Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli put Vans on the map. Kevin Bailey took it far beyond its Southern California roots.
Under Bailey, who calls himself “the world’s oldest teenager,” the once-tiny sneaker brand known for its Checkerboard Slip-On has evolved into an action sports powerhouse, at roughly $2.2 billion in yearly sales.
But Bailey, 55, is mindful of ensuring Vans continues to feel like a family-run operation and doesn’t lose its way, as it did in the 1980s with a bankruptcy filing and a range of odd product extensions.
“I’m making sure the culture of the brand — even as we’ve grown at this rapid pace — is deeply ingrained in all employees because we don’t want to lose that,” said Bailey, who worked at Vans from 2002 to 2007 and then returned to run it as president in 2009. “I’m also focused on defining the ways the brand will continue to grow. What are those places we will choose to put our emphasis on — that’s geographic, that’s product expansion and that’s using demand-creation properly.”
On March 16, Vans will unleash several initiatives to publicly celebrate its 50th anniversary. The Cypress, Calif.-based brand plans to expand its House of Vans pop-up concepts to 10 cities across the globe — with performances from Wu-Tang Clan, The Kills and Erykah Badu, among others — and debut an ad campaign that will highlight “creative expression.” Additionally, throughout the year, Vans will also re-release iconic products from its skate line with new colorways and updated technologies.
“We are going to put more emphasis on the pop-ups. They are platforms for celebrating our pillars for creative expression and will allow consumers to activate within us,” said Bailey. “The biggest thing is that we will look to celebrate our 50 years of heritage while pointing toward the future progression of the brand.”
Over the past 50 years, Vans has had a number of successful collaborations. What’s the secret?
KB: Collaborations are really tricky. There is a very fine line between collaborations and licensing, and that’s one of the most important things we take into account. We’d rather do more collaborations and less licensing. In fact, we say “no” far more than we say “yes.” Our pipeline is generally full years in advance. Any collab we do has to focus first on the aspirational channel via our Vault product — small runs, very tight, limited distributions globally. And then it has to be someone that comes from a similar place in terms of brand DNA; not in all cases, but in most, they have to have an affinity for the brand themselves and for some of our pillars: action sports, art, music and street culture.
How do you judge whether the collaborations are a hit?
KB: It’s more about what was the purpose of the collab. In some cases, it’s only meant for the boutique channel, and then it’s only about buzz. And [we’ll ask] did we build aspiration and do something that was inspiring to the marketplace and for ourselves? Sometimes it’s just a Vault collection — we’ve done limited runs where people think we’re crazy. They ask why we did so few shoes and why we didn’t charge more. To us, it’s making sure we seed aspiration.
Do you feel pressure as part of a public company to do mass-market things?
KB: VF and the Street understand our model. And they see the discipline we apply to releases. Even our basic core Classics, our original canvas vulcanized product, we don’t distribute very deeply to the biggest volume players out there because, in our eyes, that product is meant to be at a certain level. We think about our segmented distribution by consumer first — are they setting trends, following trends or last to adopt trends. And where do they shop, what product do they want and how do you speak to them with marketing. To some extent that’s been the secret sauce as to why Vans can exist in a Dover Street, Barneys and Colette, as well as JCPenney and Kohl’s.
Any collaborations over the years that missed the mark?
KB: At times Vans tried to make outdoor shoes without knowing what we were doing. We made break-dancing shoes at one point, weird running shoes. We even made shoes that were odd, like bowling shoes in the 1980s and roller skates. No collabs were really flops, it was more of those product-direction things.
After starting small with a shop in Anaheim, Vans recently hit $2.2 billion in sales. What’s the next target?
KB: We want to get to $2.9 billion for 2017. We feel we are on track for that. We are beginning to shape what the future looks like. We are coming off six years of consecutive double-digit growth every quarter, and we believe there is still a big runway for this brand.
Where will the growth come from?
KB: We’ll continue to focus on international growth. We look at geographic expansion as a key attribute of growth for the brand. Even here in the U.S., we have underpenetrated markets. We weren’t in New York in a meaningful way up until a few years ago. If Vans was to crack the code of not being a Southern California-only company, we had to crack New York.
Which market is hot right now?
KB: Asia is growing the fastest; it grew over 20 percent in the fourth quarter. And we still have big growth plans for there as we go into the future, but we’re still fairly young in Asia. The U.S. continued to grow the next fastest at a healthy pace. All regions are growing well, and we’re starting to convert more in Latin America.
What does Vans at 50 mean to you?
KB: It’s been a remarkable ride for Vans being a part of youth culture and celebrating creative expression at the core. It’s this beautifully messy time of life that kids go through, and Vans has been there. Being part of that keeps us young. We were there at the birth of skateboarding, and it’s amazing to see how much modern skateboarding has influenced culture and trends. The connection skateboarders have with so many parts of iconic culture — their ability to curate the cool from their tastes in music, their tastes in art, their tastes in fashion and the influences they’ve had in that greater world. They are the ones who are culturally connected. And being there from the day that modern skateboarding was born, the days of Dogtown, when Vans became the skate shoe of choice, to now, where we’re the No. 1 skate shoe brand in the world, has been remarkable.
How has the Vans consumer changed?
KB: The brand has always been about something bigger than sneakers. It was about creative expression. The sneakers were the vehicle for people to express themselves differently. They chose to wear checkerboards, crazy colors, skulls and crossbones. Boys wore hot pink. In the early days we recognized our greater calling was that we were a youth-culture brand. Skateboarding was our birthing, but we were a youth-culture brand. Today, it’s still that same general demographic. We don’t focus on that, though, we focus on the psychographic — people who like to express themselves creatively — and that’s allowed us to transcend age ranges.
What’s the biggest challenge facing Vans right now?
KB: It’s twofold. One is getting more of our product broadly known and getting more of our other product in front of them. The success we’ve been having with our weatherized Mountain Edition product is a good example of moving in that direction. The other piece is globalization. Global changes everything. It’s not about selling a California shoe brand internationally. It’s about recognizing that our consumer, especially the younger one, is so digitally connected to others around the world — kids in the U.S. care about what the kid in Shanghai is wearing and what the kid in Berlin is wearing, and the kid in Berlin wants to know what’s hot in Brazil — that we need to continue to create a product line that’s globally relevant.