A happily checkered past

It is a simple shoe, really. A canvas slip-on sneaker with a vulcanized basket-weave sole. It has no laces, no grommets, no fancy air pumps, heart monitors or iPod jacks. But it is the blank canvas upon which three generations have shown their true colors -- solids, two-tones, checks, plaids, stripes, watermelons, winged hearts, Santa skulls and peace signs. With versions that cater to fans of the band Slayer, cartoon character Homer Simpson and professional skateboarder Geoff Rowley, this is footwear capable of turning run-of-the-mill men into Imelda Marcos-level shoe hoarders.

It's Vans style No. 98, a.k.a. the "Classic Slip-On," and even though the company makes a range of shoes and mind-boggling number of designs, the story of the 43-year-old brand cannot be told without that slip-on and a certain black-and-white checkerboard pattern that covers millions of pairs -- as well as the facade of the company's Cypress headquarters, the carpeting (and even a barber pole) inside, and the company RV sitting in the parking lot.

That single pairing of shoe and graphic helped transform the company from a factory/retail space in Anaheim without enough product to fill the shoe boxes on the shelves into a global presence likely to become the first billion-dollar skate brand some time in the next two years.

The mixture of luck and strategy that catapulted style No. 98 into its checkered heyday -- and far beyond -- is chronicled in "Vans: Off the Wall: Stories of Sole from Vans Originals," by Doug Palladini, due out June 4. The photo-heavy book traces the label's path to the pantheon of Southern California culture. And in addition to fixing in print the early history of the company -- the way the shoes were adopted early on by skateboarders, the unlikely way that checkerboard pattern found its way to the center of the '80s look -- it does something else that's been key to Vans' success: It perpetuates the vibe that the label is still a small, family-run business.

Jeff Mintz, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities, says it's part of the brand's strategy that "no one really realizes Vans is owned by basically the largest apparel company in the world." There's still a family connection -- Steve Van Doren, the 53-year-old son of co-founder Paul Van Doren, is still with the company, as is his sister Cheryl and his daughter Kristy -- but the company has been sold several times, most recently for $396 million in 2004 to Greensboro, N.C.-based VF Corp., which counts John Varvatos, Wrangler and Reef among its vast stable of brands. In its 2008 annual report, VF cited Vans' 18% increase in revenue last year as one of the few bright spots in its portfolio. (The company doesn't break out revenue by brand, but industry sources say last year's revenues probably topped $750 million.)

Between the checkerboard boom of 1982 and today, the label has seen more ups and downs than a skater on a vert ramp: hurt family feelings, a public stock offering and a bankruptcy filing. And although Palladini (Vans' vice president of marketing) made the conscious decision not to turn the book into a "business tome," it's clear that the company was built on business savvy as much as black and white checks.

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"My dad was a systems guy," explained Steve Van Doren, who holds the title of vice president of events and promotions for Vans. "He did things like color-coding the boxes, blue for men, green for women and orange for boys, so you could see what inventory you had right away. He would only open stores that had a free right-hand exterior wall because he thought that was the best place to catch someone's eye if they were driving by."

But the strategic move that would prove to have the most lasting impact was a concept so quaint it's practically cliche: "Give the customers what they want."

"My dad had just opened up our [second] store in Costa Mesa, and a woman came in and said she liked the yellow but not that particular shade, and she liked the pink but not the one he had," Van Doren said. "He told her to go to the fabric store down the street and get a third of a yard of whatever she wanted and he'd make the shoes for her." With that, Vans' custom shoe program was born. The book describes how a customer could walk into a store and choose from 100 different tongues of fabric tied to a shoelace and fill out an order form. Since Vans owned the factory as well, the finished product would be done in 19 days.

Van Doren would also sell a single shoe -- an added attraction for the SoCal skaters who came calling in the '70s when they discovered that the vulcanized rubber soles helped them feel their boards better.

"They adopted us, no ifs ands or buts about it," Van Doren said. "When you're skateboarding, you tend to wear out one shoe because you're dragging it to brake or you're sliding with it. And the shoes were $8 back then, and they could buy one shoe for $4. Or if they wanted one size 7 or one size 9."

Vans' association with the skaters grew, and Stacy Peralta was the company's first sponsored skater, later joined by Tony Alva. In 1976, the duo helped design the first dedicated skate shoe.

Since then, Vans has collaborated with an astonishingly wide range of taste makers from the worlds of action sports (Alva, Rowley, Steve Caballero), fashion (Marc Jacobs, Trovata), music (KISS, Iron Maiden, No Doubt), art (Mister Cartoon, Neckface) and beyond.

And while the ability to create custom Vans has been online for years, the company recently revamped the process, bringing it into the age of smart phones and instant-messaging. Now customers can share their designs -- and seek input from friends via chat.

The checkerboard was a byproduct of customization: It originally appeared on the friction tape (the rubber strip around the bottom of the shoe) after being chosen as the winner in a design contest. In 1981, the pattern was used in Vans' first printed fabric uppers, and a few months later (long before the era of product placement), Sean Penn wore his own checkered pair as part of the wardrobe for his character Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." It was a fateful choice for Vans.

" 'Fast Times' definitely put us on the map," Van Doren said. "We were about a $20-million company before the movie came out, and we were on track for $40 million to $45 million after that."

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Less visible, but just as important to the company, was a bit of Paul Van Doren business strategy. He sold shoes from company-owned stores, mom-and-pop surf shops and larger chains -- with specific designs for each market -- vowing that no single retailer would account for more that 5% of his production, his son said. The far-reaching effects of keeping all his eggs in separate baskets can be seen today. In fact, Wedbush Morgan's Mintz says that's the main reason the brand has continued to perform well even in the midst of an economic downturn.

"The advantage Vans has is its broad customer base; you can find them anywhere from a high-end boutique to a core surf/skate shop or a Macy's or a JCPenney," he says. "They've managed to segment the brand so it has so many potential customers and is in so many channels of distribution. It's all different product, but it all has that Vans DNA."

The result is a brand that manages to remain authentic not only to preteen skaters and the fashion flock but also their parents, the ones who remember wearing them when they were kids.

On a recent afternoon at corporate headquarters, Steve Van Doren sat surrounded by checkerboard ephemera and reminders of his father's business acumen. That "Vans DNA" was on full display on his feet, which were shod in Vans slip-ons made from a woven fabric in a traditional Native American design. Sitting on his desk was a pair bearing an artist's rendering of steaks, burgers and dogs sizzling on the barbecue grill. Both are one-of-a-kind creations that aren't in production.

"No, you can't buy these," he said with a chuckle.

But given the legacy of his father's business sense -- and the resources of one of the largest apparel companies in the world, chances are it won't be too long before you can.

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adam.tschorn@latimes.com

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