Back in 2002, when Rian Pozzebon, who was then a relative unknown in the sneaker community, got the offer to join Vans and help rebuild the brand’s ailing skate shoe program with his longtime friend and colleague Jon Warren, he had one big question: “Will they let us mess with the classics?”
At the time, Vans wasn’t particularly interested in core models like the Slip-On, Old Skool, and Authentic. “The classics just kind of existed,” says Pozzebon. “But they weren’t pushed.” Instead, they languished—in just a few basic colors—in Vans stores.
The company’s focus was directed elsewhere, on newer styles. After riding the wave of the ‘90s skateboarding boom, Vans faced new competition from younger skate shoe brands like DC and Osiris. These companies—born only a few years earlier—favored a chunkier, more tech-forward silhouette (a word the fashion community uses to describe the shape of a shoe). Vans’ retro styling, by comparison, felt stale. By the early years of the new millennium, nearly a decade of sustained growth had fallen off—as had customers’ goodwill.
“I just never took it seriously as a lifestyle shoe. At all,” Brian Trunzo, senior menswear trend forecaster at WGSN, says of his feelings about Vans at the time. Beset by new competition in its core skate market and ignored by trendsetting sneakerheads who preferred the Air Force 1 or Adidas Superstar, Vans seemed on the verge of slipping into irrelevance.
And here was Pozzebon—not even an employee yet—asking if he could look backwards instead of forwards to inform his design decisions. It was a bold question, to say the very least. And yet. “When we came and interviewed they were like, ‘Whatever it takes. Whatever you need,’” he recalls. Whether or not he fully knew it at the time, he’d landed on something that would prove crucial for the brand’s future success.
“It was that vintage piece,” says Pozzebon, now the head of footwear design for the company’s Classics, California Collection, and Vault divisions. “At the time, Vans didn’t necessarily know what they really had.”
By focusing on that element of the company’s DNA, Pozzebon and his design team led Vans through a turnaround that was nothing short of staggering. The brand has become a staple of American footwear culture, on the level with iconic brands like Converse (which is twice as old) and Nike (which is nearly 10 times as large). Vans are worn by celebrities and fashion influencers, the jeans and T-shirt crowd who rarely pay attention to what’s stylish, teenagers and toddlers, alike. What makes it all the more impressive—especially in an age of unprecedented technological innovation—is that it leaned on just five classic styles to drive its cultural relevance, which arguably have never been higher, as well as its sales, which have inarguably never been higher.
The Van Doren Rubber Company opened at 704 E. Broadway in Anaheim, California, on March 16, 1966. Founded by brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren (along with business partners Gordon Lee and Serge Delia), the company—which got its name from Van Doren—was unique in that it manufactured shoes onsite and sold them directly to the public. The shoes themselves were unique for another reason.
“When my dad built the company—the shoe—he made the outsole twice as thick as the other competitors at the time,” says Steve Van Doren, Paul’s son and, officially, Vans vice president of events and promotions. (Unofficially, with his laid-back charm and boundless enthusiasm, he’s basically the spirit of the brand, personified.) Though the first Vans classic—style #44, now known as the Authentic—was conceived as a deck shoe, it wasn’t too long before early skateboarders took note of the increased durability and the grip the now-signature waffle soles provided.
By the mid-‘70s, skateboarding was a genuine phenomenon, with its own set of rising stars. Vans quickly noticed, driving guys like Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva, and Jerry Valdez—all three of whom would become legends of the sport—from location to location in a van, and hooking them up with sneakers. Van Doren saw it as an easy tradeoff. A few free shoes for the guys in exchange for entrée into a whole new community.
That year, with the help of Alva and Peralta, Vans launched the Era. Its padded collar provided some extra ankle protection, and it rapidly became the skater’s shoe of choice. The Old Skool, the first pair to feature the signature Vans “jazz” stripe, arrived a year later in 1977, followed by the Sk8-Hi in ’78.
“I’m so loyal to them,” Van Doren says of the skaters, surfers, and other athletes who wore Vans in the early days. “They made our company. It was a small, little thing versus football and basketball and baseball, but they’re super loyal.”
