Vans for all seasons

Its grippy 'waffle' sole made it an instant hit with skateboarders. Ian Burrell travels to Amsterdam to meet the Vans frontman, Steve Van Doren, and the kids who still won't ride in anything else
  • @iburrell

Carrying an air of studied nonchalance, Nassim Guammaz, a teenaged Dutch-Moroccan with a towering Afro hairstyle that gives him presence beyond his slight stature, climbs to the top of a high ramp and presses his right foot on to the tail of his Element skateboard, raising its nose to a 45-degree angle.

At this signal, his fellow skaters respectfully shuffle back an inch or two on the ramp to give him space and a hush of anticipation descends. With a slam of his left foot on the front of the board, Guammaz departs his perch like an eagle descending its eyrie, hurtling forth towards a giant wooden obstacle crafted in the shape of an Amsterdam barge. He sails over the barge, flips into the air while simultaneously turning about-face, lands on a wooden hand rail which he slides along before dropping back to terra firma still on the board but without so much of a hint of a smile to acknowledge his achievement.

Guammaz, aged 18 and a skating prodigy, is happy to leave the cheesy grins to the man who supplies him with his footwear. And that's Steve Van Doren, the flag-bearer of the family dynasty that created Vans – the shoe brand thatf ollied out of the skatepark to shod young feet across the Western world. (For the uninitiated, an ollie is when rider and board appear to fly.)

Van Doren looks nothing like a skater. Hefty beyond even the most resilient of skateboards, he favours bright, flowery, short-sleeved shirts and brims with mirth and enthusiasm. He reminds me of Jeff, Larry David's best pal in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Steve's skit at skateboarding events, like this Van's Downtown Showdown in Amsterdam, is dishing out the grub.

His speciality is the waffle, which combines the convenience of a fast-food snack with the brand recognition of the distinctive Vans diamond 'waffle' sole design. It is this rubber feature, present from when Steve's father Paul and Uncle Jim founded the company in 1966, which makes Vans the "grippiest shoe ever", as veteran skater Ray Barbee tells me, as if speaking about an old friend.

Supportive though he is, Barbee could never match Van Doren's own enthusiasm for a brand he has been evangelising since the age of 10, when he helped other members of his family paint the walls of the Vans factory.

He was a schoolboy marketeer. "Our first retail store had no lights outside so I sat in the car with high beams and low beams flicking them off and on – so customers would think 'What's that?'. I passed pamphlets out to cars and in shopping centres to let people know – tell a friend about Vans!"

The job was made easier by the fact that Vans was different from any other shoe company. The Van Doren brothers had headed west to California from Boston with a wealth of shoe-based knowledge after long careers at the Randolph Rubber Company, where Paul started out sweeping the floor.

Their intention was to offer a product that offered better quality and value than classic American canvas sneaker brands such as Converse and Keds. The formula was thicker soles made from 100 per cent natural rubber and offering the best possible grip, combined with strong nylon stitching and uppers made from cotton duck (canvas).

But when Vans opened in Anaheim, the brothers had only a few pairs of shoes to put on display. Early customers would ask about alternative colours. "So my dad says, 'Go down to the fabric shop and pick what you want and bring me a third of a yard and I will make it out of that fabric for you'," says Van Doren. From the outset, the company was involved in custom shoes.

Tony Alva was among the first skaters to adopt the shoes, appreciating the stickiness of the rubber sole to the early flat boards of the Seventies. Vans would accommodate such customers; if they wore out the canvas of the left shoe from skating they'd be allowed to buy a single shoe rather than a new pair.

From these humble roots, Vans has gone around the world in the past 46 years. Today, the distinctive white Vans tag – above the cuboid bone on the outside midfoot part of the shoe – is challenging the famous Converse All Star for supremacy on every high street.

The annual turnover of Vans has grown from $300m (£185m) to $1.2bn (£741bn) since 2004. This year, Van Doren says, it expects to grow by a further 20 per cent. This rapid expansion has coincided with ownership by the giant American VF Corporation conglomerate. Many Vans customers are no doubt completely unaware that the skate brand is part of a corporate portfolio that includes Lee jeans, Timberland, The North Face, Wrangler, Nautica, JanSport, Napapijri, Reef, Lucy and Kipling. One could walk into a shopping centre of diverse clothing outlets and all of them could be owned by VF.

While such backing allows Vans to compete with the sportswear giants Nike and Adidas – which have long coveted a greater share of the skater market – it also presents some serious challenges in protecting the authenticity of the brand.

The Vans story has not been one of relentless growth. During the Eighties, the company went bankrupt. Jim Van Doren, who had invented the waffle sole, became convinced that the shoe could expand beyond the skaters, surfers, BMX riders and snowboarders who were its key advocates and find a bigger customer base. "My uncle wanted to do running and basketball and soccer shoes [even though] my dad said, 'No, that's not us'," says Steve Van Doren a generation later. The adventure took Vans to Chapter 11 bankruptcy and near oblivion.

