Originating in 1966, the Van Doren Rubber Company, now known as Vans, was born from humble beginnings in Anaheim, Calif. Brothers Paul and James Van Doren were interested in providing footwear directly to California customers without wholesaling to retailers.
Their East Broadway business captivated consumers and cut through the need of a middleman by producing shoes on the spot for those in need of footwear. It’s said that on their first day of business, the brothers sold shoes from scratch to 12 customers who all had their pairs ready for pickup that same afternoon.
Finding the Formula
Relying on simple construction, namely a canvas upper and waffle sole, the Van Doren brothers made waves early on by introducing the #44 Deck Shoe, a low profile silhouette that soon attracted the attention of local skateboarders. Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, the brand would expand their offerings of silhouettes, designing marquee models of various cuts and shapes.
At the time, Vans offerings relied on numeric notation much like that early #44. By 1976, the minds of Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta had created an updated version of the #44. This pair was backed by a padded ankle collar and is now known as the Era. Quickly, Vans expanded its offerings through signature branding, namely the jazz stripe and Off the Wall logo.
This marking drove both recognition and creativity, going on to stamp some of the most memorable skate sneakers of all time. To this day, staple styles from the early days remain in production from Vans, including the Old Skool, Sk8-Hi and Slip-On.
California Love to Global Growth
Over the course of its rise, Vans was built with the support of skateboarders and local customers. The brand’s reliance on waffle soles and canvas construction catapulted the mission the Van Doren’s courageously set out on, providing loyal skaters with low profile comfort and sticky traction. Eventually, the Van Dorens’ venture wasn’t just popping locally, it was also catching the attention of fans far removed from Anaheim.
Soon enough, skateboarding became popular not just on the West Coast but across the country and around the world, expanding the reach of Vans and adding new layers to their business model. Skaters such as Steve Caballero were making Vans their own, literally and figuratively, while the brand was also gaining steam in similar extreme sports including BMX and snowboarding.
Vans was not only pumping out more models, it was also moving more units. By the end of the 1970s, there were Vans stores across the California coast with its footwear soon stocked at retailers around the country and overseas.
Penetrating Pop Culture
Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the energy surrounding the skate scene saw Vans embraced by film fans and performers of the rock variety, including punk bands and purveyors of metal. Famously, Vans sneakers appeared on the feet of Sean Penn in the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” with stoner star character Jeff Spicoli sporting checkerboard Slip-Ons.
This cross-culture boom made Vans viable in skate shops and malls all over the globe, eventually giving way to the sonic explosion that was the Vans Warped Tour in 1995. For 14 years, the traveling music festival sponsored by the Anaheim shoe company allowed fans the access to see bands including Blink-182 and The Black Eyed Peas. Even high profile pop acts such as Katy Perry and Paramore cut their teeth by performing at The Warped Tour.
The combined decades of the ‘80s and ‘90s saw Vans faced with great adversity only to rise triumphantly. In 1984, the brand filed for bankruptcy despite soaring popularity. By 1987, all its creditors had been paid. Making the most of the momentum, Vans became publicly traded in 1991, offering shares of their brand on the Nasdaq Stock Market.
In the 1990s, Vans experienced tremendous growth but remained true to its roots. The rise in extreme sports saw the brand getting exposure on ESPN, while the growth of alternative rock and punk pop introduced the California company to consumers watching MTV. Vans was growing globally, catching attention from Forbes and the Sundance Film Festival as the new millennium began.
New Ideas for a New Millennium
Despite the outside acclaim from Hollywood and Wall Street, Vans stayed steady on the skate trail by taking their team of riders around the world in 2003. The Pleased to Meet You Tour introduced fans across America and in Europe to both the brand and its best skaters.
As skateboarding became even more popular in the 2000s, Vans continued to crossover into new fan bases while staying true to its early ethos. In the new millennium, the California-centric skate brand benefited from an embrace amongst hip-hop artists. The likes of Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco often wore classic models of the Vans variety, while Oakland-based outfit The Pack released a hit single based around the beloved brand. The bold color palettes of models such as the Sk8-Hi spoke to a young consumer, while the accessible price point of the time-tested designs made them easy to purchase and accessorize.
The world of high fashion was beginning to become enthralled with Vans during the early and late aughts, with designers such as Marc Jacobs and Junya Watanabe making over models. A renewed interest in Vans not just on the board but in casual settings helped birthed Vault by Vans, setting the stage for an array of collaborators to dress up the California classics while also allowing retailers to stock said shoes in lux leathers and smooth suedes.
