Action Sports

James Van Doren of Vans Shoes Fame Dies, Leaves Legacy of Iconic SoCal Board Sports Brand

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Mon, Nov 7, 2011 at 12:28 PM

  • Fast Times at Ridgemont High soundtrack
If you needed to place an iconic artifact of Southern California boarding culture in a time capsule, a pair of Vans shoes would certainly do.

Alongside the skateboard, a modification of roller skates, the modern surfboard, invented by L.A.'s Bob Simmons, and the t-shirt-as-billboard, arguably a product of SoCal surf and hot-rod clubs, Vans became an enduring product of the beach lifestyle industry.

Last week Vans' founder, James Van Doren, passed away, the company announced.

The company stated that Van Doren died at his Fullerton home Wednesday after a "long illness." He was 72. Vans:

"Jim" along with his older brother Paul Van Doren, long-time friend Gordon C. Lee, and partner Serge Delia founded the Van Doren Rubber Company, maker of Vans shoes, in Anaheim, California in 1966

Vans were staple footwear for surfers and skaters in the late 1970s (if you grew up in Southern California getting a pair was somewhat a rite of passage, and some of its small, suburban retail stores from the era still survive).

The key to Vans popularity among the boarding set: A honeycomb tread pattern in flexible rubber topped by canvas uppers, in Oxford-like lace-ups or loafer-esque slip-ons, that provided both technical grip and casual flare.

1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, based on a Rolling Stone article by Cameron Crowe about time he spent at San Diego's Clairemont High School, cemented the image of Vans as a staple of teen Americana at a time when surf-brand t-shirts (Town & Country, Lightning Bolt, Maui & Sons, OP) were sweeping the nation.

click to enlarge Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli in 'Fast Times.'
  • Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli in 'Fast Times.'

Our sister publication OC Weekly gives us the rest of the story, noting that through years of business challenges Van Doren kept Vans in SoCal:

Van Doren, who made the molds for the first shoes in his garage, ran Vans from 1976 to 1984. His reign included the first wave of the brand really taken off, after a checkerboard pair was seen on the feet of Sean Penn's surfer dude Jeff Spicoli in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Foreign rip-offs soon flooded the market, Vans sales waned by the mid-'80s and, as part of bankruptcy proceedings, James handed over the company's reins to his brother Paul, who had to come out of semi-retirement to run Vans. The family eventually lost control in one of the many sales of the company that followed. James Van Doren spent the rest of his career working as a business consultant.

Of course, today Vans is larger than ever, sponsor of surfing's biggest contests, collected under the title "Triple Crown," and one of the more omnipresent corporate names at the X Games and other "extreme" sports contests.


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