Vans Founder Paul Van Doren Shares Lessons on ‘Authenticity’ in New Memoir

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Booth Moore
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Sixteen years before acquiring Supreme for $2 billion, VF Corp. acquired Vans, the proto streetwear brand started by Paul Van Doren in Anaheim, Calif., in 1966 that harnessed the power of skate and surf culture to become a global player, with a little help from the cult Hollywood film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

“They know what they are doing, they sized it up and saw an opportunity and thought they could grow that brand like they did with Vans, North Face and Timberland, so I respect them for getting out and seeing a company that will be successful and known worldwide,” Paul’s son Steve Van Doren, Vans’ vice president of events and promotions, said of VF and Supreme.

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That the Vans brand continues to thrive is a testament to how VF has largely left it alone, and to the continued guidance from Vans’ first family. (Granddaughter Kristy Van Doren is Vans’ senior director of marketing for the North Americas; granddaughter Jenny Battiest is merchandising manager for the Americas, and daughter Cheryl Van Doren is vice president of human resources.)

How did they do it? Now 90, patriarch Paul releases a business memoir today titled, “Authenticity” (Vertel Publishing) tracing his journey from Depression-era Randolph, Mass., to sunny SoCal, and the lessons he learned over six decades of building a people-first company. Here, a few takeaways from the pioneer’s Randolph Rubber Company-to-riches story and a recent Zoom interview with Paul and Steve.

The first cross-pollination of shoe and surf happened before Paul even started Vans.

A high school dropout with a natural talent for numbers and efficiency, he did such a good job optimizing assembly line production of canvas sneaker uppers at Randy’s Rubber Company East, they sent him to Randy’s West in Garden Grove, Calif., then the third largest shoe manufacturer in the U.S., to whip it into shape — which he did.

In the summer of 1964, in an effort to increase brand awareness, he set up a Randy’s booth at the U.S. Open of Surfing. While there, Paul met the legendary Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku, admired his aloha shirt, and offered to make him a matching pair of sneakers. When Duke got his shoes, the brand got its first taste of recognition from the surfing community. (Vans is now the title sponsor of the U.S. Open of Surfing, which will return this year after being canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic.)

He started Vans with $250,000 from investor Serge D’Elia and a whole lot of help from his family.

After a dispute with Randy’s management, Paul struck out on his own, with the intent of manufacturing shoes and selling them right out of the factory in Anaheim, Calif. His wife’s parents, his brother-in-law, brothers, son and daughters worked on construction, painting, and helped set up the machines and production rooms. When it was time to open, he even enlisted his school-age kids to distribute flyers in the neighborhood.

Vans’ famed waffle soles came about because of a flaw.

The diamond-patterned rubber soles cracked across the ball of the foot after only a short time of use. So the factory ended up creating a denser, waffle pattern that became a signature, and added grip for skateboarders. The slogan on the first shoebox was “Canvas Shoes for the Entire Family” by House of Vans, and the canvas deck shoes with rubber waffle soles were priced $2.29 to $4.49.

When interviewing people for jobs, the first thing Paul did was throw their résumés in the trash.

“I didn’t give a damn about the résumé, what I did care about was the person. If the person was right, the résumé would be OK. If the person was not, probably the résumé would show that he’s wonderful,” Paul explained. “The hardest thing in this industry is to sort between the guy who gives a s–t and the guy who really gives a s–t.”

When Vans opened its first retail store at the factory, Paul forgot to put cash in the register.

“It was so stupid,” he remembered, explaining that because he couldn’t make change, he had to rely on the honor system. “We sold something like 22 pairs of shoes that first day, and the remarkable thing is every single person came back and paid. Treat people like you would want to be treated.”

Steve worked retail at Vans starting at age 11.

“I had to put Stevie in a store when he was 11 because I ran out of help,” said Paul. “I got a letter from a customer who said it seemed appalling that someone his age would be put to work in a store, but after meeting Stevie, there was no question this next generation would be a great one.”

Customization has always been a point of difference, with Vans making custom styles to match women’s dresses and school team colors, selling customers two different colored shoes, or even a single shoe.

“The best teachers in the art of retail are the customers themselves,” Paul writes in the book, noting that the on-site factory (Vans now produces overseas) gave them the flexibility to offer a quick turnaround.

Huntington Beach High School had a lot to do with the iconic checkerboard motif.

