Skater shoe brand Vans celebrates 50 years

President of Vans Kevin Bailey has been credited for the brand's expansion into Asia.
President of Vans Kevin Bailey has been credited for the brand's expansion into Asia. ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

Skate shoe brand Vans found success by working with cultural anthropologists to identify its customers

In a multi-billion dollar sneaker industry populated with large athletic brands and even larger sports personalities, skate shoe brand Vans is undoubtedly the underdog that forged its own big path.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the company has grown from a Southern Californian shoe label once favoured only byskaters and surfers into a leading fashion lifestyle brand - one that not only caters to men and women but also to a mainstream consumer market.

Its vagabond, against-the-grain image has meant Vans has always been about keeping its prices affordable and never pandering to celebrities or sports figures to promote its cult classic slip-on thick-soled skater shoes.

But for the company's president, Kevin Bailey, the journey to become a company that today boasts 24 quarters of consecutive double-digit growth and US$2 billion (S$2.71 billion) in revenue has been bumpy.

Talking to The Straits Times exclusively during a visit to Singapore last week, he lets on that just slightly more than a decade ago, the brand was flailing, trying to find its direction and turn a profit.

"Looking back to 2002, the turnover rates were very high and Vans was seriously distracted," he says.

"We were a shoe company, but we also had our own music record label, a nationwide chain of skateboarding parks and even a music tour. It was a classic case of having our fingers in too many pies - except none of them was actually helping us sell more shoes."

Thankfully, help came in the form of an acquisition by publicly traded clothing giant VF Corp in 2004, which also owns brands such as The North Face, Wrangler and Timberland. The US$370 million buy-over gave the brand stability and helped reshape the business - moving Vans away from brand extensions and focusing on growing its global retail presence and improving product design.

Mr Bailey - who had run retail at Vans from 2002 to 2007 and was rehired in 2009 after a short stint at Lucky Brand Jeans - has been credited in large part for this global retail push, specifically into Asia.

"We moved into Asia only eight years ago, but the region is already the fastest growing and accounts for 15 per cent of our business," he says.

Vans, which is sold globally in more than 75 countries, owns and operates more than 450 retail locations around the world

The secret to the brand's turnaround and successful global expansion? An extensive 18-month study conducted in 12 markets in 2008.

Working with cultural anthropologists for the US$4 million study, the brand honed in on who its consumer really is - not a 15-year-old skater boy as it had initially thought, but men and women between the ages of 19 and 24 who are interested in different forms of creative expression.

For Mr Bailey, this refocus has been key to Vans' current success. "With the results from the study, we were able to offer the right products for that older consumer, while also catering to the cultural nuances that exist in the different markets around the world," he says.

"It is what has helped us celebrate our authentic skateboarding heritage without having to export American culture wholesale into our overseas markets."

In Asia, this new direction has translated into different fit and colour offerings for the Asian consumer, as well as products that celebrate local heritage, such as limited-edition shoe collections inspired by the Chinese Zodiac.

Still, despite its growth - the company grew 17 per cent in 2014 and 14 per cent last year - Mr Bailey says there is a lot more potential to be tapped, especially in Asia. 

"We're relatively small here compared to the much larger athletic brands we consider as competition. But in a way, that has worked well for us. We have the potential to grow but, at the same time, our smaller size has helped us stave off some the negative effects of the retail slump in the region," he says.

The brand has three stores in Singapore - at Ion Orchard, Bugis+ and Jurong Point - and is looking to expand here in the next three to five years. A pair of sneakers on average costs $69 and can go up to $129 for one that is a design collaboration.

Outside of global growth, Vans is also looking to focus its attention on the digital interactive space, something Mr Bailey believes is critical to the company's long-term success.

"Consumers these days are increasingly discerning and they choose the brands they want to support very carefully," he says.

"For us, that has meant having genuine two-way conversations with our customers on social media. If people leave us a comment, they get a reply from us directly."

The brand is also looking to go back to its roots and increase global relevance for skate programmes - starting with its own pro skate park series next month. The five-month-long event aims to create a global ranking system for skateboarders.

"Ahead of the possibility of skateboarding becoming an Olympic sport at the Tokyo games in 2020, we wanted to create a platform for skateboarding to be encouraged, evaluated and ranked professionally," Mr Bailey says.

"Skateboarding is so closely tied to our heritage. For us, it's important to always be an advocate of the sport."

Correction note: An earlier version of the story said Vans has 600 stores in Asia and more than 1,100 stores in more than 75 countries. This has been changed to Vans, which is sold globally in more than 75 countries, owns and operates more than 450 retail locations around the world. It also said the company grew 10 per cent last year. This has been changed to 14 per cent.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2016, with the headline 'From underdog to billion-dollar shoe brand'. Print Edition | Subscribe