I got my first pair of Vans in 5th grade. For an 11 year old, it was a skateboard or a bike if you wanted to get around and Vans were required for both activities. Mine had pink and purple uppers with pink and purple checkerboard foxing. They became my signature shoe and when they stopped making them, I would grab some markers and make my own. Fast forward too many years to admit to, I bought my most recent pair at this season’s Triple Crown. The pretty palm fronds, hibiscus, and tropical colors echo the vibrant scenery of the North Shore. There were countless pairs in between.
Now a $1.2 billion a year global symbol of skate, surf, & rebellious youth, it’s hard to imagine the company had such modest beginnings. In 1966, brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren left jobs at a shoe factory in Massachusetts to live the California lifestyle. They partnered with friends Gordon Lee, Ryan Emmert, and Serge D’Elia to start the Van Doren Rubber Company in Anaheim. Their first shoe, the Authentic, was a riff on the classic east coast topsider; it’s waxed canvas and grippy waffle soul made the perfect deck shoe.
Kids started asking for little tweaks here and there: maybe a bit more padding in the heel…could the fabric be reinforced… can I make mine orange? And so it began. In those days, one could walk up, place an order for a custom shoe and pick it up later in the day. They even sold just one shoe to replace a worn out left or right.
The Story of Vans 50-year legacy came to life as a series of celebrations at House of Vans locations around the world. Accompanying a retrospective exhibit was everything from D.I.Y workshops, to a mobile skate park, opportunities to create one-of-a-kind custom shoes, and raging all-nighters with musical performances featuring the likes of Nas, Dinosaur Jr., Wu-Tang Clan, The Kills, Erykah Badu, Jamie xx, Dizzee Rascal, Yeasayer, Shlohmo and more. Many of the brand’s long-time ambassadors, athletes and family members were on hand to share their stories and hang out with fans.
For those of us on the North Shore this past winter, it was hard not to feel a part of this big birthday party for Vans. Besides the entire shore being branded with event media, the family was everywhere…and they were lovely. I don’t think there was anyone on that island who had a bigger smile than Steve. I saw them huddled over coffee at Turtle Bay enthusiastically talking about a giant shoe Christmas tree display at a store in Ireland one morning, putting up umbrellas at Ted’s bakery another afternoon, and hanging out for selfies at Ehukai Beach Park the next.
A lucky few were treated to a Talk Story evening at Turtle Bay’s Surfer Bar with Founder Paul Van Doren and his son Steve. It was entertaining to hear their stories and see the pride in what they’ve created. They’re really just big kids who love they do and love the people they’ve met along the way. I felt privileged to have been able to attend and really proud of those 1980’s pink and purple checkerboard slip-ons.
Check out the book “Vans: Off The Wall 50th Anniversary Edition” for an amazing collection of killer shoes throughout the decades.