“We saw the kids were drawing checkerboards on the rubber strip of the shoe, then we printed them on the rubber, and then the canvas,” said Steve. “That’s how that came about, just following the customers how they were leading us.”

Attending the 1972 Munich Olympics opened Paul’s eyes to the marketing potential of collaborating with athletes.

He saw first-hand the power athletes had to promote sneaker brands when Mark Spitz won his seventh gold medal and waved to the crowd with a pair of Adidas. Nike was also competing for sponsorships of athletes at the time. Sadly, the trip to the Games came to a tragic end when a Palestinian terrorist group took hostages and killed two Israeli Olympians.

Skaters were early supporters of the brand, and are still its most loyal tribe.

After the Olympics, Paul started thinking about creating an opportunity to support skaters, who liked Vans because they could feel the board under their feet, the rubber soles stuck, and were thick enough to last. If the shoe on their dominant foot did wear out faster, the shoemaker would sell a single replacement.

Seeing the potential to collaborate with their Z-boys customers, Paul invited Stacy Peralta and Tony Alva down to Orange County to talk about shoe design and get some free sneakers, eventually forming the Vans skate team, which grew into the Vans surf team and Vans BMX team.

Skaters and surfers became a part of the Vans family and helped them branch out beyond the sneaker market. Vans has opened a number of skate parks around the country in recent years, and Alva narrates the audio version of Van Doren’s book, “Authentic.”

Vans appeared in cult film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” because Sean Penn was a fan.

Penn visited the Santa Monica Vans store often and bought a pair of checkerboard slip-ons for his own use. The brand’s store manager became the brand PR manager shortly after, and delivered 24 pairs of the sneakers to Universal Studios in a clever marketing push. When the shoes showed up on Penn’s character Jeff Spicoli on screen in 1982, Vans became a nationwide sensation, growing from a $20 million to a $40 million company.

The company’s success led to a family rift.

When Paul retired (for the first time) in 1980, his youngest brother Jimmy Van Doren took the helm. After four years of big spending and ill-fated forays into the athletic shoe market, Vans racked up $12 million in debt and was forced to enter Chapter 11. As part of the reorganization, Paul came out of retirement to be president. The bankruptcy court agreed to a settlement that would have Vans paying 25 cents on every dollar owed.

“He thought that was wrong,” Steve said. “So he had them put him on a three-and-a-half- or four-year plan and he did it, and all the people respected him because he did what he said, and didn’t shave off money. That’s integrity.” The belt-tightening was so drastic, employees had to bring toilet paper from home at one point, the book reveals. “With success comes reputation, with hardship comes character,” Paul writes.

Vans saw the branding power of live music events long before Coachella.

Approached by lifelong customer Kevin Lyman about sponsoring the Warped music tour in 1995, Steve suggested combining it with an amateur skateboarding contest. The resulting Vans Warped Tour ran for 25 years, becoming a launchpad for Katy Perry, Green Day, Eminem, Black Eyed Peas and more. Little known fact: Vans narrowly beat out Calvin Klein as the sponsor.

Vans was early on to fashion’s collaboration fever.

By the ’90s, Vans had collaborated with Disney and Pendleton and “Star Wars,” but its 1996 collaboration with then-fledgling New York skate shop Supreme may have been its most hyped. In 2003, the Vans Vault collection brought back classics and helped it break into the high-fashion scene through tie-ups with Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs and more.

VF has been a good steward.

“VF understands how a company’s origin story can strengthen the brand,” Paul writes, explaining how the brand has tweaked classic designs but not overhauled them, while honoring heritage by reissuing the Duke Kahanamoku shoe, for example. In its first five years of ownership, VF took the brand international, expanding Vans to 84 countries and more than 2,000 stores, and increasing revenues from $750 million to $2 billion.

The brand guards its trademarked checkerboard closely, but also values self-expression.

Would the Van Dorens have sued MSCHF like Nike did over Satan shoes? “I don’t think so, but anytime anyone uses checkerboard on footwear, that was something we fought for, and we have a registered trademark for it on shoes, so it’s very protected for us — and in hundreds of countries around the world,” Steve said.

When it comes to success, Vans would be hard to replicate.

“Vans is a special playbook based on people first, then business,” said Paul. On the subject of the book’s title, he said, “At first, I didn’t like the name but I got to understand it. Authentic is the real thing. We are the real thing.”

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