An "Off The Wall" History of Vans
In March of this year, Vans celebrated their golden anniversary. Fifty epic years of extraordinary growth and continuous dedication has made the brand one of America's coolest and trendiest.
Vans humble origins can be traced back to a small shoe factory in Anaheim, California. The company was established by Paul Van Doren in March of 1966 as what was known as The Van Doren Rubber Company.
Paul Van Doren grew up in the Boston area. By the time he reached eighth grade, he'd quit school to pursue other passions such as horse races and whatever else fourteen year old boys were into in the 1940s. Paul's mother was so distraught about him quitting school and not working that she dragged him into the very same shoe factory where she worked. There, Paul Van Doren got a job making shoes and sweeping the factory floor. Little did anyone know that this was going to mold and define the young Van Doren's future. In twenty years at the factory, Paul worked his way up and became the Executive Vice President of Randy's, a shoe manufacturer based out of Boston, MA. In the early sixties, while the Boston factory had climbed to being the third largest shoe manufacturing company in the US, Randy's alternative factory in Gardenvale, CA was losing a million dollars every month. Paul Van Doren, his brother, Jim Van Doren, and long time friend, Gordon Lee were given the task of mending the factory's service and reputation. After just eight short months, the trio was able to get the west coast factory to even greater profits than the one in Boston. After three months of nonstop success, Paul Van Doren announced to his five kids that he was quitting his job and starting his very own shoe company.
After making shoes for most of his life, Paul realized that the shoe manufacturers were making just pennies a pair, while the retailers were the one's seizing all the cash. Paul's greatest dream was becoming a shoe manufacturer that also owned its own retail stores. The trio, along with Serge D'Elia, a Belgian friend of Paul who he became acquainted with while in Japan, took one year to create The Van Doren Rubber Company at 704 East Broadway. Since 1900, there were only three other companies that had manufactured vulcanized footwear in the US: Randy's, Keds, and Converse.
When The Van Doren Rubber Company had first opened its doors in March of 1966, they didn't even have names for their shoes ― only numbers. Steve Van Doren, Paul's son, recalls his father saying, "We had a lace up, we had a two-eyelet, we had a slip-on and the styles were called #16, #19, and #20." The original price for the women's shoes was $2.29 while the men's style #44s were $4.49.
After the first or second day, a lady came in complaining about their pink shoe not being bright enough and their yellow shoe being too light. Paul told the woman that if she came back and brought whatever pink fabric she wanted, he would make a pair of shoes for her, thus Vans custom shoes were made. The company made custom shoes for Catholic schools, cheerleaders and drill teams all over southern California.
A major goal of the company was to make the strongest shoe possible so that people would show their friends. They made the molds for the waffle soles twice as thick as PF Flyers. They used a far better canvas along with nylon thread instead of cotton. The goal was to outlast anything.
Vans grew rapidly. They had ten stores in ten weeks! By the first year and a half, they had fifty stores! In the late seventies, Vans created their first kicks with a leather toe and heel because the skaters were wearing out their shoes so quickly. The Skate scene took Vans to a whole new level. In Santa Monica, skaters like Tony Alva and Stacey Peralta wanted customs. Vans added padded backs, and the famous "Off The Wall" label. The Skate Hi shoe also had padded sides so when the board flew off the swimming pool wall, it didn't destroy their ankles.
The success of Vans shoes comes from listening to their customers. If they wanted checkers on their feet, Vans put checkers on the shoe. If they wanted two-tone, crazy colors, high-top, low-top, slip-on, Vans delivered. After fifty years of business, the company is selling $400 million worth of shoes a year. Vans sponsors pro-athletes in various sports including, skating, surfing, BMX, and snowboarding. Vans has been able to remain authentic throughout the years while also becoming a fashion staple. They aren't like NIKE or Adidas; they don't make athletic shoes with overly-obvious shock absorption or breathable pockets. They make an authentic, tough, stylish canvas shoe that people continuously keep coming back for.
When asked what shoe would describe the company best, Steve Van Doren, Paul's son and current owner said, "The Checkerboard Slip-on. People buy them to go do their weddings."