In the boardsports universe, Vans is the successful cousin who made it big and now has to pick up everyone’s tab at family dinners and nights at the bar for eternity. Single-handedly the largest brand in our industry, Vans is now a $4 billion-per-year business with deep hooks into the youth lifestyle market across the world.
But despite successful forays into music, art, street culture, and a wide array of action sports, the cultural North Star for the brand remains unchanged: Even after more than five decades in business, skateboarding and its rich subculture still inform major decisions for the brand that’s been famously Off The Wall since 1966.
This enduring core focus is one of the main takeaways of our exclusive interview with Doug Palladini, Vans Global Brand President. In his talk with SOURCE Skateboard Editor Dirk Vogel, the industry veteran who commands more than 30 years of leadership experience speaks on skateboarding’s unique cultural diversity, the Van Doren spirit of giving back, learnings from the pandemic and what to expect from Vans in 2021.
Hello Doug, skateboarding is currently experiencing a massive boom. Let’s talk about what that means for Vans.
Due to the pandemic this concept of ‘solitary leisure’ has really come to the fore. And skate, surf and snow fit right in because people need to find a way to stay active by themselves and without being in front of too many other people. That has really yielded a boom for skateboarding and it also applies to bicycles and other things that are in huge demand and short supply right now.
I personally could not imagine a better way for friends to be active. Here at Vans we deeply believe that skateboarding is good for you. It’s good for your health. And that’s something we continue to push, just recently with our global Checkerboard Day in support of mental health and well-being.
When it comes to pushing skateboarding, Vans is usually at the forefront with global event series and initiatives at House of Vans locations. What has it been like with everything cancelled and shut down in 2020?
It’s really akin to losing one of your senses. When you lose your ability to hear, then another sense, like your eyesight, increases. Live events are a big part of who we are, going all the way back through 54 years of our existence. So when you lose that sense, you need to pivot and become stronger somewhere else. For us that has been the virtual realm, where we can encourage that solitary practice of skateboarding and build excitement, for example with the new film by Greg Hunt ‘Alright, Ok’ featuring Elijah Berle and Gilbert Crockett that came out amazing. A bit earlier, the Tony Alva documentary was also a good example of that pivot.
But it’s not a full replacement for physical events, right?
Nothing replaces the experience of actual skating yourself. We want to have live events and interact directly with our fans again, for instance with the Vans Park Series that is a big worldwide endeavour that we’re passionate about. But while we are prohibited from doing that, we will do what we can in this virtual space and we’re currently gaining solid traction with it. So we already know that we’ll keep doing these virtual things even when physical events are allowed to come back, because that mind shift has happened now.
SKATEBOARDING AS CULTURAL MOVEMENT
Speaking of mind shifts, it feels like skateboarding has grown so much more diverse just recently.
What women did in skateboarding this year was really profound and the diversity in skateboarding as a whole has been inspiring. To be honest, it’s been a white, male sport for a long time and to see what has happened in the past few years and how welcoming skateboarding has been to women and to BIPOC (Black / Indigenous / People of Colour) and the LGBTQ+ community has been a real source of inspiration here at Vans.
It’s something we are very proud of, for example what Lizzy [Armanto] is doing in skateboarding, or Justin Henry travelling across the word. Or what [trans skater] Cher [Strauberry] has done in Jeff Grosso’s Loveletters to Skateboarding episode about LGBTQ+ skaters is really cool for skateboarding. It really shows what an inclusive culture it has become. Supporting those voices is a good example of what brands should be doing right now.
In terms of demographics, in which segments are you seeing the most growth and participation at the moment?
It’s been all demographics! Obviously, 2020 has been a crazy year for hardgoods. The rise in overall participation has been profound and catalysed by Covid-19. If you’re stuck in home school or working from home all day, just to go skate for an hour is a great thing to do. It’s a healthy way to let off some steam. We’ve even had some employees take themselves out with some broken ribs from going too hard (laughs).
How long do you expect the current boom to last and how can our industry make the most of it?
I can see an ongoing surge into the foreseeable future. Even when a vaccine will be widely available, it won’t mean that skateboarding will take a dip. Where skateboarding gets a bit formulaic is when we try to carry over exactly what worked last year. So it’s up to us as a culture to keep up the excitement with new storytelling and fresh inspiration.
The cultural aspect seems where Vans is at home, not just contests or big events.
There sure is that sports side but it’s also very much balanced with the cultural side that’s so broad. The skateboarders we work with are interested in so many things. I’m a big fan of the NBA, but when you talk to the players, all they care about that is that singular pursuit, their sport. When you talk to our pro skateboarders, they’re into cinematography, photography and fashion. Or they’ll tell you about making music. I just love the diversity and intellectual curiosity that a lot of skateboarders have. There’s a richness in skateboarding, the whole breadth of the culture.
VANS INITIATIVES FOR 2021
Which new initiatives and products are you most stoked about for 2021?
I really want to point out that, no matter how big Vans gets, the purpose-built product that we create for skateboarding will always remain at the centre of what we do. The majority of what we make, in terms of SKU numbers, may not be built for a specific activity. But everything we do is always informed by skateboarding.
You also need to keep in mind that models like the Era or Skate-Hi that we wear for fashion and other activities today, those were the skate shoes when they first came out. Tony Alva said he would have never made it above the lip to catch air without the Waffle Sole. These will always be considered skateboard shoes to us because of the process of how they were created.
Shoes like the Era were based on feedback from riders, does that still hold true?
We always listen to our athletes first. They are our main source of inspiration. I love to tell the story of when Steve Caballero cut down the full Caballero shoe into the Half Cab that became a major hit and still continues to be part of the collection. That whole spirit still exists today, and our designers spend extensive time with our athletes.
