Vans’ Doug Palladini On How The Brand Popularized DIY Sneaker Design

Today, custom-designing sneakers can be completed with a click of a button.

And the iPhone generation may never truly understand what an interpersonal experience it used to be.

Inside The Vans Factory
Inside the Vans factory in 1966.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.

“You’d have to go in the store — that’s where the customization of footwear came from,” Vans general manager Doug Palladini recalled of his first time customizing sneakers during an interview with Footwear News. “We were the first brand to ever do that, and it was in a very analog way because there was no other way to do it.”

Palladini, who is now in his 12th year at the brand, shared his earliest memories of the company while at the 7th annual Vans Custom Culture high school student sneaker design competition in Los Angeles earlier this month.

He called the contest a “modern reflection” of the label’s origins in customized footwear.

vans paul van doren
Vans founder Paul Van Doren.

When Paul Van Doren started Vans in Anaheim, Calif., in 1966, the factory included a “tiny little store in front” where customers could custom design shoes — and place orders — straight from the manufacturing center, Palladini explained.

“They would bring fabric in, show color, and match it up and come back,” he added. “There was no other thing for retail where the product was made, so it was a one-of-a-kind experience. Really, from the first days of our brand we’ve been making custom shoes one day at a time for people. It’s always been a part of our ethos — a do-it-yourself mindset, and it started with Paul.”

Growing up in West Los Angeles, Calif., Palladini remembered entering Vans shops so that he could design sneakers to complement the graphics on his skateboard decks.

vans custom culture design sneakers
Sneakers designed by art students from John P. Stevens High School in Edison, N.J., were $50,000 grand-prize winners.
CREDIT: Courtesy

The technique during his youth, he recalled, was very hands-on — and an exercise in patience.

“There was a big D-ring and all it was, was foxing tapes with different colors and patterns,” he explained. “You’re putting the pieces together — and they literally would put your name on a piece of paper and send them off to China.”

Palladini said that today it takes around two weeks for consumers to receive a pair of customized Vans after placing an order.

“It’s gotten a lot better since I was a kid,” he recalled, laughing. “Back then it was three months later the shoes would come back.”

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