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Sneak(er) Peak Into Vans

What does this picture remind you of?

Chess? A race flag?

Well, aside from these, this design also served another important purpose.

It became the reason for Vans to become among the leading brands for shoes.

So how did this design help Vans?

Here’s how:

These pair of shoes went on to become the most iconic pair of shoes by Vans and are available for sale even to this date.

But let’s go back a little to when it all started.

In 1966 in California, 2 brothers named Paul Van Doren and James Van Doren, both of whom worked for a company named Randolph Rubber Manufacturing Company, decided to start a company of their own.

Their impetus in doing so was mainly the fact that shoe makers at the time earned a measly margin while most of the profit was lost to the retailers. They decided to disintermediate by selling their footwear directly to their consumers, thereby reducing the price of the shoes while also increasing their own margins.

“House of Vans”, their new manufacturing plant, was set up in that same year, a 400-foot retail space on the streets of Anaheim, California.

Now here’s what you ordinarily wouldn’t do if you opened a shoe store. You wouldn’t not have shoes to sell.

On the inaugural day, 12 customers walked into the shop to purchase a pair of shoes. However, Vans had only display shoes to show to their customers and no shoes in stock to sell immediately.

The 12 customers were asked to place an order for their shoes, which they would have to come back to get later in the day. A bold move played by Vans considering that the customers could have quite likely gone to another shoe shop and purchased their desired pair of shoes on the spot.

But something about their shoes made all those customers place an order and come back to get them.

Having stretched their luck, Vans did however, manage to manufacture the shoes on time and were able to save their reputation which could have easily fallen flat with an approach such as this one.

But here’s what’s even more appalling. They let the customers walk away with the shoes, trusting they would come back and pay for them the next day, because the store wasn’t ready with a cash register and they couldn’t make change to give back. Lucky for them, the customers did come back the next day and paid for their purchases.

They worked on these pitfalls and soon got their act together. They expanded eventually, adding stores in California, soon at about one store per week.

Now, reduced prices wasn’t their sole reason to do well. The other reason was their sole. They knew how the competitors’ shoes wore out fast and they decided to address that challenge through Vans. Vans thickened the size of the sole, making it the ideal replacement to other shoes because of the intensive skateboarding. They quickly came to be known for delivering the best thick sole American sneakers around.

Another unique addition was the waffle grip underneath.

The waffle sole fortified the grip on the skateboards better, another essential feature for the skateboarders.

Lastly, the shoe design was appealing, with Vans coming out with compelling and eye-catching designs, complementing the style of the youth.

Skaters in California found Vans to be the perfect shoe to wear and Vans quickly gained traction among the skaters and gained a reputation for being skating shoes, a market position that Vans had not particularly intended to occupy.

Now, California was a hotspot for skaters and surfers at the time, and Vans became the shoe for these sport enthusiasts.

To add to this, personalities famous among skateboarders, such as Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta approached the company in 1975, with the idea of making custom sneakers specifically for skateboarding. Tony and Stacy became the driving force behind the success of these customized pair of shoes that was named ‘#95’.

By the end of the 70’s, Vans had successfully opened 70 stores in California and sold through dealers nationally and internationally, with majority of sales still taking place in California. Having acquired their strong hold in California, it was time to spread to the rest of the country.

And how that happened was rather...fortuitous.

With 1982, came the movie ‘Fast times at Ridgemont High’, featuring a character named Jeff Spicoli. Jeff went on to become the primary reason why Vans saw a meteoric rise in demand. Jeff was an epitomised embodiment of a surfer who wore the classic checkerboard patterned Vans in the movie.

These pairs of shoes got a considerable amount of screen time, making it an eye-catching part of Jeff’s personality, resulting in it becoming desirable among people all over the country. The movie performed considerably well at the box office and the sales of Vans after the release of the movie went berserk:

Owing to the new found success, they decided to widen their horizons beyond skateboarding. They decided to make shoes for every purpose including running, football, break dancing and even sky-diving. The series of favouring events would have you believe that sales would spike north after this.

Well, Vans filled for bankruptcy in 1984.They were 12 million dollars in debt as a result of trying to fit too much on their plate. They lost their product mix consistency, that being specialising in skateboarding shoes and although their classic skateboarding shoes kept selling, the other products didn’t prove to be as profitable, resulting in an overall net loss.

Miraculously, the court approved their plan of re-organisation and as Paul returned as the President, they focused on the quality of their shoes and repaid ever cent they owed by 1987. And Vans was back with a bang.

A year later Vans brought the result of the revised business decisions in the form of Steve Caballero, the first signature skate shoe.This was going to be the last contribution of the Vans brothers to the company. Later in the year, Vans was bought out for 74 million dollars by McCown De Leeuw & Co. The new owners aimed to re-establish Vans and focus on what they do best, make skateboarding shoes.

But of course, the ride was bumpy. In Jan 1995, it laid of 450 employees, and 5 months later closed its manufacturing plant in Orange County and laid off an additional 1000 employees, moving more of its production overseas. Miraculously, despite all of this, their sales increased, and the company went on the sponsor the first Vans Warped Tour, a summer festival attracting skateboards and punk rock.

In 2004, McCown De Leeuw & Co. sold Vans to VF Corporation for a whopping 400 million dollars. The ride for Vans became less tumultuous after this point and it went on to collaborate with Supreme to offer customers to customise shoes online as they please. Another unanticipated boost in sales courtesy of the song “Vans”, by “The Pack”, a hip-hop group. This occurred in 2006, and sales sky-rocketed going forward.

Vans now generates over 2 billion dollars a year and has stores all over the world. It continues to focus on its classics and strongly supports its ambassadors and the culture that made Vans what it is.

Vans has survived a rather rough journey to make it to where it is. But, here’s an interesting argument. A lot of what worked in favour of Vans wasn’t by design and Vans managed to scrape its way through bankruptcy or near bankruptcy more than once.

With all things considered, did Vans survive due to its competency or does it owe its success to fortuitous circumstances?


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