Vans shoes need little introduction. Possibly one of the most iconic action sports and lifestyle brands on the planet, they haven’t just been part of the skate, surf and snow culture over the last half a century, they have quite literally shaped its very existence.
Founded by brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren, with partners George Lee and Serge D’Elia, the Van Doren Rubber Company opened their doors in Anaheim, California in 1966. That first day twelve people arrived to buy their #44 Vans deck shoe – known as ‘The Authentic’. Those customers choose the fabric style and colour they wanted, and were told to come back in the afternoon to collect their kicks. Paul and Lee then rushed off to the factory to make the shoes, returning with the final product but no cash to offer change, so asked the customers to come back the next day with the money. All twelve did.
The gummy rubber sole that looked like a waffle was an instant hit with the Cali surfers and skaters due to its unique stickiness, and before long, Vans could be seen on kids everywhere along the coast. It was Tony Alva who first launched his board up and out of the pool to do a backside air, which led to the tagline ‘Off the Wall’ – a line still used by Vans today. As skateboarding progressed through the 70’s in reclaimed empty swimming pools throughout California, skaters asked for padded collars and different colour combinations on these shoes; Vans listened and the #95 ‘The Era’ was born. In 1982, it was the bong-smoking surfer Jeff Spicoli who helped launch Vans checkerboard slip-ons to international fame in the movie ‘Fast times at Ridgemont High’. Jump forward 30 odd years and Vans have transcended the counter-culture of alternative sports and music to become a global fashion powerhouse, doing what so few other brands have managed to do; stay true to their roots.
This year marked the 50th birthday celebrations for Vans and we were lucky enough to get invited to the House of Vans in London to join the festivities. Having worn Vans since first standing on a skateboard over thirty years ago, to say we were stoked would be an understatement. A two day event, the Friday was the party with a huge line up including Dizzie Rascal and Annie Mac, skate demos from some of the biggest names in skateboarding, all washed down with a skin-full of beer throughout. It was nothing short of epic. The Saturday was the ‘family’ day with workshops, skate lessons, movie screenings and appearances from the Vans family. When we got wind that Steven Van Doren, son of founder Paul, was going to be there in the kitchen manning the grills and cooking up burgers for the masses, we had to try to meet the legend himself. We pulled a few strings, called in favours from some of the crew and were privileged to get time on the couch to interview Steven about his life, the shoes, love of cooking and food.
R+B; So how did it come that you are in the kitchen today cooking up a storm?
SVD; The first time I BBQ’d was 20 years ago. I was freezing my ass off up in the snow so I figured I’d fire up the grill to keep warm and cook some cheese quesadillas. I am always on the lookout for new talent; new talent in skaters, surfers and snowboarders, but up in the snow, you can’t tell who anyone is ‘coz they got all the gear on; helmets, goggles etc. so I figured if I cook some food, they’d have to take their gear off to eat and I could see who they are. So now that’s what we do at every Vans event. At the Vans USA surf event in Huntington Beach, California, we get over 600,000 people come to the beach over 9 days, so I asked the city if I could cook for two hours a day. When someone comes to an event, there are often VIP tents and they can’t get in. At Vans events we want everyone to feel like a VIP, so we cooked 700 sliders and 1300 hotdogs at Huntington Beach for everyone to enjoy. Health regulations say that you have to cook the food and serve it out a window, so I called my friend Wayne who owns Wacos Fish Tacos chain of restaurants and he gave me his food truck. With four guys helping me in the truck, we cooked for 2000 people. We also had 9 different restaurants cater for a further 300 people a day. Another interesting little story about Vans food; my uncle Johnny was a chef. Uncle Johnny moved from Boston and behind the Vans shop we opened an Italian sub joint named after my nana, Nana Vans. For 17 years we served subs, pepper steaks, meatballs, salami and my nanas special; peppers, potatoes and sausages.
R+B; Do you have a favourite food you like to cook? What do you cook for a group of friends at home?
SVD; Oh yeah, it’s a barbecue. What I try to do is source the best ingredients. I’ll go to the market and get the best meat and make up a bunch of burgers and kebabs, maybe make a few cheese quesadillas. I’m not a chef so I figure getting good ingredients makes for great food.
R+B; Do you have a favourite drink?
SVD; Well that ones kinda hard for me because I never really drank in my life because I always had to work the next day. I was always working, driving the van around while everyone else was falling on the ground so I drank Arnold Palmers (ice tea & lemonade), not because I had any problems or anything, I just had to work the next day for my dad and I didn’t want to let him down. So everyone else was on their ass and I’d pick them up and drive them home.
R+B; Is there any British food you enjoy eating when you’re here?
SVD; Oh yeah I love the breakfasts over here. You always have mushrooms and those baked beans; I love those things.
R+B; Have you ever tried black pudding?
SVD; No, but I know what it is!
R+B; Well Steve, its been a pleasure chatting with you…
SVD; Wait, we didn’t even get to desserts! That’s my favourite area! There is a simple restaurant in Orange County where I live called ‘BJ’s’ and they do the best dessert I’ve ever tasted. It’s called the ‘Pazuki’. It’s a pizza pan filled with their homemade cookie, served with ice cream. It’s served hot. So you can get chocolate chip, white chocolate chip, half chocolate chip and half oatmeal raisin – you know whatever you want, and it comes out of the kitchen hot and you’re like ‘are you freaking kidding me!’. I have to use a spoon to eat it all and scrape it all off the sides of the pan. I also love that dessert from Australia called Pavlova, that stuff is amazing, I hope I can find some while I am here.
R+B; Well there are enough Aussie chefs working over here so I’m sure it must be on the menu somewhere in London. Although it is a fiercely contested debate as to weather it is from New Zealand or Australia.
SVD; Yeah I hear that a lot. (Smiling)
R+B; Vans recently collaborated with a couple of chefs to release a Vans Chef shoe, can you tell us about that?
SVD; Yeah we collaborated with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo in Los Angeles to create a kitchen proof chef shoe. We did a Vans Authentic, Classic Slip-On, Old School and a Sk8Hi model. They’re great shoes with a special non-slip outer sole, an enhanced food bed so you can wear ‘em for long hours on the job and a special Vansguard treatment to repel liquid, food and grime.
R+B; and you also recently release the Vans Late Night Series, tell us about that…
SVD; yeah those are cool; we got a bunch of styles paying tribute to some late night snacks. There’s a burger shoe, a pizza shoe and a shoe with fries on them. We also did a women’s range with donuts, macaroons and strawberries that look really cool.
R+B Well thank you Steve for chatting with us today, and thanks for being a part of our lives for so long.
SVD; It’s my pleasure, thanks for coming down.