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Paul Van Doren, co-founder of Vans shoes, dies at 90

Paul Van Doren, co-founder of Vans, a shoe brand that grew into a multi-billion dollar action sports empire thanks to the skate community SoCal and its focus on custom kicks, died Thursday at 90 years.

His death, confirmed Friday by Vans, based in Costa Mesa, Calif., Comes just nine days after the publication of Van Doren’s book, “Authentic: A Memoir by the Founder of Vans.” No cause of death has been given, but, according to Vans, Doren died at home surrounded by his family.

“It is with a heavy heart that Vans announces the death of our co-founder Paul Van Doren,” the company statement reads in part. “Paul was not just an entrepreneur; he was an innovator. The Van Doren Rubber Co. was the culmination of a lifetime of experimentation and hard work in the footwear industry. Like Paul, from day one of its operations, Vans has been particularly innovative. When the first Vans store opened, there weren’t any stand-alone retail stores just for sneakers. Paul’s daring experiences in product design, distribution and marketing, along with his knack for numbers and his genius for efficiency, turned Paul’s family footwear business into an all-American success story.

Born in Massachusetts, Van Doren left school at age 16 to work at a local shoe factory, a job that would set his career in motion. In 1964, his employer, Randolph Rubber Co., sent him to Southern California to help rehabilitate a plant in Garden Grove. The following year, Van Doren and his employer broke up, but not before a chance encounter with surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku laid the groundwork for a future business model.

“My dad was in Huntington Beach,” Van Doren’s son Steve said in a 2016 interview with The Times. “Duke Kahanamoku was there, [surfers] Fred Hemmings, Corky Carroll, and Paul Strauch were there too, and they were all wearing those navy Hawaiian shirts. … My dad said, “Duke, I can make you a pair of shoes with that Hawaiian shirt …” Duke gave him Fred’s shirt. My dad went back to Randolph’s factory and made him a pair of shoes.

To start his shoe business, elder Van Doren teamed up with his brother, James Van Doren, and business partners Gordon Lee and Serge D’Elia. By early 1966 the wheels were in motion and on March 16 of that year the Van Doren Rubber Co. opened at 704 E. Broadway in Anaheim. The very first style was a canvas lace-up deck shoe known as Style 44.

The business was so new that many boxes on the shelves did not contain shoes. Day one customers – between 12 and 16 in all – tried samples and placed orders. The shoes were made on site overnight and collected the next day.

An early buy-in from the skateboarding crowd, who often sought out a single replacement shoe (uneven wear resulting from braking or slipping with a particular foot), helped support the young company. He eventually sponsored skateboarders including Stacy Peralta (his first sponsored skater) and Tony Alva, both of whom were instrumental in helping the company create the first dedicated skate shoe in 1976.

In 1982, the company saw his fortunes dramatically change when Sean Penn wore a pair of black and white checkerboard briefs in his role as Jeff Spicoli’s surfer-stoner in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” (‘Fast Times’ definitely put us on the map, “Van Doren said in 2016.” We were about $ 20 million before the movie was released, and we were on our way to $ 40-45 million per the following. ” )

Van Doren, who had already retired from the company (the first time) in 1976, returned to the helm in 1984 after an unsuccessful and overzealous effort to expand into other shoe categories (running, basketball, volleyball, wrestling and even break-dance shoes) had forced him into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection (which he released in 1986).

Two years later, the co-founders sold the company to venture banking firm McCown De Leeuw & Co. for $ 74 million. When VF Corp. took over the company in 2004 under a $ 396 million deal, generating $ 325 million in revenue per year. By 2015, that figure had grown to $ 2.2 billion, making skate brand VF the most profitable and second-largest brand.

Van Doren had been out of the business for more than a quarter of a century by the time of his death. But his legacy is firmly imprinted on the VF-owned company when it comes to the emphasis on skate and surf culture (Vans is the title sponsor of the US Open of Surfing) and customization efforts (the The brand’s rugged, in-line design – yours – sneakers program lets you place your own photos on pairs of its signature waffle-bottom shoes).

She also currently employs two of her five children: her son Steve, who is vice president of events and promotions at Vans, and daughter Cheryl, who is vice president of human resources. (Other surviving children include Paul Jr., Taffy, and Janie.)

Two grandchildren are also part of the once family business. Kristy Van Doren is Vans Senior Marketing Director for North America and Jenny Battiest works for the Costa Mesa-based company as Merchandising Manager for the Americas.

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