Pump up the volume: How did Vans become a global shoe brand?

Josh Sims meets the man behind a pop culture icon

Steve Van Doren admits that he owes his company's success, in part, to a lucky break. Twenty-five years ago, some bored high-school kid started drawing lines on his canvas, rubber-soled shoes and colouring in the squares. One of Van Doren's employees saw the design and suggested the company run up similar fabric. Then came the lucky part: a production company was looking for shoes for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a teen movie starring an up-and-coming young actor called Sean Penn. "And suddenly it was a phenomenon," says Van Doren. "We made them in every colour and every combination we could think of..."

The style became known as the Checkerboard. And it's a phenomenon again: adopted by rock stars (Iron Maiden, the Foo Fighters and more recently, the Ting Tings), art-student alternatives and middle-youth creatives, the slip-on sneaker born out of Californian skate culture is selling out everywhere. Not bad for a model that could have been worn at almost any time over the last four decades.

The company behind the sneaker is a little over 40 years old. Van Doren is the son of Paul Van Doren, founder of Vans, a brand that is arguably the progenitor of sneaker culture – the obsessive, nerdy knowledge of training shoes – and one undergoing something of a renaissance; its sales have doubled over the last three years.

"I remember painting and helping to open up the first store, passing out flyers door-to-door, making shoes all through summer vacation and getting paid with 50 one-dollar bills, which then felt like more money than god," says Steve Van Doren, the brand's self-titled Ambassador of Fun, whose daughter has also worked for the company since school age. "My dad knew I wanted to have my wallet feel thick..."

That first brush with Hollywood was not lost on Van Doren. When he heard that Samuel L Jackson was a fan and was making some movie about – so the grapevine said – snakes on a plane, he had Vans' art department custom-make a themed pair and send them to the film studio. "And the next thing you know, on David Letterman, on Jay Leno, on the front pages, Jackson is wearing them everywhere," says Van Doren. Hearing that Julia Roberts was in town filming, he learnt that her first job was in a shoe shop, so sent her a pair, along with roses and chocolates. She wore them in her next two movies.

What began as a mom-and-pop operation – Paul Van Doren worked for a shoe firm for 20 years before launching his own brand, which he sold to just 50 local stores – has become a $870m (£435m) company. But Steve Van Doren stresses that its MO has not changed since it was founded in 1966, and soon became the shoe of choice for skateboard pioneers. Granted, there was the time it tried to become the shoe of choice for wrestlers, skydivers and break-dancers, and almost went bankrupt. "So now we stick with just being a cool, native southern Californian youth-culture brand. California is the home of action sports and if we were as big around the globe as we are there, we'd be the biggest shoe brand in the world," says Van Doren, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, denims and, of course, the family firm's product.

Vans' current glory moment is the product of both its broad reach and fashion turning in its favour. Its classic styles are in keeping with a move away from the all-whistles-and-bells hi-tech trainer in favour of a stripped-down pump, creating a market that Vans dominates with the likes of Converse, and leaving the sports goods giants scrambling to produce their own versions.

"Retro comes back, and business is phenomenal. It's all what we used to do years ago – basic footwear with vulcanised rubber soles, an easy price for an easy look that anyone can wear, that you can chuck in the washer," says Van Doren. "Economics has a lot to do with it, too: how many pairs of $150 trainers can you afford, what with the price of food and gas going up? But more than that, there is a desire to go back to basics, not to have a special tread there and an air pocket here. Sometimes, fashion just goes back to black and white, to that simplicity. Next up is neon – you wait, I've been telling everyone."

Skateboarding fashion has entered the mainstream: the combat trouser, hoodie and wallet chain, the beanie and trucker cap, the outsize T-shirt and super-baggy jeans are street trends in their own right, each finding its origin in a skate park somewhere, each invariably accompanied by a pair of Vans. Yet it is not the turn of fashion's screw alone that has made Vans a pop-cultural phenomenon, as much as its close links with its core audience of 12- to 18-year-olds and the skate and action-sports world that defines the way they dress.

They may lack the guaranteed weather of the Sunshine State, but visit NASS (the skate/BMX music festival), Waterstock (the wakeboarding music festival) or Boardmasters (the surf/skate music festival) across the UK this summer and there Vans will be, as sponsors and on the feet of punters and professionals alike. These are the people to whom the likes of Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta, ground-breaking skateboarders who adopted the Era, skateboarding's first shoe back in 1976, and Steve Caballero, for whom Vans designed the first signature skate shoe, are nothing less than gods.

"It's really the trend-setting kids that tell us what we have to be, when they go to school and watch what each other is wearing," says Van Doren. "Some brands are just associated with certain lifestyles. We're more West Coast than East Coast, which has tended to be strong for Converse. We're more solo sports than we are team sports, which the big athletics brands like Nike tap in to. We're more rock and punk than we are hip-hop, which other brands, again, tap in to. But what we certainly are is skateboarding."

This bodes well – not just because skateboarding has become an Olympic sport or because next year, the 50th anniversary of the Roller Derby Skateboard, the first mass-market skateboard, is bound to renew interest in the sport. But because skate style, increasingly ageless and easy to wear, is so pervasive. As Van Doren puts it, when your product becomes part of the furniture for an audience to whom provenance, grip, cushioning and good looks are important, "it all becomes more than a question of fashion".

"After all, a lot of the styles we make have been around for a long time now and they're still here and still selling. At the end of the day, it's just a good shoe – that's an ethos that goes back to my dad's emphasis on product quality. In fact, I'd say the unique thing about Vans is that if I was kid in the Seventies and might now have children and my children have children, then all three generations may be wearing Vans – the old fart like me, my daughter and, when she has them, her kids. It's a brand that crosses generations – people grow up wearing them and keep with them."

Trainers: the classics

* Converse All Stars

These classic high-tops and sneakers are a favourite among indie kids and have been worn by rockers such as Kurt Cobain and The Strokes.

Office.co.uk, £34.99

* Dunlop Green Flash

These vivid green trainers offer an instant nostalgia hit.

Shoestore.co.uk, £25.99

* Nike Air Max

After grunge, the fashion set swapped their Dr Martins and skate shoes for Air Max's comfort and style.

jdsports.co.uk, from £84.99

* Reebok Classics

Every teen in the late Eighties wanted a pair of Classics, but this trainer has taken a bit of a nose-dive in popularity after its associations with un-savoury characters such as Little Britain's Vicky Pollard.

Reebok.com, £50

* Adidas Superstar (Shell Toe)

Popularised by skaters and rappers, the rubber-toed trainer is still going strong.

Jdsports.co.uk, £54.99

Gemma Hayward

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