In the mid-1960s, Paul Van Doren had a dream. Two dreams, actually: to make shoes and to make money making shoes.
He’d grown up in Boston, an eighth-grade dropout with a passion for horse-racing and a precocious book-making talent: trackside, Van Doran was apparently known as ‘Dutch the Clutch’, and for a buck he’d give you odds on a race. His mother was understandably unhappy with this state of affairs and insisted he take a job at the shoe factory where she worked. So Van Doren swept the floor and made sneakers. Twenty years later, he was executive vice president of the company.
Problem was, shoe manufacturers didn’t make much cash: only something like 10 cents per pair. The real money was in retail, so Van Doren – along with his brother, Jim, and friends Gordon and Paul – formed his own business: the Van Doren Rubber Company. (“Canvas Shoes for the Entire Family” said the slogan on the box.) They’d have their own factory, and their own retailers, too. And they’d be based in California: home to the new-fangled sport of skateboarding.
Doors opened March 1, 1966, on a combination factory/office/shop at 704 East Broadway, Anaheim – a satellite city close to Los Angeles. Inside was a collection of old machinery scavenged from across the U.S.A. The 16 punters who wandered in on that first day had to try on samples and pick up their completed kicks later. Within a few days, stock filled up the shop, though this idea of ordering custom sneakers caught on.
Company legend has it that sometime during the first week of operations a customer came in demanding sneakers in brighter shades of pink and darker shades of yellow. Van Doren, somewhat exasperated, told her to go to the fabric store down the street and choose whatever hue she wanted; he would make it into a shoe. Almost from the start, Vans fanciers have been able to design their own kicks.
Which was just as well, because all those skaters nipping around empty pools in wintertime had some pretty specific sneaker needs. Vans had waffle soles twice as thick as their competitors, using hardcore canvas and nylon thread for tough shoes that withstood sliding and dragging on concrete.
In the mid-'70s, Van Doren added the Old School line, with a leather toe and heel, since that’s where skaters thrashed their shoes the worst. Around the same time came a collaboration with local skater Stacey Peralta (pictured below): together they created padded backs and extra heel support to protect ankles from flying boards, plus a label that read “Off The Wall”. Something the shoes have toted ever since.
Late in the decade came another innovation: the checkerboard slip-on. Cali kids had supposedly been colouring in the side profiles of their rubber soles with black and white squares, and at first Van Doren copied the trend with checkerboard rubber. Then he hatched the idea of replicating the pattern on canvas, and unwittingly invented an icon.
A couple of years later, the shoe was made famous in Fast Times at Ridgemont High – the first big teen film of the ’80s, featuring Sean Penn’s slacker antihero Jeff Spicoli and his favourite black and white sneakers. Penn apparently came across the shoes himself and decided they were perfect for the perpetually stoned Spicoli. They were such a big part of the film, they ended up on the cover art for the soundtrack album.
Millions of pairs were sold, and the Van Doren Rubber Company became more than just a local west coast operation. Dutch the Clutch, it seems, was still getting the odds right. The old-school shoe guy who teamed up with a bunch of skate-heads created a movement that’s lasted over 50 years.
Vans is a supporter of Smith Journal.