Growth in the global market, online customization space and surf scene all spurred Vans in the 2000s as it celebrated 40 years of excellence and opened up a store in Shanghai. Though Vans remained consistent in the embrace of new designs and technology, fans of all sorts continued to flock to the archival classics it first released decades prior.
Doubling Down on Lessons Learned
In the 2010s, Vans continued to expand its reach in music and extreme sports. Collaborations with Tyler, the Creator’s Odd Future collective and acclaimed rapper Lupe Fiasco extended the cool cache amongst hip-hop fans, while album art iterations inspired by Metallica, Iron Maiden, Slayer and others kept the brand on the cutting edge when it came to rock ‘n’ roll. In a decade where artist endorsement meant more to the market than typical team sport athletes, the skate styles of Vans spoke to creatives who were changing culture.
In unpaid and truly authentic fashion, many of music’s most transcendent fashion icons including Frank Ocean, Jared Leto, Travis Scott, Mac DeMarco, Kanye West, Kid Cudi and others have endorsed styles ranging from the Slip-On to the Half Cab without a paid partnership. When it came to mixing music and fashion, Vans was walking to the beat of its own drum in the 2010s, and fans were here for it.
The brand continued to keep that same energy when it came to throwing parties, opening up the House of Vans event space in Brooklyn, NY. Famously, the House of Vans experience ventured to Austin, Texas for the South by Southwest Music Festival, while also touching down in Chicago. Live music has been a catalyst for the expansion of the Vans brand, but exciting ventures in retail have also extended the Van Doren Rubber Company’s reach.
Decades after debuting in Anaheim, new Vans stores from Manhattan to Mexico have allowed consumers to enjoy the California brand in new and archival ways, once again building the wave and reach of the skate staple.
Amplifying Certified Classics Through All Worlds of Art
Midway into the 2010s, Vans made major noise by collaborating with Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami for a range of Slip-Ons and co-branded skate decks. The embrace of Vans by the gallery world would be a major catalyst for the brand in said decade and beyond, as Vans worked with Van Gogh estate and the Museum of Modern Art.
High fashion and streetwear would also fall in love with Vans all over again, as seen by drops dressed up by the likes of Comme des Garçons, Supreme, Fear of God, Kenzo, WTAPs, ALYX Patta, Opening Ceremony and many others.
Since the start, Vans sneakers have flourished in function and simplicity, and are still highly regarded among skaters as a high-performance brand despite its most popular models relying on design that dates back decades prior. From a fashion standpoint, staples such as the Authentic, Era, Slip-On, Old Skool and Sk8-Hi have been collaborated on by the world’s most revered designers, and seemingly imitated in shape and sentiment by couture houses just the same. For Vans, collaboration has been the most meaningful form of expansion, while imitation has proven the highest form of flattery.
In true Vans fashion, collaboration is not only reserved for famous bands or graduates of design school. Since their start in 1966, Vans has allowed customers to customize their footwear. While kids in California once picked out their canvas colors at the East Broadway shop, the brand has been offering a virtual shoe building experience for almost two decades. These days, online shoppers can create their own Vans colorways on an array of models, from the classic Slip-On to the modern EVDNT UltimateWaffle model. The options, which include cinematic graphics, user photography and more, are seemingly endless, fun and have broad appeal.
The 2020s and Beyond
As always, it’s the fundamental ability to be worn by all ages and all backgrounds that gives Vans the ability to transcend cultures and time. Whether on the halfpipe or on the runway, the canvas clad kicks have served as a canvas for creatives of all iterations.
In recent years, Vans has brought in inspiration from the likes of A$AP Rocky, Karl Lagerfeld, Taka Hayashi and Gosha Rubchinskiy, while also showing love through licensing to estates tied to Spongebob Squarepants, Star Wars and The Beatles. Each collection proved the power to expand the tastes of Vans’ core consumers while also introducing music, fashion and film aficionados to the timeless models that make up the Vans archive.
One could say that the more things change, the more things stay the same for Vans. As the brand continues to roll forward in the 2020s and beyond, its humble beginnings of Anaheim have been surpassed but their mission to serve consumers has only expanded. Timeless design, real roots in skate culture and authenticity amongst artists make Vans the trusted brand for extreme sports athletes, rock royalty and collaborators from different cultures.
From brand stores in multiple continents to stockists all around the country, Vans is not only giving the world a fresh pair of sneakers, it is providing people with an accessible way to express themselves. Still releasing at price points that are friendly to all walks of life while also invading the upper crust territory of high fashion and gallery art, Vans occupies many markets but exists with a simplicity that reminds us we’re all living life in the same world.