Van Doren And The In Vogue | How Vans Became A Million Dollar Industry While Keeping Its Cool
As Vans celebrates 50 years, we look at how a cheap canvas shoe managed to sell skate culture for big bucks without losing any of its credibility....
What does the typical Vans wearer look like? Ask that question to ten different people and you’re sure to get ten pretty different answers. Once solely the property of LA skate culture, they have now spread across the globe into all parts of mainstream fashion and style. From the teenage grunger at a rock gig to the 40 year old dad in the playground, it seems you can’t walk down a single high street in the country without seeing someone rocking the canvas shoe.
Everyone remembers their first pair of Vans. Mine were aged 14, as I found a teenage love of gloomy alternative rock bands, Vans checkerboard black and neon pink vans became the only footwear choice. Masculine enough to be cool, weird enough to be edgy, back then I thought it was a brand designed specifically to bounce around at sweaty gigs and sit in empty parks with your equally scruffy mates.
Other people I’ve asked however, have very different first memories of the Van Doren brand. Asking a friend, a lifelong skater now 38 years old, she recalls how aged eleven she begged her mum to buy her a pair of laced navy blue vans to wear at the weekend, only to spend the first week scuffing them on the pavement to look the same as all the older kids at the skate park. They weren’t stylish, they were the uniform.
My boyfriend on the other hand says his first pair of Vans were a sign of adulthood. Bought in the first year of university in the excitement of his first student loan, they marked the time to move away from looking like a school kid, with a pair of black suede Vans shoes acting as a replacement after years of scruffy sneakers.
Yet while the Vans brand is now all around us, the place you're still most likely to see it is at the skate park. Above and beyond everything, Vans has and always will be a skate shoe - this makes their simultaneous popularity and credibility so unusual.
Skate culture historically is not too fond of any type of commercialisation, many brands and companies have fallen victim to the mistake of trying to poach the look and lifestyle of skaters to bring in a quick buck.
The crossover of skate and fashion is not a new occurrence, it could be seen a few years ago when skaters started being booked as models for major labels like DKNY and Louis Vuitton, or more recently though Selfridges building its own skate park and now through high street brands ripping off skate labels every season.
This summer, fashion giant Vogue Magazine declared that it was 'Skate Week' offering its readers handy tips on what to buy to create that perfect counterculture style, while declaring the Thrasher tee to be the new must have item for any off duty model. All hell broke loose, one brand mentioned in the article came back with a not so grateful response on Instagram, posting a screenshot of the article with the caption: "Suck our vaginas @voguemagazine."
"How is it that a company like Vans, who makes a yearly income of over $2bn... manages to keep their cred?"
The fact that skateboarding as a culture stands opposed to posers and money makers is more than understandable when you see that a lot of the athletes and events within the industry appear to run on little to no money. So how is it that a company that got their big exposure through Hollywood movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which makes a yearly income of over $2bn and which is frequently seen collaborating with the fashion world through designers like Marc Jacobs, Liberty and Kenzo manages to keep their cred, along with the approval of millions of skaters worldwide?
To find the answer, you have to go back in time to the start.
Founded in 1966 by brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren, Vans' first store was located in California and, unaware of the impact they were to make on skate culture, simply focused on making $2.49 boat shoes.
"My dad’s whole philosophy was to make shoes like Sherman Tanks," Van Doren said in an interview about the origin of the company. "They were really built tough and you’d have to tell your friends about it."
This type of word of mouth advertising is a trend that continues throughout the Vans' history books. With no money spent on marketing in the company's original business plan, the shop simply put up a sign saying 'Tell Your Friends About Vans' outside the door and got on with the job of making cheap and sturdy shoes.
Their break came when the local skaters started to notice how the vulcanised outsole of the deck shoes, with a no-slip grip so that people could safely manoeuvre wet boat decks, never wore out no matter how much they skated in them. The #44 blue deck shoes became the staple footwear for anyone who spent most of their day at the park and Vans took its first step towards becoming the shoe of the skater.
In the 1970s, Vans released the Sk8-Hi shoe. As skaters had become more and more the main audience for the Vans deck shoes, the Van Dorens decided to start specifically designing for them, not aesthetically, but practically. The Sk8-Hi, with its new padded high top, was made specifically to protect the ankles of skaters. Backed by big names like Tony Alva and Jerry Valdez, this is when Vans really won the support and became the choice footwear with skateboarders.
Accidentally stumbling onto an untouched market of consumers, this small company had won the respect of one of the most commercially difficult countercultures to sell to in America. Vans had done it by not trying to lead or follow the look of skateboarding, but instead by supporting the lifestyle and the skaters themselves with good manufacturing and simple shoes.
