From “Off the Wall” to Under It, Vans New Skatepark in London Goes Underground

By on August 12, 2014

Of all the dangerous ways to take a selfie, whooshing across a concrete ramp on a skateboard is up there. But this is the House of Vans, a new subterranean skatepark in the bowels of Waterloo station in London.

In its previous guise as the Old Vic Tunnels, the underground space was where intrepid audiences lapped up performances by the experimental theatre group Punchdrunk. Now, tattooed skateboarders with long hair and long shorts chase air on a vertiginous concrete bowl that to the uninitiated screams head injury.

After the Old Vic vacated the old railway arches, the lease is understood to have become the subject of a fierce bidding war. Vans, a brand synonymous with skateboarding, is thought to have beaten off competition from Apple and Nike. It has taken over what is potentially a potent youth culture venue, next to London’s biggest legal graffiti wall and the nearby undercroft skate park on the banks of the Thames, which was recently rescued from developers by the mayor of London.

Although skateboarding has waxed and waned in popularity since the 1950s, skateboarding fashion has taken on a life of its own, with Vans’ sales on track to hit $2bn (£1.19bn) this year as more non-skaters embrace its uniform of chunky-soled trainers, T-shirts and hoodies.

“Vans is not only about skating – that is a very small segment – but it’s the core and we will always protect it,” says Karl Heinz Salzburger, who runs the international operation of the brand’s US owner, VF Corporation.

The venue, he says, will be an “amazing vehicle to engage and inspire youth culture”. To judge from the skaters testing out its ramps at the opening last Thursday, that will mean 40-somethings as well as teenagers arriving on foot or on four wheels to attend concerts or film screenings under the cavernous arches.

Vans was founded in 1966 by Paul Van Doren, a California entrepreneur who was quick to spot the growing popularity of skateboarding, developing trainers with distinctive thick soles that were perfect for gripping, and reinforced toes to cope with the friction as skaters honed their carving skills on pavements outside their homes.

It lost its independence a decade ago when it was swallowed by the VF Corporation, which owns more than 30 clothing brands including the outdoor specialist The North Face and jeans labels Lee and Wrangler.

But in recent years VF, which shortened its name from Vanity Fair after it sold off the lingerie brand of the same name, has been caught off guard by Vans’ success, with demand for its products rocketing in the UK at the start of this decade.

“When we bought Vans in 2004 it was a $300m company,” says Salzburger, a warm Italian who goes by the name of KH to his colleagues. “It grew very nicely, but then three years ago it exploded. It grew too fast, which is a little bit unhealthy – we don’t want to be a fashion brand because fashion is cyclical, it comes and goes.”

With so many brands under its belt VF is mindful of the need to protect its most successful names from overexposure. It has refused to supply The North Face, which last year turned over $2bn for the first time, to UK sportswear retailer Sports Direct due to its “pile it high sell it cheap” philosophy.

“Consumers don’t know VF: there are no VF stores in the world or any advertising,” says Salzburger, who admits even he hadn’t heard of the company when it came knocking for The North Face, where he was chief executive of the European business, in 2000. “We act and think by brand. Every brand has an organisation and sometimes a physical home: Vans sits in southern California, whereas The North Face is in northern California. We always plan group marketing, sales, retail and product development by brand to make sure it makes sense to its consumers wherever they are.”

Lorna Hall, head of market intelligence at the trend forecaster WGSN, seconds the strategy. “VF understands that you can’t mess with the brand, that the brand is owned by the community who use it and that they can sniff out inauthenticity,” she says. “It’s about how skilful you are as a management house and VF have quite an enlightened way of managing brands. They are always questioning what to do and trying to innovate.”

The formula seems to work. VF, which also owns Timberland, JanSport, Eastpak and Reef, recently set a new target to increase sales from last year’s $11.4bn to $17.3bn by 2017. VF’s skill in fostering nascent demand for its products is perhaps most apparent in China, where it is helping to invent an outdoors culture to dress in The North Face gear, as there is no tradition of weekend yomps. Sponsorship of endurance races and expeditions up Haba mountain helped produce sales growth of more than 20% in Asia Pacific last year.

About bryan

Action Sport Media