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Vans shoes was founded by Paul Van Doren with a simple idea; to make shoes and sell them directly to the public instead of using a middleman. Paul moved west to Southern California with his partners, Jim Van Doren, Gordy Lee and Serge D'Elia.
As the company itself tells it, the opening of its first store was inauspicious. Vans offered three styles, priced from $2.49 to $4.99, but on the day the store opened for business, the company had only made display models. The store racks were filled with empty boxes. Nevertheless, 12 customers came into the store and chose the colors and styles they wanted. The customers were asked to come back in the afternoon, while Van Doren and Lee rushed to the factory to make their shoes. When the customers returned to pick up the shoes, Van Doren and Lee realized that they had neglected to have money available to make change. The customers were given the shoes and asked to return the next day to pay for them. All 12 customers did.
Over the next year, the company opened a new retail store almost every week. A pattern developed in which Paul Van Doren scouted locations on Monday, signed a lease on Tuesday, remodeled on Wednesday, added shoe racks on Thursday and displays on Friday, hired a store manager on Saturday, and trained staff on Sunday. Retail operations would generate the bulk of Van Doren's early sales; the stores also enabled the company to get close to its public. Complaints over the early design of the company's rubber soles, which featured a diamond pattern that cracked too easily along the ball of the outsole, led to the addition of vertical lines to the ball area. The new design was patented as Vans' waffle sole.
A new type of customer boosted the company's fortunes in the early 1970s. The skateboarding craze, an outgrowth of California's surfing culture, provided an opportunity for Van Doren to prove its flexibility. When skateboarders began requesting new colors and patterns, the company responded by offering the Era, a red-and-blue shoe designed by professional skateboarders. Vans quickly became the skateboard shoe of choice, beginning the company's long, and devoted, association with the sport. Many more color combinations and patterns were added in the 1970s. A new style, the slip-on, was introduced in 1979, and it became the rage of southern California.
The 1982 hit film Fast Times at Ridgemont High featured the California surfer dude Jeff Spicoli, played by Sean Penn, wearing a pair of Vans checkerboard slip-ons. The film made a star of Penn and launched Vans nationwide, bringing the company's shoes into department stores and independent retailers. With sales skyrocketing, James Van Doren boosted production capacity, moving the company to a new 175,000-square-foot plant in Orange, California, in 1984 and raising the number of employees to more than 1,000. The Vans slip-on craze spawned a variety of licensing agreements, including items such as sunglasses and notebooks. Van Doren also pushed the company deeper into specialty sports footwear, developing baseball, football, umpiring, basketball, soccer, wrestling, boxing, and skydiving shoes. Most companies had already begun to move manufacturing to Asia, where labor costs were lower and environmental regulations were less restrictive, but Vans remained dedicated to domestic production, while expanding product offerings to include widths from EEEE to AAAA.
Demand for Vans shoes continued to be strong and, by 1987, with two million pairs of shoes manufactured at its Orange plant bringing in $50 million in sales, Van Doren returned to profitability. International sales, particularly to Mexico and Europe, were also growing strongly, accounting for 10 percent of company sales. A third of the company's business went to custom-designed shoes. In a time when almost all of the major sneaker makers had shifted production to South Korea, Vans clung to its tradition of domestic production, boasting order-to-delivery times of five days for its catalogue items, compared with an industry average of nine months.
Vans further solidified its reputation as the brand of choice for skateboarders with the opening of its 46,000-square-foot indoor skateboarding park in Orange, California, in 1998. The venture quickly proved profitable, inspiring the company to launch a series of similar parks nationwide. By the end of 2001 Vans owned four skateboarding parks in California, along with parks in New Jersey, Virginia, Texas, and Colorado. At the same time, the company was generating a great deal of publicity through sponsorship of a range of Triple Crown sporting events, including skateboarding, snowboarding, motocross, and surfing. With its diversified product line, highly publicized event sponsorships, and popular skateboarding facilities, Vans was clearly right back in the thick of things.