How Skateboarders (and Sean Penn) Turned Vans into a Fashion Powerhouse

In a new memoir, Vans founder Paul Van Doren recalls how his tiny Anaheim company went global

The quintessential Southern California shoe was created by a guy from Boston. Paul Van Doren launched Vans in Anaheim in 1966. After a bankruptcy in 1984 and sale to North Face owner VF Corporation in 2004, the brand is now a $4 billion colossus. Here, Van Doren, 90—whose memoir, Authentic, just dropped—and his son Steve, 65, share the stories behind the wildest custom shoes they’ve made and reveal how skateboarders transformed Vans and Fast Times at Ridgemont High nearly killed it.

When you started Vans, you’d been in the shoe business 20 years but on the manufacturing side.

PVD: I didn’t know a thing about retail. The first person gave me a $5 bill; a pair of shoes was $2.49. But I didn’t have any money in the cash register, so I gave her the shoes. We ended up selling 16 or 18 pair of shoes that day. You know what? I said, “Come back later to pay.” Every one of those people came back and paid.

What helped the company succeed in the beginning?

PVD: It was us reaching out to each and every person, whether it be [World Champion skateboarder] Tony Alva or a mom. It wasn’t some great idea that all of a sudden blossomed. With moms, we made custom shoes for her because we didn’t know what the hell to do with moms. We said to mom, “You want pink shoes? Just bring a piece of material. I’ll make you up a pair.” Mom would say, “What’s that gonna cost?” And we’d say, “Just 50 cents extra!”

That flexibility helped make Vans the go-to shoe for the legendary Z-Boys skateboard team.

PVD: Everybody else was kicking these kids out of the park, kicking them out of pools. And here’s a company listening to them, backing them, and making shoes for them. Then we started giving shoes away. Stacy Peralta was the first athlete that we paid money to on a monthly basis to wear our shoes.

SVD: It was like a bond with the athletes. They gave us purpose in the early days by adopting our shoes because they found out that they wore really well and it was a Southern California style.

PVD: Tony Alva came in wanting one shoe because even though our shoes were well-made he’d wear out one faster than the other. Nobody else sells just one shoe. We did.

The slip-on, which many consider the quintessential Vans style, really blew up after Sean Penn’s Spicoli character wore a checkerboard pair in Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982.

PVD: Sean went into the store and bought a pair.

SVD: It was a blessing because all of a sudden sales nearly doubled. But then the money that we were making from that was going into the athletic shoes [to compete against Nike and Adidas], which wasn’t a good business for us.

What’s the wildest custom shoes you’ve made for celebs?

SVD: Jackson Browne gave us a snakeskin jacket to makes shoes out of. “Weird Al” Yankovic loves Vans. I found this troll-doll hair—orange and yellow and green and purple—in Australia. I made him a pair of a high tops out of that.

What’s your personal Vans shoe of choice?

PVD: The UltraRange. Black with a white stripe. It’s what I’m wearing now.

SVD: ComfyCush slip-ons, the brighter the better. I’ve got 400 pairs. My wife won’t let me keep them at the house anymore, so I have to keep them at the warehouse.

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