How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (2023)

When Rian Pozzebon, who was relatively unknown in the sneaker community, was offered the opportunity to join Vans in 2002 and help rebuild the brand's skate shoe program with his longtime friend and colleague Jon Warren, he had a Big question: "Will they?" mess with the classics?

Back then, Vans wasn't particularly interested in basic styles like the Slip-On, Old Skool, and Authentic. "The classics just existed," says Pozzebon. "But they weren't pressured." Instead, they languish, in just a few primary colors, in Vans stores.

The company's focus shifted to newer styles elsewhere. After riding the wave of the '90s skate boom, Vans faced new competition from younger skate shoe brands like DC and Osiris. Founded just a few years earlier, these companies favored a chunkier, more technically advanced silhouette (a word the fashion world uses to describe the shape of a shoe). Vans' retro style seemed scruffy by comparison. In the early years of the new millennium, nearly a decade of sustained growth was gone, and so was the will of customers.


"Are they going to let us play with the classics?" —Rian Pozzebon

"As a lifestyle shoe, I never took it seriously. No way," Brian Trunzo, WGSN's senior menswear trend forecaster, said of his feelings on Vans at the time. Beleaguered by new competition in its market Skate's mainstay and ignored by tastemakers who favored the Air Force 1 or the Adidas Superstar, Vans seemed to fade into obscurity.

How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (1)

And here was Pozzebon, who wasn't even an employee yet, asking if he could verifygive backinstead of forwarding to inform your design choices. It was a daring question, to say the least. And yet. "When we got to the interview, they said, 'Whatever it takes. Whatever you need,'" he recalls. Whether I knew it at the time or not, I had discovered something that would prove crucial to the future success of the brand.

"It was this vintage piece," says Pozzebon, now the company's director of lifestyle footwear design. "Back then, Vans didn't necessarily know what he really had."

By focusing on this element of the company's DNA, Pozzebon and his design team have led Vans to a surprising turnaround. The brand has become an integral part of American shoe culture, on par with iconic brands like Converse (which is twice its age) and Nike (which is nearly 10 times its size). Vans are worn by celebrities and fashion influencers, the jeans and T-shirt crowd who rarely pay attention to what's hot, teens and kids. What makes it even more impressive, especially in an age of unprecedented technological innovation, is that it has drawn on just five classic styles to fuel its cultural relevance that has arguably never been greater, as well as its sales that arguably never have. given. . they were so tall. higher.


How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (2)

The first Vans store

Van Doren Rubber Company opened on March 16, 1966 at 704 E. Broadway in Anaheim, California. The company was founded by brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren (along with business partners Gordon Lee and Serge Delia) and was nameddelivery trucksDoren: He was the only one who made shoes locally and sold directly to the public. The shoes themselves were unique for another reason.

“When my dad started the company, the shoe, he made the sole twice as thick as the other competitors at the time,” said Steve Van Doren, Paul's son and Vans' official vice president of events and promotions. (Unofficially, he's more or less the spirit of the brand personified, with his laid-back charm and boundless enthusiasm about him.) While Vans' first classic, the #44, now known as the Authentic, was designed as a boat shoe, it was also 't.- Era. It didn't take long for early skaters to notice the increased durability and grip offered by the now-unique waffle soles.


How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (3)

In the mid '70s, skateboarding was a real phenomenon with its own rising stars. Vans caught on quickly, driving the likes of Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva and Jerry Valdez, all three who would become legends of the sport, in a van from one venue to the next and pairing them with sneakers. Van Doren saw this as an easy change. A free pair of shoes for the kids in exchange for entering a whole new community.

That year, with the help of Alva and Peralta, Vans launched the Era. His padded collar offered additional ankle protection and he quickly became a favorite with skaters. The first pair to feature Vans' signature "jazz," the Old Skool debuted a year later in 1977, followed by the Sk8-Hi in 1978.

How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (4)

"I'm very loyal to them," Van Doren says of the skaters, surfers and other athletes who wore Vans early on. “You built our company. It was a small thing compared to football, basketball, and baseball, but they are super loyal.

How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (5)

Meanwhile, the 1980s brought ups and downs for Vans. On top (literally) were Sean Penn's Jeff Spiccoli and his Plaid Slip-Ons. Although the style emerged in 1977, it enduredFast Times at Ridgemont Highput the shoes - and the pattern - in the international spotlight in 1982. Van Doren says the idea for the striking graphic was inspired by Vans customers. They varnished the midsole themselves and the brand took notice. Despite its now iconic status, the decision to move the motif from the soles to the canvas uppers of the shoes wasn't a big call at the time. As Van Doren recalls, it came down to, "Okay, let's go upstairs."


