In the mid ’60s, there was a little store in Anaheim that made canvas deck shoes.
Vans, as the shoes were called, were popular among local high school kids in Southern California. The owners would even make custom shoes out of fabric the kids brought into the store, which was named, oddly enough, the Van Doren Rubber Company.
Paul and James Van Doren and their partners opened their quirky shoe store in the spring of 1966, the year of the one-hit-wonder garage band.
The store started off with zero inventory—just a few prototypes for customers to pick from. The canvas-top-and-rubber-sole shoes were priced between $2.99 and $4.99.
A handful of customers showed up that first day and chose the styles wanted. The new entrepreneurs went to work on their first orders, having told the customers to pick up their shoes later that day. When the customers returned, the rookie shoemakers realized they didn’t have any cash to make change. So they gave everyone their shoes and told them they could pay the next day. All of them returned, and Vans, the legendary casual shoe manufacturer, was in business.
The shoes became staples of California surf culture and fashion after they were adopted by the Santa Monica skateboard team Z-Boys. Skaters Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta liked the shoes because of how the rubber soles gripped the skateboard deck.
Vans were further popularized when Sean Penn wore a checkered pair in Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982.
Fifty years after the first shoes were handcrafted, the Vans brand, now owned by VF Corporation and headquartered in Cypress, Calif., has over $2 billion in sales worldwide.