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A history of Vans: a book made for the makers

Paul Van Doren, co-founder of Vans, released a personal memoir from Vertel Publishing on April 27.

Courtesy of Vertel Publishing

The moment moviegoers saw Sean Penn wearing a pair of Checkerboard Slip-Ons made by Vans in the 1982 film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was a changing point for Vans, which up to that release had been a fledgling tennis shoe manufacturer based in Anaheim, California. Vans had grown into a respected West Coast entity but it had yet to receive recognition nationwide, at least from the mainstream, until the film’s premiere.

Paul Van Doren, the now-90-year-old co-founder of Vans, digs into the history of the shoe company he started in his new hardcover memoir “Authentic,” put out by Vertel Publishing on April 27. Co-written with Louise MacLellan, Van Doren dedicates 275 pages of prose for detailing his personal story and relationship to shoe manufacturing, from being a high school dropout, to his rise as an employee producing canvas shoes for the Randolph Rubber Manufacturing Company in Massachusetts, to creating the Van Doren Rubber Company, known today as Vans.

With the exception of a couple-year period in the 1980s, while James Van Doren, one of Paul’s brothers, ran Vans into bankruptcy following aggressive expansion and taking on massive amounts of debt, Paul Van Doren gives a detailed look at his stewardship of Vans, from its founding in the mid-1960s, through when he ran the shoe manufacturer into the late ’80s.

Starting up with just $250,000, three partners, and a 40% stake in his company, Van Doren details the company setup, his thinking behind making and selling shoes straight to consumers, which was a foreign concept when he started doing it, and the eventual expansion of Vans across Southern California, establishing a model for future shoe retailers, like Foot Locker, to work from.

“As Vans grew, I might make concessions, but I would never let other factors besides my own convictions influence decisions,” Van Doren writes. “Mine would be a business that felt authentic — not just in making a quality product, but by operating in a way that was true to who I was. I can say with conviction that building the company that became Vans was a personal expression all the way.”

But this isn’t just a memoir with business tips mixed in, it’s a book that captures a period in counter-culture and artistic expression. In addition to the shoes getting their silver screen spotlight in a popular ’80s film, generations of skateboards, surfers, BMX riders, and groups of artists, chefs and servers have embraced the shoes, particularly the classics which include the Authentic, Old Skool and SK8-HI.

For Van Doren, starting and running Vans was a decades-long family epic. Two of his children still work for the company in leadership positions. Van Doren himself is now long removed from the day-to-day business operations, as the company is now owned by VF Outdoor, which also boasts The North Face, Timberland, JanSport and Altra, among other manufacturers, in its brand lineup. Van Doren does, however, continue working with the shoe company as a brand ambassador.

This memoir is unique in that its subject got his hands dirty, literally learning all the aspects behind shoemaking. Interested in the company’s shoe construction, vulcanized rubber, its iconic waffle-soles, warehousing, distribution or setting up retail outlets? Every sneakerhead and proud wearer of Vans’ shoes ought to be interested in grabbing a copy of “Authentic” to read. Van Doren has the inside scoop on everything.

Though Vans stopped making its shoes in California in 1993, opting to go overseas for cheaper labor like most other sneaker manufacturers, its story and shoes endure, finding new generations of wearers after 55 years of being in business. From the company’s old skateparks and the recently shelved Vans Warped Tour, to sponsoring skateboarders and surfers, Vans remained Off the Wall as it transitioned into the 21st century. As long as Van Doren is around, he seems keen on doing his part to help keep it that way.

Editor's note: Vans announced on the afternoon of May 7 that Paul Van Doren has passed away, just a week after his personal memoir was published.



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