At the bank's insistence, Paul Van Doren returned from semi-retirement and restored the company's core values. He managed to pay back the $14m Vans owed to creditors. But it was a hard lesson learnt. "If we are not focused on the right things I know what the ending is," says his son.

The problem now is that, as recession grips the world economy, leisure items such as high-quality skateboards have become an expendable luxury. Many of the specialist skate shops – Vans' most valued retail partners – have closed.

Fashion trends are also a source of concern. After years of dominating teenage style, street wear has recently fallen away as young women, in particular, have favoured a smarter look made more accessible by online shopping.

Van Doren remains confident that Vans ambassadors, such as sponsored rider Nassim Guammaz, are the kind of "influencers" who will bring the sloppy skate style back in vogue with international youth, but realises such a process cannot be artificially engineered.f

In the meantime, Vans, rather like Guammaz propelling his skateboard precariously along the edge of a giant ashtray-shaped obstacle, needs to pull off a difficult balancing act. If it is to hit sales targets, it must chase mainstream customers – hence the new Vans 66 range, which is not aimed at serious skateboarders. Van Doren, still bearing the pain of the Eighties bankruptcy, is clearly wary of the danger of the company spreading itself too thin.

"I'm a classic style guy – I saw what happened to us when we went out of our area. Now we have a new line coming up called Vans 66. I respect that they want to grow and they want to grow into new areas and I hope the product works. But I'm sorry, I'm a traditionalist. We are who we are and Nike and other brands are who they are."

He hopes buyers will understand that the "very lightweight" 66 has not been made for the skate park. "They're not going to have the wear that other shoes do, so hopefully kids buy them for comfort but not necessarily for skating and wearing the shit out of."

In order to emphasise its position as the most authentic of skater brands, Vans holds free events such as the Downtown Showdown, where legendary riders such as Steve 'Cab' Caballero can draw new converts to the sport.

At the age of 47, Caballero is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his signature Vans shoe, the Half Cab. It was originally a high-top, but skaters – adopting Vans's own tradition of customising shoes – began to cut it down at the ankle and patch it up with duct tape – so the company brought out a mid-top in 1992.

"I was honoured, flattered and stoked that they presented that [shoe] to me," says Caballero. "I had a signature [skate] board since 1980 and this was a shoe company approaching me for the very first time."

Despite his hero status within skateboarding and his reputation for extraordinary tricks such as the "frontside rock'n'roll slide", Caballero is a practising Christian and a humble figure who says he is grateful for the chances the sport has given him.

"There's a certain attitude to being a skateboarder," he says. "What you learn is that through dedication and perseverance and positive attitude you can reach any goal you set yourself," he says. "If you adapt those traits to anything that you approach in your life you can use that formula, learning not to go backwards but forwards in life."

Caballero began skating at the age of 12 in San Jose, California, and began wearing Vans – "the skateboard shoes" – immediately after his first visit to a skate park. But he's also old enough to remember the "rough time", when the brand went awry. "They bowed out a little bit and we ended up getting into other shoe companies: I was wearing Nikes for a while, Air Jordans, Converse All Stars, I even rode Pumas for a while."

Incredibly, he is still winning tournaments, such as the prestigious Pro-Tec Pool Party in Orange County, where he triumphed only six weeks after fracturing two bones in his shoulder in a motorcycle accident. Caballero rides mountain bikes and dirt bikes competitively, as well as being an artist and a punk rock guitarist.

The young British rider Josh Young, a 22-year-old from Leeds, is another Vans ambassador. Young has postponed a possible future career in architectural engineering in order to live as a professional skater.

Some of his friends find his lifestyle hard to comprehend. "It's hard for people in nine-to-five jobs to understand because I get to fly away a lot and have a lot of spare time."

He describes a recent skating trip to the Italian coast. "It was an amazing ramp on the beach, parties going on, massive gigs and stages – it was like a festival," he says, without mentioning his actual performance, which no doubt included his favourite trick – the "nose grind over the channel".

Small-town teenagers might dream of such an existence, but they can at least buy a pair of Young's favourite Pro Era shoes. "It's ironic, because when I was younger people would joke 'You're wearing skate shoes' and now they're fashionable and everybody is wearing them. But it means there's more money coming into skating so that's good."

Steve Van Doren is anxious that Vans continues to channel profits into the sport's grass roots and has refrained from challenging other skateboarding brands by expanding beyond shoes and apparel into boards and wheels. At the company's California base, where the aisles are made from concrete so staff can ride their boards to their desks, he has built a 60-feet-high ramp. "They can use it in breaks," he says. "It was like I gave everybody a million bucks."

While Vans retains that skater DNA, he hopes to continue the legacy of his father and uncle. "It's a canvas shoe with rubber on the bottom but it was cool for kids who are dads now and it's OK for grandpa to have a pair of Vans blue deck shoes and I can have a pair of Half Cabs," he says. "Where do you find that in brands? You don't!"