How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (6)

The sliding chess board

"I'm very loyal to the skaters. They built our company." —Steve VanDoren

The company took increasing profits from its core styles and invested it in new ideas, like sneakers designed for everything from volleyball to breakdancing. It was a big mistake and Vans went too far. In 1984, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, paid off its $12 million debt in 1987, and was sold to McCown De Leeuw & Co. 1988: The same year Steve Caballero's skate shoes debuted.

How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (7)

Steve Caballero with the Sk8 Hi chess board

As the '90s progressed, things picked up again. An initial public offering in 1991 took the company public, a partnership with Warped Tour that began in 1995 spawned America's longest-running concert series, and a cultural obsession with all things skateboarding made growth wild. almost unavoidable. For a moment.

“We've had ups and downs in the history of this company,” Van Doren says. “We've had this for 51 years, and sometimes we get lost.” Then in 2002, after a decade of success with inconsistent results and a sense of indifference among Vans customers, Jon Warren and Rian Pozzebon got a call.

There were mistakes, especially at the beginning. "I look back on my first collection and I see some crazy shoes," says Pozzebon. “They don't even look like Vans shoes.” They were very technical, very experimental. "There was something like a vent in the floor."

For many young tennis fans, Vans was once again lost at that time. The new skins were irrelevant at best and downright cheesy at worst.

But that first collection was also key to Vans' ultimate success. "We took some classic silhouettes and rebuilt them, trying to get them as close to original US spec as possible." New riffs on old models could only be sold in specialty stores, not in the back of Vans' own stores or en masse. Dealers are prohibited. "That was the first start of people, within the company itself, looking at the old stuff."

"Vans has grown in importance, and worked many years ago to ensure future success" - Brian Trunzo

Not long after, in 2003, the Vault Collection was conceived, a sophisticated take on the classics that would catch the eye of influencers and boutiques alike. "That was 14 years ago," says Pozzebon. "So once you start to get past that, eventually you get to where retro is as popular as it is, and people see Vans as such an authentic thing."

"They harvested relevance: they worked years ago to guarantee future success," says Trunzo, a trend analyst for WGSN.


How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (8)

One was Vans x Kenzo

There was another element at play. In 2004, North Carolina-based VF Corp bought Vans for $396 million in cash. acquired, which also includes The North Face, Timberland and Nautica (to name a few). "I was in China that day and I got a call saying, 'We've been bought! From a company called VF,'" says Van Doren. "Okay," he wondered at the time, "what's that supposed to mean?" ?"

While many stories claim otherwise, in this case it meant good things. As one of the OG clothing giants, founded in 1899, VF has an impressive reputation, especially when you consider the shroud that hangs over businesses and corporations in the minds of many consumers. "VF Corporation is very good at running and controlling companies," Trunzo says. "I feel like every brand in their portfolio gets the right kind of attention and marketing money, and the right opportunity to explore their heritage, be authentic and grow."

How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (9)

Post-acquisition, this meant further exploring the range of classic styles, especially after the slip-on relaunch caught on. "That was the start of the classics boom," says Pozzebon.

Trunzo remembers being in New York in 2005 and noticing the trend. "The checkered slip-on was starting to resonate with the trendy downtown New York crowd," he says. Of course, once the influencers embraced it and the style began its inevitable journey to mass awareness and popularity, there was only one way out: the market began to be flooded with cheap imitations.

How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (10)

Der Vans x TakashiPom Slip-On Shoes

However, not everything is bad. According to Pozzebon, competition eventually caused the slip-on's popularity to wane, which meant Vans was able to draw attention to its other styles. "We're not just Slip-On," he says, "we've got that, too."


"El" generally means one of the five main classics: Authentic, Era, Old Skool, Sk8-Hi, and Slip-On. (Pozzebon wants to see themchukkaJoin the fight; VanDoren likes this.medium cabin.) Depending on which style tribes you've been watching over the past few years, you've probably seen one or all of them enter (or leave) the spotlight. There are the post-Tumblr menswear types who praise the Authentic as the ideal casual sneaker thanks to its lack of frills. Instagram-loving hipsters rock the Sk8-Hi precisely because of the bells and whistles: the padded collar, the jazz track, the tall silhouette. Or just about any guy who's been wearing old clothes lately.

