Shelf Life

How Vans got off on the right foot

Kai Ryssdal Jun 15, 2009
Shelf Life

How Vans got off on the right foot

Kai Ryssdal Jun 15, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: There are millions of surfers and skateboarders and snowboarders in this country. Most of them under the age of 30. That’s a lot of kids with a lot of consumer clout, especially when it comes to deciding what kind of clothes to buy. In an industry where being hip can count for almost everything, Vans has been right in the thick of that mix for 40 years. The thick, rubber-soled, canvas-topped shoes the company made its name with found fame among skateboarders and surfers back in the 1970’s, including Sean Penn’s character Spicoli from the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

[Audio from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High]

BRAD HAMILTON: Why don’t you get a job, Spicoli?

SPICOLI: What for?

HAMILTON: You need money.

SPICOLI: All I need are some tasty waves, cool buzz, and I’m fine.

Penn’s black-and-white checkered Vans catapulted the shoes and the company into the mainstream. But Vans’ Marketing Vice President Doug Palladini says the brand didn’t really start out that way.

DOUG PALLADINI: One thing to remember, when we started in 1966 Paul Van Doren didn’t even know what skateboarding really was about at that point. Action sports as we know them today wasn’t a big business.

It is now. Action sports retail brings in about $30 billion a year. Doug Palladini looks back at Vans’ place in that market in the company’s new book “Vans: Off the Wall.”

And after a sneak preview of shoe styles and clothing designs that consumers won’t see for a year-and-a-half, I asked him how Vans initially caught on.

PALLADINI:We distributed shoes through studios in Hollywood, here and there. And Sean Penn had grown up in Santa Monica, you know, wearing our shoes. And when he wore them in “Fast Times.”

RYSSDAl: Playing Spicoli, right? He wore his own shoes, didn’t he?

PALLADINI: Playing Jeff Spicoli. Yeah. And it was real authentic because he grew up right in that area.

RYSSDAl: Is it true, what I read, that you went from like a $20 million company to a $40 million company after that film came out? I mean that’s the trajectory that it helped you get on?

PALLADINI: It did, but it was a double-edged sword for us, because we did it and we grew exponentially, but without any sort of discipline whatsoever. So anyone who would call up and want the shoes, we asked how many we could send and where they needed them sent.

RYSSDAl: Walk me through how it happened that this not very desirable demographic back in the mid-70’s, the skateboarder, hanging out, shiftless youth kind of demographic, made this company what it is really. I mean, how did that happen?

PALLADINI: You have to remember that back when the company started the general mindset in the advertising community was that teens were not an audience worth reaching. It’s like what are you going to do with a kid’s paper route money? How are you going to make a business out of that? So what we know now is vacations, cars, appliances — kids have a tremendous influence over all of that.

RYSSDAl: How do you keep going with this brand, that has evolved really not very much in the last 40 years, right? I mean it was cool shoes then, and it’s cool shoes and some other stuff now.

PALLADINI: What we always try to do is dive back into what makes us original and authentic. And it’s almost going back that allows us to move forward. You know, we’ve had times in our past, and we’ve been through bankruptcy where we’ve tried to reach beyond who we are as a brand. We’ve made wrestling shoes, clown shoes, skydiving shoes. We did a whole running thing.

RYSSDAl: Yeah, cause you need special shoes for skydiving, huh?

PALLADINI: Yes, don’t ask me. We did a whole running initiative. And those are the kind of places where we get too far afield. And really, it’s not a part of who we are anymore.

RYSSDAl: Give me your take on the myth or the legend that is Vans. I mean, what is it? Encapsulate it for me.

PALLADINI: It is that Southern California culture of music, art, action sports, street culture all wrapped together around this basic-looking shoe. That is really what it is.

RYSSDAl: And how does that stay relevant today in a country that’s so different from 45 years ago when the company started and when, frankly, we’ve got a whole bunch of other problems.

PALLADINI: You know, at the end of the day, what you’re doing is you’re capturing cool.

RYSSDAl: Since we were there I figured I had to recapture a little bit of that cool for myself on the indoor skate ramp that Vans has at its offices. Doug Palladini helped me out with step one, figuring out which foot to lead with on the skateboard.

PALLADINI: Uh, you’re goofy-footed.

RYSSDAl: What does that mean?

PALLADINI: That means your right foot’s forward.

RYSSDAl: Really?

PALLADINI: Generally when you don’t know and you get pushed, whichever foot you put out first is… So try it that way.

RYSSDAl: Yeah, so I did.

PALLADINI: There you go. There you go.

RYSSDAl: Thank you. You hear that thump? And then the applause from the guys there? That’s me, falling right on my backside. I don’t know, maybe a pair of Vans might have helped me out.

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