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Vans shoes: a happily checkered past

The shoe brand was a runaway success after Sean Penn wore its checkerboard slip-ons in 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High.' A book about the company, 'Vans: Off the Wall,' is due out in June.

May 24, 2009|Adam Tschorn

Vans' association with the skaters grew, and Stacy Peralta was the company's first sponsored skater, later joined by Tony Alva. In 1976, the duo helped design the first dedicated skate shoe.

Since then, Vans has collaborated with an astonishingly wide range of taste makers from the worlds of action sports (Alva, Rowley, Steve Caballero), fashion (Marc Jacobs, Trovata), music (KISS, Iron Maiden, No Doubt), art (Mister Cartoon, Neckface) and beyond.

And while the ability to create custom Vans has been online for years, the company recently revamped the process, bringing it into the age of smart phones and instant-messaging. Now customers can share their designs -- and seek input from friends via chat.

The checkerboard was a byproduct of customization: It originally appeared on the friction tape (the rubber strip around the bottom of the shoe) after being chosen as the winner in a design contest. In 1981, the pattern was used in Vans' first printed fabric uppers, and a few months later (long before the era of product placement), Sean Penn wore his own checkered pair as part of the wardrobe for his character Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." It was a fateful choice for Vans.

" 'Fast Times' definitely put us on the map," Van Doren said. "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."

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Less visible, but just as important to the company, was a bit of Paul Van Doren business strategy. He sold shoes from company-owned stores, mom-and-pop surf shops and larger chains -- with specific designs for each market -- vowing that no single retailer would account for more that 5% of his production, his son said. The far-reaching effects of keeping all his eggs in separate baskets can be seen today. In fact, Wedbush Morgan's Mintz says that's the main reason the brand has continued to perform well even in the midst of an economic downturn.

"The advantage Vans has is its broad customer base; you can find them anywhere from a high-end boutique to a core surf/skate shop or a Macy's or a JCPenney," he says. "They've managed to segment the brand so it has so many potential customers and is in so many channels of distribution. It's all different product, but it all has that Vans DNA."

The result is a brand that manages to remain authentic not only to preteen skaters and the fashion flock but also their parents, the ones who remember wearing them when they were kids.

On a recent afternoon at corporate headquarters, Steve Van Doren sat surrounded by checkerboard ephemera and reminders of his father's business acumen. That "Vans DNA" was on full display on his feet, which were shod in Vans slip-ons made from a woven fabric in a traditional Native American design. Sitting on his desk was a pair bearing an artist's rendering of steaks, burgers and dogs sizzling on the barbecue grill. Both are one-of-a-kind creations that aren't in production.

"No, you can't buy these," he said with a chuckle.

But given the legacy of his father's business sense -- and the resources of one of the largest apparel companies in the world, chances are it won't be too long before you can.

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adam.tschorn@latimes.com

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