James Van Doren, machinist and tinkerer, concocted the gummy crepe soles that skateboarders love. With that, he launched a brand that became a cultural icon, the essence of California skating cool. But Van Doren's finest hour at Vans, which he founded in 1966 with his brother Paul and two friends, came in the early 1980s, when the Vans factory in Anaheim, California, caught fire.
Vans had chosen, but not closed on the purchase of, a new factory in nearby Orange. And now Jimmy, as he was known, quickly pushed that purchase through. For the next four and a half days, he worked nonstop, sorting through the charred equipment in the original plant, cleaning it up, and getting it moved to the new facility. Vans restarted manufacturing without missing any orders. "Everyone's job depended on it," recalls Steve Van Doren, a nephew of Jimmy's and today a vice president of Vans. "Jimmy set up the original factory. He knew it all."
Jimmy Van Doren died October 12 from complications of cancer. He was 72.
The Van Doren brothers were Massachusetts boys who moved to California to oversee a plant for another shoe company. Shoemakers, however, were at the mercy of wholesalers and retailers, and the brothers decided to manufacture shoes and sell them directly to consumers. A 400-square-foot store was carved out of the original Vans plant. The soles gripped, and the canvas was sturdy. "That's all we had going for us—they outlasted other people's shoes," says Steve Van Doren. And Vans aimed to please, making multiple widths, selling differently sized shoes as a pair to people with differently sized feet, and making shoes with customers' fabric.
The manufacturing complexity suited Jimmy Van Doren. He made the molds for soles in his garage and loved the ever-expanding rows of machinery in the Vans plant. Within two years, Vans had about 50 stores. Taking over from older brother Paul, Jimmy became president in the late 1970s. Every weekday, he gathered managers for a morning meeting. "Tell me about your day," Van Doren would say, going around the room.
One retailing manager had noticed kids buying white slip-on deck shoes and using a black marker to create a checkerboard pattern. Vans started manufacturing the pattern, and an unknown actor named Sean Penn slipped into the Santa Monica store and bought a pair, which he wore to the set of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Penn's stoner character, Jeff Spicoli, became a sensation in that 1982 movie, in checkerboard slip-ons. Soon, other retailers were selling the shoes all over the country.
Van Doren wanted to make more than just skate shoes and pushed Vans into running, basketball, and other athletic shoes. But making them in the U.S. sent costs ballooning. Vans filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1984. Creditors ousted Jimmy and brought back Paul. Vans was sold, later went public, then was taken private by VF, the large shoe and apparel firm, which last year sold $1.2 billion worth of Vans products.
In 1986, Jimmy Van Doren started another shoe company, but it didn't take. He ran a machine shop with one of his brothers and worked as a general contractor, fixing up homes. "He would have loved to continue at Vans," his wife, Char Van Doren, says. "He was a shoemaker."