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The Lasting Influence of Vans Cofounder Paul Van Doren

Vans cofounder Paul Van Doren has died at 90. His death comes just over a week after the release of his autobiography, “Authentic: A Memoir by the Founder of Vans.”

“It is with a heavy heart that Vans announces the passing of our cofounder Paul Van Doren,” Vans said in a statement following Doren’s death on May 6. “Paul was not just an entrepreneur; he was an innovator. The Van Doren Rubber Co. was the culmination of a lifetime of experimentation and hard work in the shoe industry. Like Paul, from the first day of business, Vans was uniquely innovative. When the first Vans store opened, there were no stand-alone retail stores just for sneakers. Paul’s bold experiments in product design, distribution, and marketing, along with his knack for numbers, and a genius for efficiency turned Paul’s family shoe business into an all-American success story.”

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Van Doren Rubber Co. & '70s Skate Culture

Vans shoes gained a cult following among skateboarders in the ‘70s, and quickly became ubiquitous due to their rubber grip, relatively cheap cost, and endless design options. Vans has evolved from very modest beginnings in the 1960s to what is now a multi-billion-dollar a year business, and has managed to retain its street cred with successive generations of skaters and fashion-forward buyers for decades.

In recent years Vans has been embraced by the art and fashion worlds, with the company launching a number of widely popular sneaker and clothing collaborations featuring streetwear companies like Supreme, pop-culture brands including Peanuts and The Simpsons, and bands raging from Public Enemy to The Beatles. The company also spearheaded the annual Vans Warped Tour skateboarding and music festival from 1996-2019, featuring a massive lineup of punk mainstays like NOFX, Bad Religion, and Pennywise, alongside future breakout stars including Katy Perry, Limp Bizkit, a pre-Fergie Black Eyed Peas, and even Eminem. 

It’s hard to imagine a world without Vans given how commonplace the white-soled skate shoes have become, but the company started on a very practical scale. Doren was a high school dropout and started the first Vans store (then known as the Van Doren Rubber Co.) in 1966 with his brother James and three friends. That first Vans store in Anaheim, California, only offered three styles to choose from, with prices ranging from $2.49 to a whopping $4.99.

From the very beginning, Vans offered a product that looked like nothing else on the shelves. Inspired by the Hawaiian shirt styles sported by local surfers at the time, the colorful early designs were often made to order at the shop, with customers returning to pick up their new kicks the next day. The early days of the company were workmanlike in nearly every way – instead of cleverly naming each new model of shoe they put out, they would simply number them. The first model to hit the shelves was simply known #44 (now known as the Authentic).

With their thick soles and strong canvas material, Vans were quickly adapted by the burgeoning California skateboarding scene, including legendary skateboarders like Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta, who designed the popular “Era” model of Vans in 1975. By beefing up the padding in the collar of the #44 shoe, the Era was the first shoe designed by skateboarders for the express purpose of skateboarding, which only solidified the company even further in the hearts and “soles” of California’s pool shredders.

Another advantage Vans had over its competitors was the ability for customers to buy a single shoe if need be, a boon for skateboarders who would often wear out one shoe from grinding before the other.

Following their success with working directly with skateboarders and the community, Vans next brought out their slip-on model, which married the durability of the classic Vans model with the laid-back style of comfortable boat shoes. Needless to say, the slip-ons were a huge hit on the West Coast, and the various colored checkered designs spurred Vans towards greater success and mainstream appeal.

Jeff Spicoli (played by Sean Penn) and friends wearing Vans from Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Fast Times & Warped Tour Success

For all the marketing work the Southern California skating and surfing comminutes were putting in by religiously sporting Vans in photo shoots and ad campaigns, much of the success of Vans can be laid at the feet of one Jeff Spicoli. The California burnout character played by Sean Penn in Amy Heckerling’s 1982 comedy classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High sported a pair of black-and-white checkered slip-ons in the film, and the massive reaction from the public launched Vans into a new stratosphere of popularity.

“We were about a $20-million company before the movie came out, and we were on track for $40 million to $45 million after that,” Doren said in an interview in 2016, showcasing just how much of an impact Penn’s stoner character had on the company. (You can now purchase “Spicoli” sunglasses from Vans, a nod to the enduring connection between the sweetly dopey character and the company’s stratospheric rise in the ‘80s.)

