Any skater, surfer, or snowboarder worth his or her salt has likely pulled on a pair of Vans shoes. The brand is iconic, to say the least, and yesterday it announced it had lost one of its founding fathers. Paul Van Doren, who helped create a shoe company synonymous with action sports, has passed away at 90.
Van Doren, who originally hailed from Boston, established the Van Doren Rubber Company in early 1966 in Anaheim, Calif. with his brother Steve and several other partners. At the time, the shoes retailed for about $2.50 and were made to order on the spot. They were extremely tough, thanks to the rubber developed by Van Doren.
There were several key cultural touchtones that helped launch the Vans brand into national notoriety. First was its adoption by the early skate culture including the crew out of Santa Monica profiled in the documentary Dog Town and Z Boys. The second was when Sean Penn wore the shoes in Fast Times at Ridgmont High as Jeff Spicoli. That particular design was credited to Paul’s brother Jim.
According to friends and family, Van Doren helped the company thrive thanks to his keen eye for developing strong business systems and giving customers what they wanted. Perhaps his smartest move was accepting skaters and surfers as customers when they were still outcasts. “Everybody else was kicking these kids out of the park, kicking them out of pools. And here’s a company listening to them, backing them, and making shoes for them,” Van Doren once told Los Angeles Magazine.
Paul Van Doren, who called himself more of a problem solver than a visionary, came out of retirement in the late 1980s to save the brand, which had gone deeply into debt. Retail is always a rocky road but since then, Vans has found relative stability, running iconic events like the Warped Tour, the Triple Crown of Surfing, and funding some of the greatest riders of boards in the history of our beloved pastimes. Van Doren reportedly sold the company in 1988 for $75 million but was still a huge part of the Vans’ DNA.
“It is with a heavy heart that Vans announces the passing of our co-founder, Paul Van Doren,” wrote the brand on its Instagram page. “Paul was not just an entrepreneur; he was an innovator. The Van Doren Rubber Company was the culmination of a lifetime of experimentation and hard work in the shoe industry. Paul’s bold experiments in product design, distribution and marketing, along with his knack for numbers and efficiency turned a family shoe business into a globally recognized brand. We send our love and strength to the Van Doren family and the countless Vans Family members who have brought Paul’s legacy to life. Thank you for everything, Paul. You will be sorely missed.”
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