James Van Doren, the man who designed the popular Vans shoe that still reigns as the main footwear choice of skaters and hipsters alike, passed away at the age of 72. He died in his Fullerton, California home from cancer. RIP to a shoe-fashion legend. Check out his New York Times obituary after the jump.

Wendy L. x DJ Juanyto


James Van Doren, who designed the tenacious shoe that became a mainstay of California skateboard culture — and which touched off a national fad after Sean Penn wore a black-and-white-checked pair in the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” — died on Oct. 12 at his home in Fullerton, Calif. He was 72.

The cause was cancer, his wife, Char, said.

With his brother Paul and two others, Mr. Van Doren started the Van Doren Rubber Company in 1966. Based in Anaheim, Calif., it made rubber-soled canvas leisure shoes.

Not long afterward, the company developed an especially high-grip shoe, conceived as a boat shoe, that would hold the wearer firmly to a pitching deck.

Mr. Van Doren collaborated with a chemist to develop the rubber recipe used in the sole. A mechanical engineer by training, he also devised its characteristic tread pattern: diamonds interrupted by a band of tiny six-pointed stars at the ball of the foot. Together, rubber and tread made the sole clingy.

What the company had not foreseen was that in Southern California, pitching decks were also found on skateboards.

Embraced by West Coast skateboarders in the 1970s and afterward, the shoes helped their wearers avoid the fate of Icarus as they performed aerial moves that put the feet well above the head.

The shoes — and the company — became known in popular parlance simply as Vans.

Then came “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” A comedy released in 1982, it starred Mr. Penn as the resolutely dissolute Jeff Spicoli. On his feet was a pair of checkerboard Vans slip-ons.

James Van Doren was born in Weymouth, Mass., on March 20, 1939. In high school and afterward, while studying engineering at Northeastern University, he worked for a rubber and shoe-manufacturing concern in Massachusetts.

When the company moved to California in the 1960s, Mr. Van Doren and his brother Paul moved with it before leaving to start Van Doren Rubber. Paul ran the company until 1976, when he was succeeded by James.

As president, James Van Doren expanded production facilities and extended the product line to include athletic shoes of many kinds.

But foreign competition and the waning of the “Fast Times” fad caused the company to seek bankruptcy protection in 1984. Paul Van Doren was brought in to replace his brother; in 1988 Van Doren Rubber was sold to McCown De Leeuw & Company, a private equity firm.

Today, Vans, which also makes shoes for surfers and BMX riders, is based in Cypress, Calif. It is owned by the VF Corporation, a North Carolina apparel company whose brands include Wrangler and Lee jeans.

Mr. Van Doren’s first marriage, to Kathleen Ann Belcher, ended in divorce. Besides his wife, Char, he is survived by two brothers, Paul and Robert; a sister, Bernice Chute; three sons from his first marriage, James Jr., Mark and Eric; and five grandchildren.