Despite years of growing popularity and sales, Vans took a dip in 1984 after trying to expand too rapidly into footwear designed for a huge range of sports, including volleyball and breakdancing. (Anyone have a lead on a pair of those?) Doren had initially retired back in 1976, but returned to helm the company through its bankruptcy and eventual return to prominence.

While the company may have struggled to find its footing in the late ’80 and ‘90s, it’s hard to overestimate the influence Vans had on the hundreds of thousands of attendees of the Warped Tour. After a small but promising first year of the festival, Vans came onboard as the festival’s primary sponsor for its second edition in 1996 and beyond, and the Vans name became synonymous with skateboarding and aggressive music for a whole new generation of fans.

Vans logos were plastered throughout the festival grounds in parking lots across North America each summer as the tour progressed from town to town. In addition to the marketing blitz, concertgoers could check out live skateboarding demos throughout the day (including some participants sponsored by Vans) and move between a number of stages to check out dozens of punk, hardcore, hip hop, and ska bands, most of which were eager to sport a pair of Vans on-stage. The Suicide Machines, a ska-punk staple of the Warped Tour, even dedicated a track to their favorite shoe with 1996’s “The Vans Song”: “Don’t need no Doctor Martins, can’t wear no Birkenstocks / Just a crummy old pair of Chucka boots and a smelly old pair of socks.”

Collabs & Firm Footing in Pop Culture

With a new generation of diehard fans, Vans’ influence on fashion via a huge range of youth subcultures has essentially been unrivalled in the past 20-odd years. Those multi-colored checkered slip-ons were must-haves during the ‘90s ska boom, with kids in every town hitting up their local mall to get outfitted for a night of skanking along to Less Than Jake or Save Ferris in their bedrooms. (Hey, it was a different time.)

While the popularity of Vans has never wavered in the skateboarding community, a number of highly influential collaboration campaigns in recent years has exposed the company to its largest and most diverse buyers to date.

Some highlights include:

Vans x Supreme collab shoe

Vans x Supreme

Vans has collaborated with the streetwear company Supreme on a number of occasions, including this eye-catching update on the classic Era Pro model in “Motion Logo Black,” inspired by the Saul Bass title sequence from Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime classic Goodfellas.

Vans x The Beatles

Everyone’s dad suddenly got into Vans when they teamed up with The Beatles for a trippy line based on The Fab Four’s 1966 animated classic, Yellow Submarine. Consisting of four pieces with individual images and colorways based off the film, these are some of the most striking shoes Vans has ever released.

Vans x Beatles collab shoe
Vans x Peanuts collab shoe

Vans x Peanuts

In what might be Vans’ most prolific collaboration, the company has teamed up repeatedly with the estate of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz to release a number of shoes and apparel featuring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the entire gang. With Schulz’s iconic drawings front and center, Vans really went to town here, offering up dozens of eye-catching sneakers, shirts, knapsacks, and much more.

Vans x Star Wars

Back in 2014, Vans linked up with Star Wars for a small line of sneakers to commemorate the original trilogy of films (so no Jar Jar hi-tops). With colorways based on Boba Fett’s costume design and slip-ons featuring the classic 1977 film poster art, these were a smash out of the gate, with a number of models selling out in the first week.

Vans x Star Wars collab shoe

Over half a century since its founding, Vans continues to exert a massive influence on youth fashion, while still appealing to those who grew up with the company decades earlier. There are very few other brands that appeal to both up-and-coming Soundcloud rappers and grizzled ‘70s skateboard vets, which speaks to how ingrained Vans has become with each new generation of kids.

Much of that appeal can be traced right back to Paul Van Doren, who took a people-first approach from the very beginning, by ensuring Vans were affordable and by dealing directly with skate shops from their very inception. That respect can still be felt today – the average pair of Vans is considerably cheaper than their streetwear competition, making a pair of Vans readily attainable for a wide swath of young consumers.

Vans shared a quote from Doren after his passing that perfectly encapsulates his vision of the company, and why it continues to be so relevant and influential to this day: “Do what’s right. Stand behind what you do every single minute of every day. Take care of people.”

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