"I have a feeling that the Old Skool is probably a new shoe for so many people who have been a part of Vans," says Pozzebon. "They never looked at it. And here it is, and I'm shocked."

How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (11)

Frank Ocean and his mother Katonya Breaux at the White House in October 2016

The surprise is understandable. Despite having the "smallest numbers" on the Classics program, the Old Skool has seen a renaissance since last year, when players like A$AP Rocky and Frank Ocean made it an unofficial part of their uniform. Add to that collaborations like legendary sneaker store SoCal Blends (which brought back the rare "Bones" side stripe) and Supreme's ongoing shoe makeover (which has been toying with the style since 1996) and it makes sense. that people are rediscovering the silhouette It's almost impossible to walk down the street in 2017 and not see at least one person, from the fashion-forward guy to the average guy in jeans and a T-shirt, wearing a pair.

"I think people know that they can always come back to Vans and we continue to change and evolve the shoe and have fun in it, but never leave their base and their comfort zone," says Pozzebon in addition to the Old Skool, new styles like the UltraRange, which It improves the technology but retains the styling elements of the classics. "I'll test them and I'll challenge them, but there's a real honesty that makes people want to go through the different silhouettes and have fun with them."

As Van Doren says, "It's good not to have just one shoe."

Still, the list is short. And this is the intention here. After the over-expansion of the '80s and the rudderless design philosophy of the early '00s, Vans seems aware of what it takes for the brand to succeed: authenticity.

How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (12)

"If Vans released a knit sneaker right now, you'd be like, 'Are you serious? You can't skate in that,'" says Trunzo, who attributes Vans' current success in part to the popularity of the early skate-inspired look. from the '90s, which became a driving force in the fashion world. "But the fact that they continued to steer the ship in the right direction, sticking to the game plan, obviously resonated with their key clients," he says. Those who have wealth will benefit from it.You can't make this shit up.

A look inside the Vans headquarters in Costa Mesa, California

How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (13)

"We're not trying to create what we think people want us to be. We're trying to go out there and continue to be who we are and try to improve," Van Doren says. "They won't see us while I'm walking around in basketball or soccer shoes. We did this in the early 80s; we had soccer, basketball, racquetball, wrestling, skydiving, breakdancing... But we almost went bankrupt. So we had to go back to the land and get back to what we do. And we learned that lesson well."


You have learned very well. Vans has become a $2.3 billion powerhouse: VF Corp.'s fastest-growing brand, with a new headquarters in Costa Mesa proving to be a testament to that. "The enduring energy and warmth behind the Vans brand continues to grow," Rendele said during VF's most recent quarterly conference call on October 23, 2017. Notable achievements include the iconic checkerboard pattern, Old Skool and UltraRange. . All pieces or inspired by the classics. He went on to cautiously dismiss any concerns about the future: “Some of you may be wondering if this level of growth is sustainable for Vans. Let me just say that we have great confidence in our biggest brand. The brand is stronger than ever."

Will it stay like this? Perhaps, if those responsible take seriously the lessons of past failures. "There has to be some pedigree and some connection to the shapes and patterns that exist in the classics," Pozzebon says of Vans' overall design ethos. Otherwise, that lack of authenticity, of honesty, could end the job that nearly led Vans out of the core identity in 1984.

But since then 33 years (and a few billion dollars) have passed. And Steve Van Doren seems confident, as always, that the company his father and his uncle founded 51 years ago is on the right track. "I always try to keep my mind on the classics," he says. "I'm very old-fashioned. But we'll stay that way."

delivery truck shop

How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (14)

How Vans Became the Shoe Everyone Wears Again (15)

jonathan evans

Jonathan Evans is style director at Esquire and covers everything from fashion, grooming, accessories, and of course, sneakers. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son. You can follow him at @MrJonathanEvans on Twitter and Instagram.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Jonah Leffler

Last Updated: 03/05/2023

Views: 6379

Rating: 4.4 / 5 (65 voted)

Reviews: 80% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Jonah Leffler

Birthday: 1997-10-27

Address: 8987 Kieth Ports, Luettgenland, CT 54657-9808

Phone: +2611128251586

Job: Mining Supervisor

Hobby: Worldbuilding, Electronics, Amateur radio, Skiing, Cycling, Jogging, Taxidermy

Introduction: My name is Jonah Leffler, I am a determined, faithful, outstanding, inexpensive, cheerful, determined, smiling person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.