The ‘80s, for its part, brought both highs and lows for Vans. On the high side (in all senses of the word) were Sean Penn’s Jeff Spiccoli and his checkerboard Slip-Ons. Though the style debuted in ’77, it took Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s iconic stoner to launch the shoes—and the pattern—into the international spotlight in 1982. Van Doren says the idea for the bold graphic was inspired by Vans’ customers. They were coloring in the midsole on their own, and the brand took note. Despite its now-iconic status, the decision to move the motif from the sole to the canvas uppers of the shoes wasn’t a huge one at the time. As Van Doren recalls, it simply boiled down to: “OK, we’ll move it up.”
The company took the souring profits from its core styles and poured them into new ideas, like athletic sneakers designed for everything from volleyball to break-dancing. It was an enormous error, and Vans overextended itself. In 1984, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, paid back its $12 million in debt by 1987, and was sold to the banking firm McCown De Leeuw & Co. in 1988—the same year it debuted Steve Caballero’s signature skate shoe.
By the time the ‘90s rolled around, things were looking up once again. An IPO in 1991 took the company public, a partnership with the Warped Tour that started in 1995 would create the longest-running concert series in America, and a cultural obsession with all things skate made growth all but inevitable. For a time.
“We’ve been through ups and downs in this company’s history,” says Van Doren. “We’ve had it 51 years, and sometimes we lost our way.” So, in 2002, after a decade of success was met with a faltering bottom line and a sense of indifference from Vans’ customers, Jon Warren and Rian Pozzebon got a phone call.
There were missteps, especially at the start. “I look at the first collection I ever built, and there’s some crazy wild shoes,” says Pozzebon. “They don’t even look like Vans shoes.” They were too technical, too experimental. “There was, like, ventilation through the bottom.”
For many young sneakerheads at the time, Vans had, again, lost its way. The new looks were, at best, irrelevant, and, at worst, downright corny.
But that first collection also included the key to Vans’ eventual success. “We took a bunch of classic silhouettes and rebuilt them, trying to make them as close as they could be to the original USA specs.” The new riffs on the old models were only allowed to be sold to specialty stores, not relegated to the back of Vans’ own shops or mass distributors. “That was the first beginnings of people starting to—within the company even—look at the old stuff.”
Not long after, in 2003, the Vault collection was conceived, a high-end take on the classics designed to catch the attention of influencers and boutiques alike. “That’s 14 years ago,” says Pozzebon. “So as you start to win that over, it eventually trickles down to where retro is as popular as it is, and people look to Vans as something authentic for it.”
“They were harvesting relevancy—putting in the work years and years ago to ensure future success,” says WGSN trend forecaster Trunzo.
There was another element at play, too. In 2004, Vans was acquired for $396 million in cash by North Carolina-based VF Corp., which also owns The North Face, Timberland, and Nautica (to name a few). “I was in China that day and got a call saying, ‘We’ve been bought! By a company called VF,’” Van Doren says. “OK,” he asked himself at the time, “what’s that mean?”
Though so many stories go the other way, in this case, it meant good things. One of the OG apparel giants—it was founded in 1899—VF has an impressive reputation, especially when you consider the pall that hangs over holding companies and conglomerates in many consumers’ minds. “VF Corp. is really good at being a steward and a parent of companies,” says Trunzo. “I feel like every brand in their portfolio gets the proper sort of attention and marketing dollars—and the proper opportunity to explore their heritage, be authentic, and grow.”
Post-acquisition, that meant exploring its range of classic styles even further—especially after the re-released Slip-On became popular. “That was kind of the beginnings of Classics starting to go up,” says Pozzebon.
Trunzo recalls being in New York in 2005 and noticing the trend taking hold. “The checkerboard slip-on was starting to kind of become cool with the downtown New York hipster crowd,” he says. Of course, once the influencers embraced it and the style started the inevitable journey into mass consciousness and popularity, there was really only one way for the situation to go: The market started to flood with cheap knockoffs.
It’s not all bad, though. According to Pozzebon, the competition ultimately forced the popularity of the Slip-On to subside, which meant Vans could call attention to its other styles. “We’re not just the Slip-On,” he says, “we also have this.”
