photo & text by nacrowe
released nine days before his passing, AUTHENTIC (VERTEL, 2021) by VANS founder PAUL VAN DOREN is another addition to the growing catalogue of stellar recent retail business memoirs alongside the likes of SHOE DOG (review linked HERE) and LET MY PEOPLE GO SURFING (review linked HERE), which were authored by the founders of NIKE and PATAGONIA respectively.
AUTHENTIC is less the story about the VANS shoe company and more about the philosophy behind the brand. VAN DOREN himself often restates throuhghout that VANS was not a shoe company, but rather "a people company that makes shoes." that emphasis on both the consumer and the people that worked for him is what he credits for his success. and it was that ethos that led him to listen to his customers and the burgeoning SURF / SKATE scene of SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA of the 1970s.
VAN DOREN was not a RUNNER like PHIL KNIGHT or a CLIMBER / OUTDOORSMAN like YVON CHOUHINARD. it may surprise some that the founder of the foremost ACTION SPORT brand in the world, as well as his family, was not a personal participant in those activities at any point in his life. what VAN DOREN did excel at, however, was the ability to solve problems dealing with business applications in supply chain, production, warehousing, marketing and sales on a systematic level. this memoir goes into great detail about how he solved said issues during his time at the RANDOLPH RUBBER MANUFACTURING COMPANY and later at the VAN DOREN RUBBER COMPANY.
VANS had been in business almost a decade when SKATEBOARDING fell into its lap, as the nexus of that world was in the LOS ANGELES / ORANGE COUNTY region that surrounded their main original factory in ANAHEIM. up until that inflection point, they were a local company that made custom shoes for local schools and businesses. SKATERS were drawn to the thick, sticky rubber outsoles that held up better. seeing this market, VANS adroitly decided to sell by the shoe (not in pairs) and allowed for extensive customization options. they also sponsored legendary skaters TONY ALVA and STACY PERALTA early on and collaborated with them on future models. in essence, when the mid-70s SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA SKATE CULTURE embraced VANS, they returned it wholeheartedly. in essence SKATEBOARDING provided them an identity, which is interesting relative to the examples of KNIGHT and CHOUHINARD.
where this book slightly comes off a bit cumbersome is VAN DOREN's emphasis on being an inclusive and community-driven project, yet he rolls over clear information to the contrary. he is decidedly anti-UNION and makes a real haphazard job of foreseeing issues in finding a competent successor, which effected the livelihood of real people. both make his claims of business prowess and community-driven motivations come off a bit suspect. a cursory mention of his DIVORCE and its impact on his family is not even a page long, before rolling on about corporate ethics. its an odd juxtaposition, which makes his professional pronouncements come off a bit hollow. maybe that was an editing mistake, but glossing over such was an unfortunate choice.
in my estimation, most of this book describes an operation that is fairly garden variety. the only thing they having going for them is the cult loyalty of a creative and massively influential following that they basically lucked into early on in there formative years as a company. even at the close of the memoir you dont get the sense of whether the company even maintains any semblance of the ethos of the original, family-owned enterprise.
in summation, i thought this book was interesting but nothing revelatory. having attended catholic school in ORANGE COUNTY during my early elementary school years in the early 1990s, my introduction o the brand were custom sneakers the school made my parents purchase as part of our uniform. reading that such was a key early business strategy was pretty cool to learn. VANS along with FENDER and DISNEY, are the three local businesses that had a global impact and defined huge swaths of AMERICAN CULTURE. so anything related to such i will always be interested in investigating.
do i recommend this book? yes, only if you are interested in the business aspect of manufacturing. the fact that they made innovative products for SKATEBOARDING and other ACTION SPORTS almost seems like an ancillary detail here. no cool stories to uncover here. which was a bit of a disappointment no doubt.
rest in peace PAUL.