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Sneaker History – A New Era

Sneaker History – A New Era

In 1966 two brothers with an eye for business and a gift for shoe manufacturing and their best friend had an idea to start a company that not only made shoes but also had its own retail outlet, so they could sell their product directly to the public without the middleman. Over 50 years later, VANS is one of the most iconic sneaker brands in history and the backbone of skate-culture.

It all started out at a Boston horse racing track in the mid-1940s. Paul Van Doren, the founder of Vans, spent most of his time working at the betting register for a dollar per day, after dropping out of high school at 14. His mother was tired of him wasting his life and send him to work at Randys, a shoe manufacturing factory. Two decades later, Paul was the executive vice president and Randy’s had grown out to be the third largest shoe manufacturer in the US. Paul came to the realization that the biggest earners in the shoe business were the retailers, which led to his idea of starting his own factory with its own retail outlet and thus, Vans was born.

First Vans Store, located at 704 E. Broadway in Anaheim, California

The Van Doren brother’s first store opened on March 16th, 1966. But there was one little issue, they didn’t have any stock, only display models and empty boxes. Despite this, they still made 12 sales on their first day. The made a deal with the customers to pick their designs and come back to the store later in the day to pick up their new shoes. This gave Paul and his business partner Gordon Lee the chance to rush back to the factory and produce the shoes ready in time for the customers to pick them up. After all the rushing to get everything ready in time they had forgotten one thing, cash to give change… They didn’t want to annoy their first customers so they allowed them to take their new shoes how as long as they would come back the next day to pay for them and luckily they all did.

Photo: One of the first pairs of custom Vans

Not long after that, the Van Droben brothers were opening a new store every week and within a year and a half after the first, the 50th store was opened. Their brand became famous for making unique pairs from the fabric of the clients choosing. This started after more and more clients started to ask for all sorts of colors. It was impossible for the factory to stock so many varieties so Paul proposed they’d buy a piece of fabric they liked and he would make an upper out of it for them.

Photo: Vintage Vans ad

In the early seventies, Vans was starting to receive attention from a new group of customers who would become fully devoted to the company’s shoes and define its brand: Skateboarders. Skateboarding was huge in the seventies and especially in California where it had emerged from the surf scene. The waffle textured sticky sole of the Vans style #44 (later to be named Authentic) was perfect for gripping the board and concrete and because of its reasonable price, it became a skater staple.  Vans stores were also popular because you could also purchase single shoes instead of just pairs. Whilst skateboarding one foot is used to steer and the other as a break, which meant the brake shoe often wore out much faster than the other.

Photo: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Vans was very open to the suggestions of skateboarders to make the shoe even better, which led to the release of Vans second style, the #95 (later to be known as the Era). This was also the first shoe to feature the “Off the Wall” logo. The inspiration behind the phrase came from legendary skateboarder Tony “Mad Dog” Alva, who was skating in an empty pool and while still gripping his board, he went airborne over the edge of the pool. an amazed, Skip Engblom, the founder of the Z-boys skate team, said, “Man, you just went off the wall!”

Not long after that Vans came out with another iconic design, the Slip-on. Vans slip-ons had their debut all thanks to Sean Penn’s character (Jeff Spicoli) in the cult classic film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He wore it throughout the entire movie and the pair even appeared on the cover of the film’s soundtrack. This helped make the Black and White checkered Vans one of the most popular sneakers of the early 80s and finally gave the company the International recognition they deserved.

Today Vans association with skateboarding is as strong as ever and the style #95 Era has become a rare example of a sports shoe that 40 years after its debut is still widely used in the sport for which it was made and earned its place as a fashion icon.

Photo: Vans
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