Just days after publishing his book, “Authentic: A Memoir by the Founder of Vans,” Paul Van Doren has died at age 90.
Born in Depression-era Randolph, Mass., he moved to sunny Southern California in the 1960s, where he built a checkerboard shoe empire that harnessed the power of skate and surf culture to become a global streetwear player — with a little help from the cult Hollywood film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and actor Sean Penn, who wore the classic Vans checkerboard slip-on sneaker on-screen and sent its popularity soaring.
VF Corp. bought Vans in 2004 in a $396 million deal, and has grown it to $2 billion-plus in annual revenue. But the brand has always been a family business at heart.
In 1966, Van Doren, his brother James, and their partners Gordon C. Lee and Serge Delia opened the first Vans store under the name The Van Doren Rubber Company in Anaheim, Calif. The business manufactured shoes and sold them directly to the public, and the slogan on the first shoebox was “Canvas Shoes for the Entire Family” by House of Vans, back when the canvas deck shoes with rubber waffle soles were priced $2.29 to $4.49.
Van Doren’s school-age kids distributed flyers to reveal the opening, and worked in the first stores — and the family still hold roles at Vans today. Paul’s son Steve Van Doren is Vans’ vice president of events and promotions; 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.
“Paul was not just an entrepreneur; he was an innovator. The Van Doren Rubber Company was the culmination of a lifetime of experimentation and hard work in the shoe industry,” the Vans company said in a statement. “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.”
A high school dropout with a natural talent for numbers and efficiency, Paul Van Doren did such a good job optimizing assembly line production of canvas sneaker uppers at Randy’s Rubber Company East in Randolph, Mass., that management 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 for Randy’s, he set up a booth at the U.S. Open of Surfing. While there, Paul met 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.)
After a dispute with Randy’s management, Paul struck out on his own with $250,000 investment from Delia, and 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 enlisted his school-age kids to distribute flyers in the neighborhood.
Vans’ signature waffle soles actually came about because of a flaw. The original 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 calling card, and added grip for skateboarders, who would become the brand’s first influencers.
Customization was a point of differentiation for the brand from the beginning, with Vans making custom styles to match women’s dresses and school team colors, selling customers two colored shoes, or even a single shoe.
“The best teachers in the art of retail are the customers themselves,” Van Doren wrote in his book, noting that the on-site factory (Vans now produces overseas) gave them the flexibility to offer a quick turnaround.
Speaking both to moms and kids was a key driver of sales from the beginning. And Huntington Beach High School had something to do with the creation of 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,” Steve Van Doren said in a recent interview. “That’s how that came about, just following the customers how they were leading us.”
When Paul Van Doren attended the 1972 Munich Olympics, he got his first taste of how big the sneaker market could be—and the marketing potential of collaborating with athletes, when Mark Spitz won his seventh gold medal and waved to the crowd with a pair of Adidas.
Closer to home, skaters became Vans’ tribe. They liked Vans because they could feel the board under their feet, the rubber soles stuck, and were thick enough to last. And if the shoe on their dominant foot did wear out faster, Vans would sell them a single replacement.
Seeing the potential to collaborate with their Dogtown and 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.
These daredevils came to embody the brand’s fierce individualism, expressed in its “Off the Wall” tagline, and helped Vans reach beyond the sneaker market.
Hollywood gave Vans more pop culture exposure through “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” in 1982.
As the story goes, Penn was a personal fan. The Santa Monica native visited his local 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, Vans became a sensation, growing from a $20 million to a $40 million company.
Paul Van Doren retired (for the first time) in 1980, and his youngest brother Jimmy Van Doren took the helm. But 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,” his son Steve said, sharing an anecdote that shaped his view of his father’s character. “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 memoir reveals. “With success comes reputation, with hardship comes character,” Paul wrote.