James Van Doren (AP Photo)
LOS ANGELES (AP) - The shoes James Van Doren and his brother cooked up in their family rubber factory turned out to be the perfect fit for the nascent skateboarding culture that was sweeping Southern California in the 1960s.
They were cheap and they came in a variety of distinct designs that seemed to shout, "Cool California dude," as soon as you put on a pair.
But most importantly, once you did slip on a pair of Vans, you never fell off your skateboard. At least not until you crashed it.
Van Doren, whose background in chemistry and mechanics contributed to that unique, slip-resistant design, died Oct. 12 at his Fullerton home, his wife, Char, told The Associated Press. He was 72 and had been afflicted with cancer.
Van Doren and his older brother, Paul, were working for a sports shoe company in the 1960s when Paul suggested they and two friends form their own business. They would name it Vans and create an instantly recognizable logo with a capital V whose elongated tail covered the rest of the word.
They decided to keep their prices low by cutting out the middle man, choosing to manufacture the shoes themselves and sell them at their own retail store in Anaheim.
Initially, the company was so small that its first store carried only display samples. A customer would order a pair of shoes and the brothers would go next door to the family rubber factory to make them. Often they would use patterns and designs the customers had brought in themselves.
But most importantly, they would make the shoes' soles with a unique, waffle-like design perfect for gripping a wood surface like the top of a skateboard.
"They got it right the first time. The sole they use, it's called the waffle sole. Nothing else seems to work nearly as good for skateboarding," said Herb Hogen, a former competitive skater who has been wearing Vans for 30 years.
Soon the shoes seemed to be ubiquitous with skateboard ing across the country.
"If you saw another guy wearing Vans, you immediately knew they were a skateboarder and you immediately had a connection," said Hogen, 42, a bicycle mechanic from Missoula, Mont., who still skates for fun.
Then, in 1982, the shoes got a gigantic promotional boost. Sean Penn, in a breakout role that would make him a star, played quintessential stoned surfer-dude Jeff Spicoli in the film "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." And he wore a pair of Vans with a distinctive checkerboard design.
"The checkerboard pattern skyrocketed after that," recalled Char Van Doren.
Teens continue to wear it to this day, and Vans continues to market to alternative youth culture, announcing a collaboration with the rock group Pearl Jam earlier this year.
Over the years, however, the company did run into some bumps.
As the sports shoe business exploded in the 1980s, competitors who produced shoes with cheap foreign labor nearly ran Vans out of business. The company had to seek protection in bankruptcy court.
"We had kind of gotten away from our sweet spot and off track into athletic shoes that were expensive to make in America," Van Doren's nephew Steve Van Doren told the Los Angeles Times.
A court-ordered management shake-up in 1984 led to the departure of James Van Doren. Control of the company was returned to his brother Paul, who came out of semiretirement.
Four years later, an investment banking company bought Vans, which has been sold several times since.
In 2004, Vans Inc., then headquartered in Santa Fe Springs, was bought by Greensboro, N.C.-based VF Corp., a clothing company with brands such as Wrangler jeans, Vanity Fair lingerie and The North Face outdoor line.
The Vans office is now in Cypress, where several Van Doren family members still work.
As for James Van Doren, his loyalty to the American-made shoe never wavered. His wife says he wore Vans deck shoes "every day of his life."
Van Doren's body was cremated and his ashes may be scattered in Hawaii. A memorial Mass is planned Friday at Fullerton's St. Juliana Falconieri Catholic Church.
Besides his wife and brother, Van Doren is survived by sons James Jr., Mark and Eric; another brother, Robert; and a sister, Bernice Chute.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press