"[Vans] have always supported skateboarding and skateboarders," Greg Hunt told Kingpin skate magazine in a recent interview.
"Nothing is really part of a bigger plan to have guys in contests; it’s really just about supporting skaters that embody and fit Vans. All these guys have a lot of respect for each other."
"When you do get these guys together, there really is something special there, and it’s special for them to be on Vans – and it’s not just a big pay-check, it’s a heritage. All of them have been part of it a lot longer than I’ve been around. Now I don’t know if it’s reflected in the video, but if you get them together it really feels like a family."
While fashion draws from skate culture and profits from it, it seems like the Van Doren brand adds to the culture as much as it receives. From sponsoring skaters, to opening free skate parks, holding events and funding skate films, it seems as though without the brand, skate culture would find itself lacking in places.
"Every now and again high fashion looks to subculture for inspiration. It's looking for an authenticity which they don't really have," says fashion editor Britta Burger.
"They come up with new colours, new fit, new styles every season and no one really needs that stuff. In order to be more real they look to attach themselves to scenes like skating."
"People are savvy and you can tell when people are wearing something because they've been paid to. You don't only wear Vans if you've been given them, you go out and buy them."
It's an important point to make. In 50 years, Vans has not paid one celebrity to wear their shoes for an advertising campaign, choosing instead to show skaters or simply use models, street shots or simply shoot the shoes.
"Vans has authenticity," says Burrger. "I think if skateboarders stopped wearing Vans then that would be the end of them."
Of course, the company has not always been at the top of its game as it is now, it's well documented that in 1984, the Van Dorens filed for bankruptcy after their range of basketball and other new types of shoes dug their profits into a deep hole.
Reassessing their position, they came back with the answer that skaters had known all along. Vans doesn't just offer shoes, it offers an authentic lifestyle and culture, shared between company and consumer. In moving away from their beginnings they had moved away from that happy relationship, they had to do something to find their way back .
What they did was build a culture of events around themselves that has brought the company to a point when they're arguably as well known for their Warped Tour, House Of Vans events and surf and skate contests as they are for their products, with events ranging from small hardcore punk events to big production hip hop concerts.
"The brand reissued their classics, the Sk8-Hi 38, the Era 95 and the Slip-On 98"
"Our relationships and collaborations are organic and represent a true partnership based on mutual admiration and shared creative values," says April Vitkus, Vans Senior Director of Global Marketing.
"House of Vans are able to showcase a unique cultural intersection that we have between punk and hardcore and rap and skateboarding, which have always been part of Vans' history and heritage."
It sounds like PR speak, yet it's true. You're as likely to see a pair of Vans on the feet of Take That as you are to see them on stage at a Leftover Crack gig or in a video with Tyler The Creator. It's a strange phenomenon unreached by any other subculture brand.
This year's fiftieth anniversary shows that Vans now totally understands who they are, with celebrations that applauded their origins and the scene that got them where they are today.
The brand reissued their classics, the Sk8-Hi 38, the Era 95 and the Slip-On 98, shoes that have sold as well with new customers in their half decade year as they have with old school Vans lovers, a fact that proves the long lasting appeal better than any other.
The Vans/skater paradox shows that it doesn't matter how big a company's billboards get or how much money they have in their bank account, the fans will always stay as long as they keep one thing - Authenticity.
"As long as the core skaters keep wearing Vans, then Vans will always be around," says Burger. "Skaters are more multifaceted artistically than any other boardsport. They usually play music, draw, take photographs or something alongside their skating."
"Core skaters do their own thing, they wear what they want. Yes they have always gone against commercialisation and the big brands, and always should, they know when something is adding to the scene and when something is just randomly fitting something in to make money."
So it seems that it doesn't matter how many articles there are in GQ and Vogue about the mainstream appeal of Vans and it doesn't matter how many big department stores start selling them, these are not the facts that matter to Skaters.
What matters is the Sk8-Hi design made for helping you skate, the Half Cab shoes, made because the company saw how people cut up skater Steve Caballero's high top design for comfort, the classic checkerboard design, created as a response to Cali Kids drawing checks on their shoes nearly half a century ago.
What matters is how they fund and make films on skate and surf culture, they they've sponsored the Warped Tour since 1996 and created the Vans Triple Crown series, which includes televised BMX, motocross, surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding events. They see that Vans still sees them and what they're about and get it.
In a culture of forced brand relationship and empty social media campaigns, Vans are the best example of real collaboration. If you commit to and support the scene you came from, then the scene will commit to you.