How Vans Inc. remains your very own personal megabrand

The Man Who Would Be Jeff Spicoli-these Days, that would be Gary Schoenfeld, the president and CEO of Vans Inc.-is nesting in the second-floor corner office of a glistening business complex in Santa Fe Springs, rhapsodizing on the true purpose and underlying beauty of the soon-to-open Vans Skate Park at the Block in Orange.

And the Vans Triple Crown of Skateboarding.

And the Vans Amateur Skateboarding Series.

And the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing.

And the Vans Wakeboarding Championships.

And the Vans Triple Crown of Snowboarding.

And the Vans Warped Concert Tour.

And every one of the Vans-shoes-and-clothing-wearing characters in the PlayStation game Psybadek.

Which is to say that Schoenfeld, who actually is the Man Who Would Be Mistaken for a Young Michael Milken-about the time the notorious business whiz started contemplating a toupee-is extolling the delicate, profitable art of cross-promotion and corporate sponsorship. And from the length of the list, it looks as though he probably will be extolling for a while. Suddenly, however, Schoenfeld's face brightens with the warm memory of what he considers the perfect way to distill the glory of the whole, wide Vans-scape into one exquisite personal anecdote.

"It's like when I went to the Celine Dion concert at the Arrowhead Pond last night," Schoenfeld gushes, "and Ericsson, the cellular-phone company, was the big sponsor. I thought: 'Good for Ericsson! What a great connection! What a smart combination of sponsor to event!' You know, the whole message of clarity-of their phones and of Celine Dion's voice. It's a great association. And similarly for Celine Dion-it doesn't tarnish her image whatsoever."

And when Schoenfeld puts it that way, well, yeah, it is impossible to miss the point: Vans, the company with the longest and truest, blackest and bluest pedigree in skateboarding's authenticity-is-everything culture, is headed by a CEO who is a fan of Celine Dion, the emaciated French poodle of over-the-top divas.

Schoenfeld's expression is already beginning to crumple, perhaps because he realizes how far he has placed himself outside Vans' meticulously rough-around-the edges philosophy.

It's certainly a long way from Vans' first pop-culture cross-reference. In 1982, Vans' checkerboard slip-on deck shoes became an alternative-fashion rage because they were featured in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High; they were worn throughout the flick by Sean Penn, who played a burned-out surfer named Jeff Spicoli. Despite the endorsement of hundreds of real-life professional skate- and snowboarders, the fictional Spicoli-earnestly deadpan and good-naturedly subversive-is probably still the most accurate poster boy for the suburban-rebel values of Vans' typical young customer. He's practically their Buster Brown.

But now someone in Schoenfeld's office is wondering, jokingly, whether Dion might replace NOFX or the Cherry Poppin' Daddies on next year's Warped Tour. The flustered CEO can't let the wisecrack pass. "No. Oh, no. Nothing like that," he says quickly, smiling weakly. "See, it's my wife. My wife likes Celine Dion. She made me take her to that concert."

This rare chink in Vans' X-treme armor would be beside the point-the point being that last fiscal year, Vans sold $174.5 million worth of what it calls "alternative-lifestyle and sport" shoes, clothing and equipment-except that Vans' armor, its image, is what its profits are all about. This is a huge, international, publicly held, 32-year-old company that has used the magic of deft marketing to remain emblematic of a healthy adolescent insubordination and an edgy street credibility. It's a delicate balancing act. Vans' youthful customers have been raised-and jaded-by advertising. The high profile and megabucks the company requires to reach the huge market of self-anointed individualists who ride skateboards and snowboards could easily become the very things that turn that market against the company.

"The kids-they do like authenticity," allows Schoenfeld, who tried skateboarding for the first time early this year at the urging of his 5-year-old son, "and I think that's the way Vans is perceived."

That's where the brand-new Vans Skate Park comes in. When its 46,000 square feet of vert ramps, cement pools and street courses open Saturday at the Block in Orange, the Vans Skate Park will be the first such facility ever positioned as an anchor of a shopping mall. It's down the walkway from the Saks Fifth Avenue outlet and next door to Borders Books. The irony is obvious. Typically, skateboarders have been chased away from shopping centers; the idea here, however, is to lure young, renegade daredevils off the streets and steer them-along with the disposable income of their had-it-up-to-here parents-into the cash flow of the retail mainstream. No, skateboarding is not a crime anymore. It's a cross-promotion.

"The kids see the skate park, and they see Vans, and they know that it cost the company a few bucks to build this thing," says Schoenfeld. "They know we've been making shoes for 30 years. They realize we're sharing our success with them, and a lot of them would like us to keep doing it for another 30 years. It's a win-win situation."

And it's a position that Schoenfeld believes Vans is uniquely qualified to occupy. "A new company that doesn't have the heritage we have, that just wants to tap into that market? Well, these young consumers are pretty smart," Schoenfeld says. "They'll tell 'em to go tap somewhere else."

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