Closer relationships with consumers and retail partners, as well as expanding further into apparel and gaining deeper penetration in key cities such as London are the priorities for Vans EMEA general manager Jan Van Leeuwen, as the footwear brand embarks on its next chapter of growth
“Vans is a family brand, and for us, it is really all about connecting with the end consumer,” says Jan Van Leeuwen, action sports enthusiast, and vice-president and general manager Vans’ Europe, Middle East and Africa business, as the brand reaches its 50th year.
The Dutchman is speaking to Drapers in the green room of the brand’s event space and underground skate park, House of Vans, under the arches of London’s Waterloo station ahead of its birthday celebrations in late March. The jam-packed itinerary included free, public events at its own stores and those of key retail partners such as Slam City Skates and Footpatrol in London, live sets from Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac and producer Julio Bashmore, and skateboarding workshops at House of Vans.
The Vans story started in 1966 (timeline, below), when brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren, with partners Gordon Lee and Serge Delia, opened their first store under the name of The Van Doren Rubber Company in Anaheim in California. They sold the #44 deck shoes, now known as the “Authentic”, which were manufactured on the premises. By the early 1970s, the brand had gained a following among the skateboarding communities in southern California and was eventually bought by VF Corporation in 2004 for $396m (£278m).
In the 10 years since, Vans’ annual sales have grown from around $320m (£225m) to $2bn (£1.4bn). At the end of 2014, it was VF’s second-largest behind The North Face. It is now targeting total global revenues of $2.9bn (£2bn) by 2017 and, although Van Leeuwen would not provide a breakdown of UK sales and profits, he confirmed that the UK market is the biggest within the EMEA region, which in turn accounts for 25% of total turnover.
In this digital age, you can’t fool a consumer. You need to talk to them and understand them
US-based VF’s stable of 30 clothing and footwear brands includes Wrangler, Lee, Timberland and Eastpak, yet Vans retains the culture of a family-owned business, says Van Leeuwen: “It was just family working at the first store in Anaheim and that’s what we’re trying to keep hold of today. Steve Van Doren [son of co-founder Paul] works in the marketing department with his daughter, Kristy, while Cheryl, Paul’s daughter, is head of global HR. That family feeling is still very important.”
“A brand with so much heritage and family spirit is a great thing in the current climate dominated by corporate sportswear giants,” says Dave Atkinson, retail manager at London independent Slam City Skates. “Vans are great to work with – we have a really personal relationship with several of the employees, and have worked on collaboration shoes and events in the past.”
For the 50th anniversary, Slam City held an in-store launch of the special edition Pro-Classic shoes, and many of the Vans “legends team”, including Steve Van Doren and US skateboarders Tony Alva and Christian Hosoi, flew in to meet customers and answer questions.
In the UK, Vans has around 500 stockists ranging from core skate stores to multiples like Schuh, Office, USC and Footasylum.
“One of the things we’re quite good at is segmenting the marketplace and giving every retailer different products,” says Van Leeuwen. “That’s been the focus for the last couple of years and it has been working really well for us.”
Another goal is to find new approaches to the traditional 18-month turnaround of the footwear industry: weekly analysis helps the business to understand what is selling well and replenish quickly. Vans has 800 to 900 SKUs per season, retailing at between £40 and £200 – the price for its Vault by Vans products, which draw on its extensive archive, and feature exclusive collaborations and premium materials. There are three main seasons, although Vans drops product each month.
The segmentation policy is working, believes Schuh’s managing director Colin Temple: “Vans manages the accounts well. Classics are the backbone of the business, but they give a little bit of product differentiation, which is big enough to satisfy the various partners they work with. They are quite a charismatic business and very commercial too.”
Van Leeuwen is quick to underline the importance of strong, long-lasting relationships with its retail partners to help navigate the changing face of the industry, where “the big are getting bigger and the small are finding it more difficult”.
“What we’re seeing at the moment is things are changing so fast and it’s always tempting to look back at what worked and what didn’t. But we need to work together to develop a vision of what’s next,” he says. “Trends come and go, so I think retailers are looking for stable partners within the brand portfolio. The partnership [with retailers] is so important, as is really understanding and connecting with that consumer.
