First To Produce, Last To Leave

It’s kind of funny how the first skate-shoe company was the last to move its manufacturing to Asia.

Vans, started in Anaheim, California in 1966 as a shoe manufacturing company by Paul Van Doren and partners Jim Van Doren, Gordy Lee, and Serge D’Elia, manufactured all of its shoes in Southern California until 1995, when the company closed down its last California plant in Orange.

Today, Paul’s son Steve Van Doren is running the show at Vans, which has grown into an enormously successful company. “The expertise of the brand was based on my dad’s knowledge of the vulcanized shoe business,” says Van Doren.”Basically, it’s been about seven years since we first got into snowboard boots, and that was the first offshore experience for the new company in sourcing product outside of the United States.

“When Gary Schonfeld took the reins in 1995, we changed from concentrating on manufacturing to being more of a marketing company-and then over the next six and a half years, we’ve switched our emphasis and concentrated on marketing our brand and letting the experts with manufacturing do that overseas.

“We have full-time people in product development here as well as overseas. We have actual Vans employees overseas also who support and research all of our needs for manufacturing over there. We’re always looking for a better factory to improve the quality of the product and not to make it cheaper, but we’re also really aware of sweatshops, and we have staff people who visit many factories from both the U.S. and Asian office and make sure the quality of the factory is up to our standards.”

Van Doren says the reasons for moving manufacturing to Asia were simple: “In 1994 we closed the factory in Vista, and within the next year we closed the factory in Orange,” he says. “Our manufacturing was limited to vulcanized product, and the market was changing in the mid 90s to a product that we couldn’t manufacture here cost-efficiently.”

That product? Cold-cure based manufacturing that more and more skateboard shoe companies were getting into to accommodate the growing popularity of more tech-shoes. “The cold-cure process,” explains Van Doren, “is another type of process where they use different solvents. It’s more cost-efficient overseas-as well as the fact that environmentally, the solvents used in the process aren’t allowed by the EPA here.

“It was a strategic move to market a brand versus manufacturing. Solvent cements go into the ozone layer, and the EPA wont allow that here. The main reason was because we were able to make a broader variety, with many different types of materials and outsoles to grow our line, and that’s what kids are looking for and were demanding at that time,” adds Van Doren.

As to whether manufacturing shoes in the U.S. is a feasible option today, he disagrees, explaining that with the obvious higher labor costs in the U.S., domestic manufacturing isn’t always realistic. “There’s a lot of labor in making shoes,” says Van Doren, adding that labor unions are another reality of U.S.-based manufacturing. “In the last year manufacturing here we were approached by many different labor unions-the entire time we were in business here we didn’t have labor unions. The material cost and labor overseas are far less than they are here. When unions come in, the cost goes up even more.”

As to what the environmental implications of manufacturing shoes in the U.S. are, Van Doren is quick to admit that it’s not easy: “The new type of shoes being made today aren’t feasible, because there are laws not allowing the use of certain solvent cements. You have to have certain permits to make things. If you go around the country today, then there’re probably only a couple of people (shoe companies) left that manufacture in the U.S. However, all the designs for shoes are done here in Southern California, with our design staff in-house.”

Van Doren says the main challenge with manufacturing in Asia has been with technology, tthough it’s not as bad today as it was for many companies in the past. “Now there are computers where designs can be scanned and e-mailed back and forth. So less trips have to be made to China,” explains Van Doren. “Plus having a staff in China that works directly for Vans helps, and you can have conference calls with video, while final approval of a line is all done in person with our staff going over there.”

Any changes or developments that Van Doren may foresee with manufacturing he says are based on the direction that trends and fashion take. “We’re skate-based, and you have to be able to adapt your product to what your clientele want,” he says. “If you want technical, then we have to do technical. If you want lightweight, we’ll have to do that. We’ll always have a basic line of Vans shoes.

“The athletes we support are normally trendsetters, and they guide us to the right trends.”

Advice that Van Doren can offer to other shoe companies is simple: “Don’t get too broad in your line. If you have five styles, you can make them efficiently. Keep your line small, and find your own niche.

“When Vans went into business with vulcanized product, we were only the third company since 1900 to go into vulcanized manufacturing in the U.S. Because it took so much expertise, knowledge, and equipment. The type of shoes made today with the solvent cements are much easier to make for a quick start up-factory to go into business overseas.

“The equipment to make a single pair of shoes cold-cure style, you probably have in your garage,” explains the skate-shoe giant, “whereas our original building was 10,000 square feet because of all the equipment involved with making a pair of vulcanized pair of shoes.”