NEW YORK — Paul Van Doren started his Vans sneaker company in 1966 out of a corner shop in Anaheim, California. The store offered three canvas styles of vulcanized-rubber-soled shoes, at prices ranging from $2.49 to $4.99, but when a dozen customers tried to buy them on opening day, they found that only display models had been made. Van Doren and his partners had to close the shop for a few hours to have the shoes made at their nearby factory. Later that afternoon, when the customers returned to pick up their orders, Van Doren realized he had forgotten to have cash available for change.

It didn’t take long for the sneakers to become cult favorites among skateboarders, BMX riders and beach kids in Southern California. But after Sean Penn’s iconic depiction of Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the shoes became a more widespread trend. For “alternateens,” Vans were a cultural phenomenon on par with MTV — a brand keyed into skating, music and the cult of cool. And, again like MTV, the company has kept a loyal following among the adults who grew up with it, and has managed to stay current at the same time. Despite, or maybe because of, its lackadaisical beginnings, the company has grown into the dominant brand for the alternative-sports crowd. But the shoes are also sported by the likes of Gwen Stefani, Avril Lavigne and Pink. Meanwhile, discontinued styles can command as much as $300 on eBay or in vintage stores such as L.A.’s Resurrection. Seeking to capitalize on this, the firm will introduce the Vans Vault in June, a shoe line that features unique twists on the popular classic styles, luxury materials and collaborations with fashion designers.

“English girls who go to New York make a special trip to Magic Shoes on Bleecker Street to buy Vans,” says Luella Bartley, who created Vans high-tops for her spring collection. “Their essence is based on kids knocking about. They’re like a best mate.”

Steve Mills, head designer of the Vault collection, says, “Ten years ago, fashion was a taboo word, but now that world has intersected ours.” The new collection riffs on the firm’s classics. Mills and his team went to town with unpredictable but infectious colors that range from citrus green to bright fuchsia as well as brown and tan. Women’s, men’s and unisex styles are being carried at such stores as Classic Kicks in New York and Conveyor at Fred Segal and American Rag in L.A.; retail prices range from $65 to $110. Mills projects that 32,000 to 38,000 units will sell globally for fall, and is projecting 200 to 228 retail accounts for the season.A 3,500-square-foot Vans flagship is slated to open on London’s Carnaby Street for fall 2003. It will feature women’s and men’s footwear, clothes and accessories.Meanwhile, at Manhattan’s 99X, a specialty athletic footwear shop, a waiting list has been growing for the Vault line since customers had a glimpse of them at the Luella Bartley show in September. Says Amy Stevons, manager and buyer, “They stand out from everything else, and in New York people want what is different. More than a few people end up bummed out when limited styles sell out.”

Mazik Saevitz, who owns Conveyor at Fred Segal, says, “I had to hold back when I was ordering, but in the end I couldn’t resist. I wish all of the shoe companies could look like this. They are the freshest styles, and there is a real buzz surrounding them.”

While shoe designer Edmundo Castillo creates ultrafeminine women’s shoes for his own collection, he’s also a self-proclaimed Vans fanatic who scours boutiques in London, Milan and New York for unusual styles. “I nearly crashed my car the other day when I saw a guy wearing a style I’d never seen,” says Castillo, who owns more than 30 pairs. “Their whole attitude makes you relaxed and easy. Even when you’re stressed out, you’re still just chillin’ in Vans.”

“It’s not unusual to find these ‘sneakerologists’ whose obsessions help to set trends,” says Mills.

In fact, Rebecca Taylor — who, like Luella Bartley, is collaborating with the company — had her interest sparked by her husband’s collection of Vans. Taylor’s designs include suedes perforated with floral motifs and multicolored pointelle dot slip-ons. “The beauty of these shoes is that they bring out your inner tomboy,” Taylor says.

Taylor and Bartley will continue to contribute designs to Vans Vault. Taylor finds that working with the firm makes her feel creative and relaxed. Says the New York–based designer, “There is really nothing like having them call you up and say, ‘Dude, I’m really stoked about the sneakers.’ ”

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