SHOP OLD SKOOL
“This” generally means one of five key classics: the Authentic, Era, Old Skool, Sk8-Hi, and Slip-On. (Pozzebon would like to see the Chukka join the fray; Van Doren likes the Half Cab.) Depending on which style tribes you’ve kept your eye on for the last few years, you’ve likely seen that one or all of them make its way into (and out of) the limelight. There are the post-Tumblr #menswear guys adopting the Authentic as a go-to casual sneaker thanks to its lack of bells and whistles. The Instagram-fed cool kids rocking the Sk8-Hi precisely because of the bells and whistles—the padded collar, the jazz stripe, the high-top silhouette. Or pretty much every guy wearing Old Skools recently.
“I feel like the Old Skool is probably a new shoe for so many people who’ve been a part of Vans,” says Pozzebon. “They’ve just never looked at that one. And here it is, and I’m shocked.”
The surprise is understandable. Though it previously put up the “smallest numbers” of the Classics program, the Old Skool has been enjoying a renaissance since last year, when guys like A$AP Rocky and Frank Ocean made it an unofficial part of their uniform. Add to that collaborations like the one with legendary SoCal sneaker shop Blends (which brought back the rare “bones” side stripe) and the ongoing reworking of the shoe by Supreme (which has been toying with the style since back in ’96), and it makes sense that folks are rediscovering the silhouette. It’s nearly impossible to walk down the street in 2017 and not catch at least one person—from self-aware fashion types to regular jeans-and-a-T-shirt guys—wearing a pair.
“I think people know that they can keep coming back to Vans and we’re changing and evolving the shoes and having fun with them, but it’s never leaving their foundation and their comfort zone,” says Pozzebon, noting, in addition to the Old Skool, new styles like the UltraRange that up the technology but keep the style cues of the classics. “I’ll test them and challenge them, but there’s a real honesty to it all that it keeps people going through the different silhouettes and having fun with them.”
As Van Doren says, “it’s nice to not just have one shoe.”
Still, the list is short. And, at this point, that’s by design. After the over expansion of the ‘80s and the rudderless design philosophy of the early 2000s, Vans seems keenly aware of what it takes for the brand to be successful: authenticity.
“If Vans released a knitted sneaker right now, I feel like you’d just be like, ‘Are you fucking serious? You can’t skate in that,’” says Trunzo, who credits Vans’ current success, in part, to the popularity of the early-‘90s, skate-inspired look that’s become a driving force in the fashion world. “But the fact that they kept the ship steering in the right direction—sticking to the game plan—obviously resonated with their core customers,” he says. “The ones who have the heritage are going to have the advantage. You can’t make that shit up.”
“We’re not trying to create what we think people want us to be. We try to go out and stay who we are, and try to notch up,” says Van Doren. “You’re not going to see us, as long as I’m around, having a basketball shoe or a football cleat. We did in the early ‘80s; we had football, basketball, racquetball, wrestling, skydiving, break-dancing… But we almost went out of business. So we had to come back to earth and get back to what we do. And we learned that lesson well.”
They learned it very well. Vans has become a $2.3 billion powerhouse—VF Corp.’s largest and fastest-growing brand, with a gleaming new headquarters in Costa Mesa to show for it. “The ongoing energy and heat behind the Vans brand continues to grow,” Rendele said during VF’s latest quarterly earnings call on October 23, 2017. Among the notable successes: the iconic checkerboard motif, the Old Skool, and the UltraRange. All part of, or inspired by, the Classics. He went on to preemptively quell any worries about the future: “Some of you may be wondering whether this level of growth for Vans is sustainable. Let me just say, the confidence we have in our largest brand is high. The brand is stronger than it has ever been.”
Will it stay that way? Perhaps—if the folks in charge take the lessons of past failures to heart. “There has to be some lineage and some ties to the shapes and patterns that exist in Classics,” says Pozzebon of the overall Vans design ethos. Otherwise, that lack of authenticity—of honesty—could finish the job that straying from the core Vans identity nearly did in 1984.
But it’s been 33 years (and a couple of billion dollars) since those days. And Steve Van Doren, as always, seems sure that the company his father and uncle founded 51 years ago is on the right path. “I always try to keep my thoughts on Classics,” he says. “I’m really too old school. But that’s the way we’re gonna stay.”