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Vans Turns 50: How a Brand Changed in Order to Stay the Same

Vans notables, including Steve Van Doren himself (the son of Vans co-founder, Paul Van Doren), gave us the skinny on growing older, getting better, and above all, staying gold.
A Vans store (then "Van's") grand opening, 1973. All images courtesy of Vans

The prospect of turning 50 sounds daunting by definition. Another round and you'll be seeing a new century. Avoiding the facelifts and sportscar impulse-buys that come with the territory is no easy task, either. Some things slow down, others do tend to sag. But with age usually comes wisdom, and with wisdom, a sense of self. In the case of Vans, the epochal American shoe manufacturer, this is doubly so: Not only does this year mark the brand's comfortable stride into 50, the expansion of their House of Vans cultural hub has come to embody the intuition for conspicuous reinvention that has come to define the brand.


Beginning the year with ten House of Vans celebrations in one week, from Brooklyn and London all the way to Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town was one thing. A 50th anniversary shoe line was another. Tonight's Metallica performance, streamed live from the House of Vans in London, is their coup de grace for less self-assured quinquagenarians: it represents, above all, that anything's possible when your motivation isn't inside a shoebox, but quite literally "off the wall." The Creators Project reached out to a few Vans notables, including Steve Van Doren himself (the son of Vans co-founder, Paul Van Doren), to get the scoop on growing older, getting better, and above all, staying gold.

Stacey Peralta at Coldwater

The Creators Project: Hey, Steve. What's your perfect pair of Vans, and why?

Steve Van Doren, VP of Events: My perfect pair is the Slip-on. One: I travel a lot and it’s easy at security. Two: it’s a bigger area to show prints on. I have loved the slip on look ever since the first checkerboard shoe came out after Spicoli hit himself in the head with one. Canvas, leather, prints, and solids; they all look great on the Slip-on. The Vans Slip-on is recognized worldwide and even the top fashion brands do their best knock-off.

"Vans moments" seem to come in waves. Can you tell me about when and how you started to notice the brand's breaking points over the years (i.e. the checkerboard slip-on explosion of the 2000s).


Our first one was in the mid 70s when skateboarders adopted us as the brand to wear, followed soon after by the BMX kids. We did not do traditional sports, but supported individual passions. Then we saw another in the early 80s, with the Fast Times movie. This was a big awakening for us with whom we were, and still are today, as Southern California, cool, surf and skate brand. Then into the 90s we added a music element to our brand by sponsoring and owning the Vans Warped Tour. This was the number one marketing tool that got us to almost all 50 states. It was an event for teens to see their favorite bands and to introduce them to who Vans was and is, through music and skateboarding. Now for the last 12 years under VF ownership, they have given us the tools to not only be a cool brand, but to become a cool, big brand, expanding our story and lifestyle worldwide. We have been doing amazing events and have amazing products with excellent story telling through our marketing teams. Keeping to our roots and posey of great athletes we take care of worldwide.

What are the qualities you look for in deciding if it fits the brand?

Our product team looks to see if the project covers our four pillars: skate; action sports; music; art, street culture, or southern California culture. For me, I do so many, for many reasons: Weddings for friends or associates, winery special shoes, because the big boss asked me, charity events, friends in businesses, radio or TV personalities…


An early Vans sale

What's a typical day look like for you?

I love talking to people, listening to new ideas, and following my heart on how we can afford to make good ideas a reality. Just in the last two weeks, we had our 22nd year of Vans Warped Tour happening in the West. Myself, trying to make a crew of 800 people happy by bringing in In-N-Out to cook for all. Closing out our 10-day event in Huntington Beach, called the Vans US Open of Surfing, where we see 600,000 people. Sharing stories, watching surfing, skating, and BMX competitions, BBQing for 2,000 people each day, my staff and myself. Planning out two more events. The first event takes place in Boston where a Vans shoe box and a Sk8-Hi shoe will fly into Boston Harbor. The second event is the Vans Pro Skate Park Series World Championship. This is the 5th stop of our new skateboarding series, which spans around the globe, with the championship, taking place in Malmö, Sweden. One of my colleagues is in Hawaii, helping with a dance company that I custom-made 500 pairs of shoes for.

“People helping People,” is one of my mottos. I just sent off 100 backpacks to Chopper Dave at the House of Vans for an event to raise school supplies for needy children. My days are always interesting and very rewarding, because we care about people. My dad said, “Vans is not a shoe company. We are a people company that makes and sells shoes.” I agree, and have been doing this for 50 years.


Steve Van Doren

A Vans sticker from the 70s

The Creators Project: Hey, Rian. What makes a good pair of Vans, vs. a design that still needs work? 

Rian Pozzebon, Director of Footwear: Every new Vans design takes on a different challenge or perspective. A good pair of Vans stimulates an emotion of joy, confidence or just might upset you. We are a design team building on ideas together and challenging each other.

Can you give us a brief timeline of the past few years of style trends, in comparison with trends in shoe wear? 

Let's narrow down and take a look at pant wear. The past years' pant, particularly denim, has found itself shrinking to the ultra slim levels. With this came the decrease in shoe volume and Vans was there to embrace the trend. But as things find themselves oversaturated, it explodes and larger pants and pant openings find their way back onto the streets. Basically, skateboarding’s uniform in the early 90s. Fortunately for Vans, the people can keep their Sk8-Hi’s and only have to trash the jeggings. Vans is timeless.

An early Vans store

The Creators Project: Let's talk about about House of Vans. Why would a shoe company put time and money into a creative space?

April Vitkus, Senior Director of Global Brand Marketing: For 50 years Vans has fostered and enabled creative expression through action sports, art, music and street culture. Our heritage has allowed Vans to be the brand that transcends all types of creative outlets and to be naturally adopted by musicians, artists, and athletes. The House of Vans allows us to nurture and give back to the people and creative cultures that have sustained Vans for the last 50 years.


Black Rebel Motorcycle Club perform at a House of Vans event in Sao Paolo

Do you have any 'proudest moments' at HOV so far? 

I’ve been lucky to be part of building and expanding the House of Vans since its inception in Brooklyn in 2010. Vans’ extended family of artists, musicians and athletes have painted on the walls, inspired crowds from the stage, and shaped our conversation with creative communities today. Having this opportunity to partner with Vans’ heroes is unprecedented, but what is most meaningful is the variety of interactive events and workshops that bring people together through House of Vans. We’re continuing the legacy of the Van Doren family, supporting and enabling the next generation.

How much can you tell us about future plans for House of Vans? 

The 2016 introduction of House of Vans Workshops, where Vans’ enables and incites creativity through hands-on projects, reflects the interactive nature of the platform and is a good indication of where we’re headed in the future.

Dizzee Rascal at House of Vans London

METALLICA: Hardwired at House of Vans begins at 4 PM ET / 1 PM PT, which is 9 PM for those of you in London, but you can watch it live here. Click here to learn more about the Vans 50th Anniversary Collection, and here to visit Vans' website.


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