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Off the Wall and Back in Time: Q&A with Vans’ Steve Van Doren | Pop-In@Nordstrom x Vans

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Vans founder Paul Van Doren; images courtesy of Vans

For a big-picture view of Vans during our monthlong Vans-focused Pop-In shop, we chatted with Steve Van Doren, son of Paul Van Doren, founder of what began as the Van Doren Rubber Company in 1966. Steve is now Vans’ vice president of events and promotions and a lifelong Vans expert.

We talked to Mr. Van Doren about the day his dad doodled the famous “jazz stripe” which now adorns classic models like the Old-Skool and Sk8-Hi, the confluence of Vans and music (rock, rap and other)–and how, massive though it has become, Vans is still very much a family affair.

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What are your earliest memories of the Vans store and factory?

By the age of 10, my dad had me working weekends and any time I got off from school in and around the factory. I also helped pass out flyers door to door and at the county fair since that was how we marketed in the early days. I always wanted to do whatever my dad did and it is a dream come true that I am still here doing just that!

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The story goes that your dad doodled the famous Vans side stripe offhandedly and it stuck. Was that on a napkin? Do you know what the original doodle looked like? How did it end up on a shoe? 

My dad was looking to make a logo for Vans and originally doodled a couple of different versions on to a napkin to test out. The doodle was originally called the jazz stripe and made its debut onto the Style #36 in 1977, which today is known at the Old Skool. Later in 1978 what we now call the sidestripe made its way on to the Sk8-Hi. Today the sidestripe is the globally recognized symbol of Vans.

What are some of the most important Vans shoe designs in the history of the brand?

The Authentic, originally known as the Style #44 is the deck shoe that started it all! It was the very first shoe that Vans offered in 1966 and it is still the top selling style around the world today!

The Style #95, known as the Era came shortly after. The Era was designed by Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta and featured a padded collar and had multiple panels that allowed for cool color combinations.

In 1977, Style #36, the Old Skool, debuted the now famous Vans sidestripe. This was Vans’ first ever shoe designed specifically for skateboarding since it incorporated leather panels for increased durability.

The Classic Slip-On was introduced in ’77 as well but it wasn’t until Spicoli wore the checkerboard slip-on that it became all the rage in southern California and around the world.

The Sk8-Hi was introduced in ’78 and was revolutionary because it helped to take skate functionality to a new level by providing support and protection around the ankles from flying boards.

These five silhouettes make up the DNA of our Classics collection. They have remained in our footwear line since they have each been introduced and continually are inspirations for new product introductions that are offered each season!

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Vans shoes are immediately recognizable; they look like nothing else. And yet they are so versatile as far as fitting into various personal styles. Everyone seems to be able to project onto them. What’s the key to that balance?

Vans has always been about the people and we love to listen to what fans of our brand need and want. We also make a conscious effort to continually work directly with our athletes across surf, skate, snow and BMX to help design shoes that can fit the rigorous needs that their sports require. Here at Vans we stay true to our action sports roots by continuing to embrace the art, music, fashion and street culture niches that have adopted Vans by offering them product that can be worn and used to express their own personal style.

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What was it about your dad that made him listen to skateboarders’ ideas about altering certain Vans shoe designs, when maybe shoe company owners wouldn’t have listened or cared?

I am lucky that my father trusted me enough to make relationships with the skaters that loved and wore Vans. My father has always been about listening to our customers and skateboarders were the first community to adopt us as a part of their uniform – so it only made sense to foster and continually grow our relationship by making Vans shoes that were equipped to withstand skateboarding.

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Did everyone at the company know Sean Penn would wear checkerboard Vans in Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Or did that take Vans by surprise?

It was a surprise! Sean Penn went into the Santa Monica Vans store and bought a pair of Checkerboard Slip-Ons and decided to incorporate them into Spicoli’s wardrobe. We got a call from the movie’s costume department about wanting to use the shoes so we made sure to have more pairs sent over for filming and the rest is history!

Do you think it was skateboarders who popularized Vans to musicians? Or how do you think Vans spread and gained currency amongst so many musicians? To me it doesn’t seem like the result of strategic marketing, necessarily, but rather something that just naturally occurred.

Vans was lucky to have been adopted by skateboarders. A lot of skaters and surfers were also musicians at the time so it spread that way as well. Vans also became the title head sponsor of the Warped Tour in 1996, which brought punk rock and all different kinds of genres of music in a nationwide tour, which exposed Vans to more fans across the country.

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Can you talk about the evolution of Warped Tour and House of Vans?

I met the founder of Warped Tour, Kevin Lyman, and really identified with his vision of bringing a traveling music festival to life through punk rock. Vans became a title head sponsor for the Warped Tour in 1996 and today the Vans Warped Tour is the longest running music festival in the world and brings thousands of fans nationwide to see 100 touring bands and musicians during 42 stops in 53 days.

The House of Vans is our cultural platform that allows our brand to host art, music and action sports events under a single roof. We have two permanent venue spaces, one in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn, NY, and one is beneath the Old Vic Tunnels near Waterloo Station in London. The House of Vans allows our brand interact with the local communities through free events that highlight all of our brand pillars. We host a summer concert series, art shows, DIY-workshops and open skate demos throughout the year. It is always free. Throughout 2016 we will also expand House of Vans to include pop-up activations all around the world!

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Who are some of the musicians you automatically associate with Vans?

Bands that come to mind include Descendants, Circle Jerks, Iron Maiden, Metallica, No Doubt, Syd Tha Kyd and the Odd Future collective.

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What have you enjoyed most in your work with Vans?

I love that I am able to continue to keep my father’s vision alive and that I was able to experience and see how our 50th anniversary was celebrated all around the globe this past March. I also enjoy being able work alongside my daughter, Kristy Van Doren, who is the senior director of events and promotions, and my sister Cheryl who is the vice president of human resources just down the hall.

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What does Off the Wall mean to you?

“Off The Wall” is that moment in time when everyone is going left and you decide to go right…

–Andrew Matson

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