Vans at 50: How the canvas shoe won by staying true to its brand DNA

Underneath Waterloo train station in London, is a collection of vaults that act as a graffiti paradise, they are hidden and mysterious. Inside one of them is the House of Vans, a club house for skate kids, complete with skate ramps and exposed brick walls. At WGSN we were invited down to the House of Vans last week, on the day the brand was celebrating the London leg of its 50th birthday party. Fresh from a free concert in New York, headlined by Nas in his custom Vans, we caught up with Steve Van Doren, son of the founder, to ask what 50 looks like, how the brand survived Chapter 11  bankruptcy and became a worldwide retail success story.

10 unfashioned Vans 50th @HoV (c)Joe Hart

Here’s six things Steve believes helped Vans become what it is today.

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Create a USP. 

When my dad started the brand in 1966, he had already worked for a shoe company for 20 years in Boston and he decided he wanted to make his own shoes from his own factory and sell them in his own stores, the buy direct and save model. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to afford to market the shoes so he had to make a better shoe,  he had to win people over with the shoe alone, and that’s our brand DNA. He made the canvas shoe, but he made the sole thicker – out of pure crepe rubber for better grip, with strong canvas and nylon stitching. He hoped that if he did a good enough job creating the shoe, then people would buy it and they would tell a friend. In fact the original Vans motto was ‘Tell a friend about Vans’


Use influencers that fit your brand:

Vans really started to get popular in the 1970s- and around that time up in Santa Monica and near Venice beach, skaters like Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta were coming into our store, so we built a relationship with them, they wore the shoes and we kind of adopted them because they liked our brand. Back then the shoes cost around $4.49- so if you wore out one shoe, you could just pay to get the other side of the pair, perfect for skaters. Since then my own life has been supporting core sports – skating, surfing, snowboarding and BMX- because it’s the right fit. We also created the Vans Warped Tour, as an extension of this. At Vans we celebrate ‘creative expressers’- from musicians, to skate boarders and artists, it just makes sense.

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Customisation is key

Back when my dad first started we used to offer custom made shoes because we had our own factory. If customers wanted a pink fabric shoe, my dad would just say ‘go down to the fabric store, get the colour you want, bring it back to us and we’ll make it’. We also offered split sizes when we had our own factory, so you could get the left pair in a size 7 and the right in a size 8. Then we moved our factories overseas and we’ve been doing custom made for last 7-8 years and we’ve been working to get it to how I want it. In fact we’re going to have the new 2.0 style coming soon, where you can write or design an image or text to go on your shoe, and we can recreate it exactly on the shoe for you, we are going to get back to being the leaders in this area.

Celebrate the past, but dont get too nostalgic.

We’ve been having the global 50th birthday parties as a way to celebrate what we’ve accomplished but it’s also about looking forward. We created House of Vans so that people can come and see what we do, we have skateboarding, art shows, it’s a clubhouse, and a place to see what our roots are. But I’m also on Instagram I enjoy that, and they are going to teach me Snapchat. I also teamed up with two friends in the US called Daniel and Josh, who went viral online with a fashion video, saying ‘ Damn, Daniel, Back at it again with the white vans’. We gave Daniel a lifetime supply of Vans, which he then donated to a children’s hospital, it was a really good deed so we made sure they had all the right sizes. I’m always travelling around to the different Vans stores and offices too, so that people know who I am, and that I really walk the talk.

7 Fat White Family Vans 50th @HoV (c)Joe Hart

Stay true to your brand identify

We have to stay true to who we are, we shouldn’t be making running shoes, we are Vans, we are a canvas skate shoe company. Our number 1 shoe (style 44) that we sold in 1966, is the number 1 shoe we sell today- it’s a canvas deck shoe, you can throw it in the washing machine and it comes back out again. From 1984 to 88, for four years we did try to go athletic and we went away from our brand DNA, ending up in chapter 11 bankruptcy. Then in the 90s, a company bought Vans, and my dad paid hundred cents on the dollar, to pay off the debt and come out of chapter 11. We went back to our DNA and then VF bought us and since then we’ve been able to grow the brand but stay true to brand DNA.  Outside of our Vans stores, our key other retailers are core skate shops so we always try to give them exclusive styles. When we got acquired from VF 12 years ago, it was the start of something great, they  do a great job on the back end, with finance and direct to consumer shipping, letting us focus on our own marketing, sales and product. Plus, we have great, incredibly loyal customers.

Stay authentic as you expand.

With the support of VF we’ve been able to expand, so we now have the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing event Hawaii in December, and the Vans US Open of Surfing where 60,000 people attend that for 9 days in Huntington beach. We also built a $1.5m skate park in Boston, coincidentally a quarter mile from Converse office. Then of course there’s the Warped Tour which has been happening for 22 years with alternative punk rock performers, we had No Doubt and Gwen Stefani in the early years. These events make sense for us and they are a true representation of who we are.

2 entrance Vans 50th @HoV (c)Joe Hart

WANT MORE? Check out WGSN’s interview with Björn Gulden, CEO of Puma here.

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