Has the new generation of skaters pushed you to branch out in terms of technologies and constructions?
An important mantra here for us is, ‘Not one thing’! We could easily be pigeonholed as a canvas, vulcanised shoe type of brand. But over the years we have now worked with all kinds of different insole and outsole constructions and materialisations to make sure we are always evolving. We have so many different riders and some want a modern, technical shoe and some want to skate in something like a slip-on or classic Vans. We always focus on meeting the skaters’ needs and finding that balance between cushioning and the board-feel they want.
Are there any collaborations or projects that have stood out for you recently?
The sheer breadth of inspiration we pull from is really what has kept me at Vans for 17 years. It mirrors much of how our skaters are so multi-facetted. Not just myopically focused on skating, but influenced by art, music, sports and street culture, these four pillars that resemble self-expression to us at Vans.
So as a result, in the same month we can work with someone like Tony Hawk to Anderson Paak to Bart Simpson and do a MOMA collab and projects that pull from all over pop culture. That really separates our brand in the world of skateboarding. We really view skateboarding as the life centre of our brand. It’s where we live or die. If there was an apocalypse – and 2020 sure feels like one – and we could only do one thing anymore, that would be skateboarding. It’s the existential piece of what Vans does and as long as we honour that, we can do a lot.
A GLOBAL FOOTPRINT
You’re also operating on a global scale with athlete sponsorships, retailers and events. How does that inform the brand focus?
We take a lot of pride in being the world’s number 1 skateboarding brand. We represent all facets of skateboarding. We represent the legends and the diversity of skateboarding in terms of gender, ethnicity, colour and sexual orientation. We have pro skaters in China and South Africa.
We sell Vans in 97 countries across the world and we support athletes coming from all these places. And it shows in our storytelling, with pieces like the Skate Witches, portraying the subculture that is interesting and meaningful, also showing what goes on underneath the surface. Like our feature on Yann Horowitz, our team rider from South Africa coming out as gay, that’s a very important story to tell. We represent the diversity of everything that skateboarding can bring.
Looking at Europe, what makes the market specific and meaningful to you?
One thing about us becoming a global brand is that we really believe that good ideas can come from anywhere on the planet right now. For a long time we’ve had a bit of an America-centric, California-centric approach. We will unabashedly be a Southern California brand forever and we have been proud of who we are for 54 years. But now the influences are coming in a more powerful way from Europe, Australia and Asia today.
So we have skaters like Chima [Ferguson] and Dustin [Dollin] that have inspired new kids to come up out of Australia, or skaters like Danny Wainwright in the UK that have opened the door for generations of skaters. So to all our skaters in Europe and elsewhere, I can say that we are listening more intently to what they have to give and their influence on what we are building globally has never been more profound.
Another way to connect with consumers has been the Vans Family program that was recently rolled out across Europe. What are the upsides?
Like I said, it’s about listening intently to our consumers. Back in the day, we only knew what fans wanted when they decided to reach out to us. First it was letters and postcards. Then faxes and later emails. Now we can connect with what people post on socials and that gives us the tools to listen and know what they expect.
The goal is to have a loyalty program in every country that sells Vans. So we know what kinds of products an individual skater prefers, and what their geographic location is and what they want to share about their relationship with Vans. It’s not about watching like some kind of Big Brother but responding to whatever level of involvement they want to have. They’re in control. It can be a casual thing or a full-on, permanent relationship where we can be specific about what kind of new materialisation or models skaters want us to have next.
MOVING FORWARD INTO 2021
You’ve also been keeping a connection to core skate shops with the Foot the Bill initiative, which directs profits from customised shoe designs to partner stores during the pandemic. Where does that factor into the equation?
We are proud of that complete relationship with Vans and not just a transactional relationship. Foot the Bill was our way to say thanks to those stores we consider destination skate shops. And perhaps play a small part to inspire our fans to support local skate shops where they live.
I personally believe that skateboard culture cannot exist in the future without skate shops. We are world leaders in supporting skate shops and a lot of brand initiatives are ‘skate only’. We try to be consistent with specialised products, SKUs for our accounts and storytelling in stores to make sure that these destination shops around the world remain a robust part of our culture in the future.
Is that part of a bigger philosophy at Vans?
It’s part of that Steve Van Doren spirit of giving back and the loyalty it comes with. It would be easy to grow from $300 million to $4 billion in sales and lose sight of we are. And people like Steve as our global ambassador are constant reminders for us that giving back is important, no matter how big we get.
There are also other initiatives we do, like Bouncing Off The Walls, remembering the role that creativity has in bringing us joy, especially during this pandemic. So if that guitar has been gathering dust in the corner, go play it even if you only know three strings. And get out skating the curb in front of your house. Skateboarding has definitely helped me a lot when I was growing up and got me through some really angry times.
One thing that stood out over the years is that all the events, like Vans Park Series contests or concerts at House of Vans are offered free of charge, and the live event broadcasts are also always free to watch. Will that continue after the pandemic?
It’s always key to remember that there is a whole person out there, not just a transactional, but a bigger relationship. With COVID it is important to keep doing things like Bouncing Off The Walls, even at a time when some people don’t want to take their wallet out. We hope that we can share some of that with our sister brands in the industry and encourage them to do something for the culture right now.
Moving forward into 2021, what is your ideal scenario for next year?
The best thing would be for the pandemic to end, perhaps with a widely available global vaccine, and all the energy built around skateboarding in 2020 would continue. That would be a dream scenario. We want our events to return. We want our sense of sight and smell and hearing back. We want to be in the middle of things in person again and get back to that human connectivity. I personally look forward to going back to the Vans Park Series events across the world again like in past years. So let’s get rid of this pandemic and keep all the energy that this solitary leisure has created in skateboarding.
Cheers to that. Thanks for the interview, Doug.