We had carved out a small area at the very front of our factory on East Broadway in Anaheim to put in a tiny showroom, where we could sell our shoes to the public. Customers could walk in right off the street. The factory was actually located in a fairly good part of town, on a moderately busy street, so hopefully people would see us and come in. We officially opened in March 1966.
The name on our factory sign was Van Doren Rubber Company. Despite it being my own name, I felt it didn’t have quite the right ring to it for a retail establishment. The rubber part didn’t exactly scream shoe store. Later on, we decided the sign over our first retail store would read “House of Vans.”
One day a couple came in with two kids, a little girl around seven years old and a little boy around five. The little girl needed new shoes, so I put on a pair for her to try out. Then the little boy wanted shoes, too. He didn’t need them; the ones he was wearing were practically new. The parents didn’t say anything, though the mom looked a little uncomfortable when I went ahead and put a pair of shoes on the boy.
The boy wasn’t leaving without the shoes, and I realized I’d put mom in an awkward position. I assured her I wasn’t going to charge for that pair.
Meanwhile, the father was off looking at the men’s shoes. The mom turned and said to him, “Why don’t you get a pair of shoes from this nice gentleman, dear?”
The husband wore a khaki shirt and pants with the sturdy black shoes of a blue-collar worker. He definitely didn’t seem like a sneaker kind of guy. My hunch was confirmed when the dad replied, “Nah, I don’t really need new shoes, honey.”
She nudged, “I think you should get a pair of shoes.”
He looked at his wife, then glanced down at the floor samples on the shelf. Our only colors at the time were light blue, navy blue, white, and loden green. He said, “Okay, I guess I’ll take a pair of these white deck shoes.”
The wife shook her head. “They’ll get dirty.”
The father glanced back over the selection. “Okay, give me the light blue ones.”
The wife frowned. “Honey, you don’t own anything that’s blue to go with them.”
The father pulled a face. “Right. The navy ones then.”
The wife threw up her hands. “Didn’t I just say you don’t have anything blue?”
A long-suffering expression slid over the husband’s face and he said, “Honey, I like the green best.” He turned to me. “Do you have a pair in my size?”
I was thirty-five years old, and until that moment, I had never realized that the mom is really the boss of the family. Mom is almost always the one who decides when, where, how, and everything else about shopping for the family. This changed my entire perspective on our core market.
I had to get more moms. Selling shoes to moms took longer, because our shoes just lasted for a while, and sometimes they wouldn’t come back for sixteen weeks or so. We just kept sewing our shoes with moms in mind—that’s what we did, for years and years and years.
Another way we accommodated our customers was to innovate. Back then, men were putting on the same kind of shoes they had been wearing for fifty years or more. There had been some change, but not very much. Women, on the other hand, didn’t go very long before they wanted a change in style. We had a decent range of styles, but I could tell women were getting bored with the limited selection of colors offered in our canvas shoes.
Until we arrived on the scene, most sneakers sold around the world had been white. They weren’t originally called tennis shoes for nothing. Any colors offered by manufacturers were usually very conservative, like the standard blue, green, and red. Even black didn’t become popular until a decade later. The only black shoes we made for years were our basketball shoes. Randy’s had done some prints and different colors, but only as limited special release items, never as standard stock.
Within a few months of opening, we started doing our sneakers in a few different colors, according to the number of requests we got, trying new colors, making more of what sold. Our customers loved the broader selection, which brought us a bunch of new customers.
There was a new line of shoes specifically for women, to help bring them back into our stores more often. We added a trio of new styles: espadrilles, pointed toes, and saddle shoes. It helped a little, but nothing hit big.
Until we made it personal.
One day when I was working in the store, a customer came in carrying a piece of pink fabric. She was looking for a pair of pink tennis shoes that would match the fabric she’d used to make herself a dress. In those days, buying fabric by the yard was still very inexpensive compared to buying ready-made clothing, so lots of women sewed their own clothes.
This customer had been all over Orange County looking for sneakers that would match her dress, but all she’d found were the same old boring colors. We had more colors, so at first, she was very excited, hopeful of finding something in pink. But the only shade of pink we carried clashed with the pink in her fabric. She started to leave, obviously very disappointed.
Watching her, I had a flashback to a couple of years before when I’d met the surfer Duke Kahanamoku at a competition in Huntington Beach, and made him and his surfer pals’ sneakers to match their Hawaiian shirts.
Suddenly it hit me. It’d be easy for me to make shoes for this woman that not only matched her swatch but also were made from that very same fabric. I could make them during a scheduled transition between colors on the assembly line, so doing one odd pair wouldn’t be a disruption, or even difficult. I could just substitute the fabric and send it down the line. The only requirement would be that the fabric had to be able to absorb water, which was necessary for the vulcanizing process.
“How about I make you a custom pair from that very same fabric?” I said to the woman.
She looked at me wide-eyed. “Really? You can do that?” “Sure,” I said confidently. “No problem.”
Then she winced. “How much would you charge me?” she asked. It would cost us nothing extra to do this other than the employee time involved. “The usual price plus 50 cents,” I told her.
“That should cover it.”
