to apply to their wooden boards. Aside from good balance and coordination, sneakers were the only means of hanging on. The sticky outsoles provided great “boardfeel” for skaters, enabling them to go faster, maneuver more easily, and attempt tricks. While the cost for a pair of Vans—between $2.29 for gals and $4.49 for guys ($18 and $36 in 2021 dollars, respectively)—might be expensive for teens, it was offset by the company’s quirky policy of being able to purchase sneakers individually. This was ideal for skaters, who would often wear out one shoe while the other was still intact. Within a few years, Vans were the go-to shoes for Santa Monica and Venice area skaters.
As skaters became more ambitious, attempting drained pools and other challenging terrain, they needed more from their sneakers. In the mid-1970s, Vans collaborated with athletes Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta to create an improved skate shoe. What’s now known as the “Era” quickly became popular among skaters, with its padded collar to provide needed ankle protection and the option to get creative by selecting different color combinations. Steve van Doren noted, “My dad had been making shoes for twenty years at another company and at that point ten years for Vans and stuff. He was set in his ways, but at the same time, ok, no problem. We padded the collar. We put an outside heel counter. We used number 10 duck, which is the strongest canvas you can use.”
Further customer-driven design led to the 1977 releases of Vans’ “Old Skool,” and the now “Classic Slip-Ons,” loved not only by skateboarders, but surfers and BMX riders. The following year, Vans debuted the “Sk8-Hi.” Featuring additional padding and support at and above the ankle, it was the first high-top designed for skateboarding. In 1989, Vans marked the recent sponsorship of their first skater, Steve Caballero, by issuing a signature high-top. However, after the athlete observed street skaters cutting the collar off their “Caballeros” to provide the ankle movement needed to perform more technical flip tricks, he realized they were on to something. Caballero brought the idea to Vans and three years later, the company released the sloped mid-top, aptly naming it the “Half Cab.”
Beginning ten years ago, Vans introduced other technologies to enhance performance, comfort, and durability in revamping classic shoes as well as in their pro skate models. The company improved the outsoles with SICKSTICK™, an advanced rubber compound designed for better grip, flexibility, and durability. Their WAFFLECUP™, the first vulcanized cupsole, provides both the support and stability of a cupsole and enhanced boardfeel and grip. The POPCUSH™ polyurethane-based insole cushioning offers skaters needed protection for hard landings, but doesn’t jeopardize boardfeel. Vans’ DURACAP™ rubber layer on the front outside and front part of the shoe upper gives skaters extra grip and reinforces high-wear areas.
Over the last 25 years, the company has broadened their outlook, providing support not only to skateboarding, surfing, and BMX athletes and communities, but to others motivated by a shared desire for creative self-expression. To that end, Vans has hosted sports competitions, music concerts, and art contests; provided arts education grants; funded film and video projects; and launched “House of Vans” event venues and pop-ups. To mark the debut of skateboarding at this summer’s Olympic games, Vans has partnered with international nonprofit Skateistan on “No Matter How Big Skateboarding Gets, Never Forget Where it Starts.” Part of the proceeds from customizing a pair of Vans will go toward a campaign to empower and provide needed resources to fledgling skate communities globally. As the company stretches in new directions, I look forward to seeing how it continues to invent and innovate!
With sadness, the Lemelson Center notes the passing of Paul van Doren, co-founder of Vans and ardent supporter of the skateboarding community, on May 6, 2021. His memoir, Authentic, was published in April.
- Daniel E. Slotnik, “Paul Van Doren, 90, Dies; Built an Empire with Vans Shoes,” The New York Times, May 20, 2021.
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