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Where Your Vans Came From

This man's dad started Vans.

Steve Callabaro by J. Grant Brittain.

Paul Van Doren is the man who started Vans and, therefore, the man you have to thank for your enormous collection of battered Vans and empty wallet every time one of their always amazing collaborations rolls around. Steve Van Doren is his son and aside from coining the brand's counter-culture, skate-themed Off The Wall slogan, has been at the helm of the company for the last 30 years. As soon as we heard he was in London we put in an interview request.


VICE: Are Vans really the best shoes to skate in?
Steve Van Doren: I think they are because, you know, the roots are there. There are other companies that like to pose in the arena of skateboarding, but they don’t have true roots. We have true roots in skateboarding, so that’s why you get all these guys wearing them.

How did that happen in the first place, skaters wearing Vans?
They came to us, we didn’t know what we were doing to begin with. When my dad started the company, he made the thickest sole he could, with the best grip and rubber and did a little bit of design too, obviously.

But that wasn’t with skaters in mind, that was about durability, right?
Exactly. It was a casual shoe that would wear longer than any other shoe. My dad made shoes for 20 years in Boston, moved to California with that company, then decided to leave and start his own company. He knew he couldn't afford to advertise for too long, so he made sure the shoes were as good as possible.

What was your dad's reception when Vans began to get picked up by skateboarders? 
It was good, he jumped right on it. Tony Alva and those guys were using the phrase "off the wall" when they were skating pools, so we decided to use that logo when we launched our skate line.

When was that, 76?
Yeah. March 18, 1976. It’s the day before my daughter’s birthday, which was the following year, so I always remember the date. Skaters like Tony and Stacey Peralta would come in to the stores and just get a left foot if they’d ripped up the canvas on their left shoe from skating them too hard.


And because the factory was right there, I guess you could just match up the other shoe if you needed?
Yeah, exactly. Actually, the reason the first two-tone shoes came out was because Tony Alva came in one time, needed a left shoe and didn’t care about the color, so ended up wearing one navy blue shoe and one red shoe. So, the first two-tone shoe we came out with was navy blue and red.

Wow. And the essence of all those original shoes are still here now. 
Yeah. I mean, there’s the higher-end stuff - elaborate leathers and canvases and stuff like that - but the plain deck shoe is still our number one selling shoe. All the way from 66 to 2011, 46 years later. 46 years of tradition.

It’s because it’s a timeless shoe. Only a few brands have had them, like Converse with the All Star, for example.
Yeah, and you know, you can throw them in the washing machine and they wash right up. They last a decent amount of time and go for a fair price, so I think my dad’s dream of having his own shoes and keeping the best value and quality still stands.

Yeah, for sure.
My dad’s still alive today and I always tell him everything about the company. He’s 81, and you know, it hasn’t been his company for 20 years - he sold it - but me, my daughter, and my sister are still involved, so we try and keep a classic authenticity to it.

Absolutely. In all the time I’ve been working for VICE and going to events, the Vans Downtown Showdown is the first time I’ve had friends call and be genuinely excited because you can tell it’s not Vans trying to cash in on something. It’s an authentic skate event for, and by, skaters.
It’s the pulse, it’s the heart. It’s the fact that we don’t care about soccer, football, basketball, whatever: we care about skateboarding, surfing, and snowboarding.


Then, at the same time, there was that foray into making football boots. Those go for a lot of money on eBay now. 
I know they do and they should, because there weren’t that many of them made. But yeah, I remember we did some breakdance shoes too. I took a BMX team to Tokyo in 1984, right after the Olympics ended, the next day we were flying to Japan with our breakdance team and we toured Tokyo and Osaka and had a great time over there.

That must have been fun. That’s around the time you moved production to China, right?
Yeah, and we have great factories over in China now, but I’m still trying to bring it back to the States. People will pay just a little extra money to have it American-made.

I've recently read that a couple of American businesses are moving their factories back to the States because it's easier to get the production flexibility you need in the US. 
Well, yeah, that’s part of the reason I’m trying to bring it back, because that way we could do custom made shoes.

Dr. Martens do that kind of thing here. All their production is off-shore, but they’ve still got one British factory they run.
Yeah, I wish we still had ours and I think someday we will again. I’d like to bring in stuff like custom made shoes that you can do online and, like, if someone wanted a pair of custom shoes and a shirt, we could actually do it for them if we had our own American-based factory.