Her jaw dropped. “Okay, yes!” Clearly elated, she pulled a swath of yellow fabric from her purse. “Can you do a pair from this, too?”
Learning to be flexible in our approach to both manufacturing and selling grew out of our willingness to innovate in order to meet our customers’ needs. Normally, shoe manufacturers couldn’t afford to change colors and styles on a whim. Changing their entire line of shoes once a year was about all they could absorb financially. Vans was different.
Our factory had been set up to be flexible. All our sneaker styles used the same two kinds of rubber soles made with the same vulcanizing procedure, the hardest part of the process. Only the upper fabric part was really different between the styles: lace-ups, slip-ons, basketball shoes, etc. We could change styles or colors every day on the assembly line, or even every hour, if we wanted to. That made us ultra-responsive to changing fashions and able to give people what they wanted right now. That flexibility was one of the big things that would ultimately lift us above the crowd.
I’ve always hated when a restaurant, or any brick-and-mortar business for that matter, won’t make substitutions, or if a company or a school has a “policy.” As in “I’d love to help you, but . . .” or “I’d make an exception, but . . .”
If I’ve learned one thing in my ninety years, it’s that people do what they want to. And when they do what’s right for them, whether or not there’s a policy that directs them otherwise, they’ll become unwavering in their loyalty if you accommodate them.
After successfully making the two custom pairs for that first customer, I called a meeting and discussed the idea with my partners. They agreed that offering custom shoes as a service was a terrific idea. The plan was to use the customer’s choice from among two or three of our normal shoe styles, but for the uppers we’d use the fabric the customer brought in to us. Eventually, we designed and carried our own fabrics. Each store had sample swatches that customers could choose between, if they didn’t have their own.
We immediately saw a huge potential market. Not only would women who sewed their own clothes be delighted to get a pair of exactly matching shoes, but drill teams and cheerleaders, sports teams, private schools, and choirs would all jump on the idea of being able to have shoes that perfectly matched their uniforms or out- fits, instead of always relying on boring white, let alone that other brand with the loud, garish stripes on the sides.
In Southern California, every school had cheerleaders, marching bands, and different types of song leaders. To match their school colors, Vans would make lots of shoes in the colors of the schools. Stevie went to a school whose colors were white, gold, and red. Down the street, they were green and white, and farther down the street from that, red and white. Every one of our stores would offer the service, and we started including custom-mades as part of our regular catalog.
To introduce the program, Dolly set about sewing a bunch of outfits and dresses, and I made pairs of matching sneakers with the same fabrics. We carved out a bit of space on one wall of the store and displayed the samples. I hired the kids to distribute flyers in the nearby neighborhoods, just as I’d done when we first opened. I also printed up some postcards, which I sent around to all the local high school and college phys ed departments, letting them know we now offered custom-made shoes for teams.
One ingenious promoter of our custom-mades, one that I wouldn’t have anticipated in a million years, was Stevie, then in the fifth grade. I had to laugh one day when he came into the factory carrying a dozen swatches of wild fabrics. On a recent trip to the fabric store with Dolly, he’d seen several bolts of Hawaiian print material that made him googly eyed. (Stevie has always been big on Hawaiian shirts; heck, he still is to this day. He owns hundreds of them.) Naturally, he wanted his own set of Hawaiian customs to match. Since the colorful fabric could be spotted a mile away, his shoes were both a great conversation piece and a true “walking advertisement” for our brand.
Custom-mades as a service was quick to catch on, though I can’t say how many sales Stevie’s wild shoes actually brought in. But offering that service absolutely helped draw attention to the brand and bring in new customers—people would experience the quality and comfort of our custom shoes and then return to buy our regular sneakers.
The other thing we started doing almost right away, which was totally unprecedented in the shoe business, was to let our customers buy just one shoe at a time. That way if one shoe got ruined, you didn’t have to throw out the pair. Or, if a person’s left foot was a different size than their right foot, which is often the case, they could now buy two different-size shoes and finally have a pair that fit. We just treated them as normal custom orders. Soon, podiatrists heard about our unique service and started recommending us to their patients. We could make just about any combination of features, one pair at a time, which proved to be a huge benefit for many, many customers.
Our customers were never shy about telling us, or simply showing us, what they wanted. We just had to pay attention. I discovered while working at the store that many girls were actually buying boys’ shoes, just two sizes smaller. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised; the same thing was happening with blue jeans. In those days, nobody made blue jeans specifically for women, so ladies just bought men’s jeans in a smaller size. The women’s liberation movement was just on the horizon, and I attributed the trend to young women striving for equality, wanting to be treated the same.
Whatever the reason, we quickly adopted the unisex idea and stopped making both girls and boys shoes. The unisex trend caught on like wildfire. Girls were happy to buy the same styles of shoes as the boys, just in different sizes.
I believe our willingness to listen to customers, to let them make our shoes their own, and to do things differently than the way they’d always been done were all reasons young people started identifying so closely with the Vans brand.
From the book AUTHENTIC: A Memoir by the Founder of Vans. Copyright (c) 2020 by Paul Van Doren. Published on March 27 by Vertel Publishing. Reprinted by permission.