Discovering the Future of Customization at Vans’ Global Headquarters

Surprises reveal themselves as we explore design and production at the new California hub

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In 1964, Paul Van Doren moved from Boston to Costa Mesa and brought his family along. In ’66, Van Doren would co-found Vans in the area. From Anaheim factories to the brand new 182K-square-foot global headquarters, the brand’s history is embedded in the very soil. But the new space is something more. It’s the product of a half-century’s worth of collaboration. Employees had a say in its look and feel, artists (including Todd Francis, Jay Howell and Zio Ziegler) contributed work on walls. And when staffers want to step away from their Herman Miller furniture, the entire compound has been designed so that if everybody stepped away from their desk at the same time, they’d have alternative space to work. We recently toured the space—in the midst of two large announcements, a Karl Largerfeld collaboration and Paul’s son Steve Van Doren’s forthcoming drive to Houston to donate thousands of shoes, clothing and socks—but on site, however, we learned that the future of Vans banks on customization.

In a Wonka-esque facility that’s more open concept than not, one room immediately struck our fancy: a merchandising practice space. Here, hundreds of products are set up in arrangements that may filter out to stores around the globe. The preview was informative, but so was a tutorial from Sylvia Niles, Senior Director of eCommerce at Vans. “We were doing customs before customs were a thing,” she begins—referencing a period when consumers would go into the factory. “The best thing we can do is create a platform that enables unlimited creativity on our iconic products,” she continues.

In a beta build-out, a large touchscreen fits into a tactile wall display composed of shelves of sneakers. The screen employs the Vans’ web platform, featuring a first-of-its-kind 3D technology. It’s what’s running online now, and goes so far as to allow customers to upload user generated content for conversion into patterns. “The intent behind here is not just about having the consumer go right into the digital but also for the consumer to see what can be customized,” Niles explains, while tossing around a shoe. Vans plans on putting these customization modules in elevated retail locations, surrounded by everything from slip-ons to all-weather sk8-his.

Even more impressive is the WaffleWorks Innovation Center, otherwise known as the place where the innovation team executes. Whereas the third floor of the main building houses the thinking process for designers, this external garage functions as a ground for experimentation, where various creatives in the company can toy with materials within concepts and ultimately produce something. “Our innovation promise is to enable creative self expression,” Safir Bellal, Vans Director of Design Innovation, explains. “As shepherds of this culture of creative experimentation, we want to give people their platform to experiment, tinker and make.” Here, people play with technical initiatives and various areas of focus.

The most groundbreaking process, however, is known as Project Anaheim. This directive will hopefully one day enable consumers to take any pattern they want, or any picture whatsoever (so long as neither are the property of another) and apply it to an entire shoe—in 15 minutes or less. Right now, we witnessed it in action. A snapshot was taken of Van Doren’s shirt, uploaded, laid out on top of Vans, and then printed on film.

The film is heated over the shoes, and vacuumed down. It transforms to gas that’s pulled into the very pores of the fabric—inseparable. The print won’t fell unless the shoe fails. Two years were spent developing the perfect film and vacuum technology, as well as working with partners around the world on this. Such a process, which has a way to go, allows consumers to select any piece of inspiration and immediately transform it into a visual representation of a product before ultimately producing it on the spot. This level of customization is presently unheard of. As the experiments continue, more silhouettes will be tested, and even the potential to use this proprietary process on clothing. Childhood drawings, the patterning within a marble countertop, reflections in a pond—these can all become prints.

Also in the WaffleWorks studio, there’s a printing center—where 3D renderings get turned into products through one of three printers. There’s the option for starch items, resin models or plastic from a Markerbot. Each has its own value. With such consumer input available, one would wonder about the continued role of designers. They’ll always be necessary, of course. According to Mark Haskins, VP of Global Design for Footwear and Equipment, “We do want to enable our consumers to collaborate with us. We are going well down that road, but we have always been influenced by our customers. We take inspiration from them—even the original checkerboard comes from kids drawing on their shoes.” Haskins (who presently wears the Ultra Range line) has been at the company now for 19 years, but actually has a background in automotive design. Diversity infuses their designs. It’s a necessity that allows the brand to go further.

One more necessity infuses the headquarters itself: sustainability. It manifests three-fold. First, it’s in the opertions of brands, with attempts to reduce energy use and waste in offices, stores and events. Second, product teams try to find and utilize better materials everywhere—down to recycled paper in packaging. Finally, the organization’s social responsibility frequently asks of its employees “How do we live our purpose through giving?” The building boasts 4000 solar panels, producing the vast majority of energy used on site. This also equates to removing 93 cars from the road. Speaking of automobiles, there are 34 EV charging stations at HQ, all available for free. The facility is 48% more efficient than California requires. It’s an inspiring place, built for the future—and for individuals who belief individual customer creativity and customization is the future.

Hero image and shoe in holster image courtesy of Vans, all other images by David Graver