As a kid growing up it was either Nike or adidas for me, mostly the latter. I lived in the North West of England not the West Coast of America, so brands like Converse and Vans seemed a million miles away and dare I say it, a bit weird. They were what other people wore. A brief flirtation with skateboarding wasn’t enough to change my mind, my only deviation was to Puma or Reebok. There was also an ill-fated pair of L.A Gear that someone once threw an egg at. I’d forgotten about that until now.
Anyway, as you get older your influences become wider, you see a bit more of the world, meet different people that challenge your perceptions of what’s cool and what isn’t. Vans are a perfect example of something I wasn’t really into but have come to really appreciate. The recent passing James Van Doren, one of the founding brothers behind the brand brought them back into focus for me, though for some Vans has never been out of focus. And for good reason.
While most of England was revelling in a World Cup win in 1966, the Van Doren Rubber Co. was busying itself building a business in Anaheim, Orange County, California. James and his brother Paul wanted to cut out the middle man and offer the public their distinctive thick soled shoes directly to the public. Their early years coincided with the burgeoning skateboarding culture in Southern California and the suitability of their footwear for skateboarding earned them a strong appreciation from that community.
While Vans have come to be synonymous with Californian culture, James and Paul Van Doren were brought up on the East Coast in Boston. Paul had an early passion for race horses and often skipped school in favour of a trip to the track. His mother eventually got him nailed down to a job at a shoe manufacturer called Randy’s.
In the early 60s Randy’s had an ailing factory in Gardenvale, California. Paul, his brother James, and a friend named Gordon Lee were despatched out there to oversee a reversal in fortunes. Soon after though, the trio decided to go it alone with the help of a Belgian friend called Serge D’Elia. This was the beginning of Vans.
Their factory and retail premises in Anaheim opened a couple of months late in March 1966, though there was hardly any stock. The first few customers through the door were treated to custom made Vans, based on their own individual specifications. That’s a theme which has recurred down the years and forms a large part of their history. By the end of their first week, Vans had managed to get a decent stock of shoes in their shop and supplemented that with large orders for local schools and organisations. Before Vans, only Randy’s, Converse and Keds were making shoes with vulcanised rubber soles so although there wasn’t loads of competition they needed a point of difference. This is where James Van Doren excelled. He created better, thicker moulds than other brands and Vans used a higher grade of canvas. Word of mouth played an important part in the growth of the brand. They made good shoes and people appreciated them enough to tell their friends.
Most successful clothing and footwear brands have at some point received a shot in the arm from high profile endorsement. This too is true of Vans. There have been two notable appearances for Vans on the big screen. The first came in the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In it, a young Sean Penn plays a California teenager. Check out the trailer and watch it till the end.
Next up was the 2001 documentary narrated by Sean Penn called Dogtown and Z-Boys. Penn himself had lived and surfed in the area the documentary centres on. Anyone into skateboards (even for a two week period in the late 80s, like me) should watch this. When I mentioned changing perceptions of a brand and understanding why it’s properly cool, this is the catalyst.
Vans really prospered around the time of Fast Times and Ridgemont High, so much so their appetite for growth was their downfall. Tough times in the mid-80s were replaced by a prosperous period that has continued ever since.
When we found out about the passing of James Van Doren recently we at Oi Polloi thought it was about time we explained our deep appreciation for the brand he created with his brother and friends. Naturally, it fell the the adidas weirdo to write it but while swotting up on the Vans story I’ve gained a new found respect for the brand. When it comes to the cool factor, brand integrity and all round aceness, they’re right up there with anyone. I’m well getting a pair.