One of the things we’re quite good at is segmenting the marketplace and giving every retailer different products
“In this digital age, you can’t fool a consumer. You need to talk to them and understand them, and at the end of the day, they decide what they want to buy. Once upon a time, there were tactics to make people buy something but those days are over. The consumer is so smart and well-informed, honesty and authenticity is really important.”
Around 80% of Vans’ turnover in the UK comes from wholesale and the rest from its own retail footprint, which currently stands at 17 full-price stores, seven outlets and its website. The latter represents around 20% of own retail sales. Van Leeuwen wants to grow the retail base and, although he will not confirm specific plans, he says London is a key focus for further penetration, alongside newer territories such as Russia and Turkey.
Skateboarder Tony Alva in Vans by artists Mrzyk and Moriceau
“One of our examples is the US where the [wholesale/retail] split is around 50/50,” he explains. “[Own retail] is a great way for us to control the brand and be able to tell those deep stories, so that would be a goal for us.”
Another priority is growing the clothing business to become more of a lifestyle brand. Clothing and accessories currently accounts for around 20% of the business and Vans historically has stronger relationships with footwear retailers, although Van Leeuwen says ecommerce is providing an opportunity to develop its apparel offer further.
When Van Leeuwen joined Vans as sales director in 2011, after stints as general manager at action sports footwear specialist Sole Technology in Amsterdam, as well as roles at O’Neill and Nike, the company embarked on a consumer segmentation project. This process identified its core consumer as the “expressive creator”.
“So basically everything we do and develop is for that consumer,” he says. “It’s not so much about age or gender but about what they do and like. The expressive creator is interested in action sports but at the same time, they love fashion, streetwear, art and music, which are our key pillars.”
in August 2014
The physical manifestation of this is the House of Vans concept: an event space that provides a platform to bring all these pillars to life. The name comes from the original Anaheim store and was debuted in Brooklyn, New York, in 2010 with music by Public Enemy and appearances from friends of the brand, including skateboarders Tony Alva, Steve Caballero and Omar Hassan. The second House of Vans opened in London in 2014, as a 32,290 sq ft space dedicated to art, music and skateboarding.
The expressive creator is interested in action sports but at the same time, they love fashion, streetwear, art and music
“It’s one of the best ways to connect with our consumers and inspire them from a skateboarding or an action sports perspective, reaching into fashion, streetwear, music and art,” says Van Leeuwen, whose expresses his own Vans lifestyle by snowboarding in the mountains close to the company’s European headquarters in Lugano, Switzerland, and “trying to surf”.
Like most within the fashion industry, he wishes he had a crystal ball and could see what the next 50 years will be like. But he does predict is that the next phase of growth will come from innovation and a focus on connecting to the consumer: “We’re strong on the classic side of the business, which is why we are here, but while we’re celebrating our past and where we came from, we’re also looking forward. We want to innovate through skateboarding because that’s what we’re about and stay close to our consumer through platforms like House of Vans.”
The Story of Vans Authentic
50 years of Vans
1966 Brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren and partners Gordon Lee and Serge Delia open for business at 704E Broadway in Anaheim, California. On the first morning, 12 customers purchase shoes that are manufactured on the premises and are ready for pick-up in the afternoon
1976 The Vans “Off the Wall” logo makes its debut and what started as a random doodle by Paul Van Doren, once known as the “jazz stripe” becomes the hallmark of the Vans brand
1978 The Sk8 Hi was introduced as Style #38, designed to shield skateboarders’ ankles from injuries
1995 Vans sponsors the Warped Tour for the first time and in 2001 buys a controlling interest in what is now the Vans Warped Tour, the longest-running concert series in America
2003 Vans launches the Vault by Vans collection to combine high fashion and premium design with classic Vans silhouettes
2004 VF Corporation completes purchase of Vans for £396m including stock options
2014 Vans opens House of Vans event space under London’s Waterloo station
2016 Vans celebrates 50th anniversary