How does a place become a place? How does it become the de facto capital of a thing, a happening, a zeitgeist, an ethos? At what point does a place become synonymous with a lifestyle? When it comes to action sports, Orange County’s designation as its epicenter can be traced back to a small group of young men and the companies that came to define both them and us.
If one had to pinpoint the birthdate of the action sports industry, a case could be made for 1951, when a teenaged Hobart Alter announced that he didn’t ever want to wear hard-soled shoes or work east of Pacific Coast Highway. Three years after high school graduation, Alter opened a little hole in the wall in Dana Point, California. While surfing had long been a mainstay of Southern California culture, Hobie’s Surf Shop was the first storefront establishment where one could purchase surfboards, as opposed to having one made or making one yourself.
Hobart Alter, aka Hobie, spent his early surfing days atop a 50-pound slab of wood that didn’t do much except float. In the summer of 1950, a chance encounter changed his life.
Walter Hoffman, one of the best surfers in Southern California, had noticed Hobie’s skills and offered to let him try out his board, a balsa construct that was almost half the weight of Hobie’s. Hoffman knew immediately that he was watching a natural. He offered to make a board for Hobie or to teach him to make one himself. Hobie chose the latter and, just like that, the action sports world entered its nascency.
Hobie’s surfboards became must-haves. In 1954, after honing his craft in his parents’ garage for almost four years, the young entrepreneur took a leap: He dumped his own savings and a small loan from his father into the surf shop.
In 1958, along with close friend Gordon “Grubby” Clark, Hobie revolutionized the surf industry by inventing the polyurethane foam surfboard. Lighter, faster and easier to ride than anything on the water, the new boards could, amazingly, be shaped in under an hour.
Within a year, wood boards had become obsolete. Interest in surfing and the surf subculture, on the other hand, surged, thanks in large part to the popularity of the movie “Gidget.” Hobie Alter was perfectly positioned to make the boards that everyone wanted to ride.
“Surfing spread to every stretch of coastline on the planet because Hobie’s boards outperformed everything in the water,” said Mark Christy, owner of local retailer Hobie Sports and Hobie’s longtime friend, business partner and, through marriage, relative. “They were easier to make, transport and ride, and less expensive to buy. I would argue that Hobie Alter is the father of modern surfing.” But Hobie wasn’t finished. In the mid-1960s, he imagined a sailboat that could be launched by one person. By 1968, a doodle in the sand had morphed into the Hobie 14, an affordable catamaran for solo sailors. Unlike other sailboats, the Hobie “Cat” could be transported by car and launched from the sand. In 1970, with the introduction of the two-person Hobie 16, Hobie became an international sensation, sparking what would be known as the “Hobie” way of life and turning the water sports world upside down.
In spite of the company’s wild success and the widespread personal acclaim, the man who eschewed hard-soled shoes and a life far from the ocean never left his home base. Only five retail Hobie Surf Shops exist, and all are located in Orange County. The surfboard factory can still be found in Dana Point, and while the Hobie-Cat factory migrated to Oceanside, it was only because it outgrew its original Dana Point location.
“This isn’t just a retail operation; it’s the home base of a lifestyle,” said Christy. “We want to keep it real and to maintain Hobie’s unwavering commitment to innovation, authenticity and quality. Real surfers, watermen and lovers of the beach culture know the difference. That’s why you’ll never find a Hobie Surf Shop in a shopping mall or more than a stone’s throw from the sand.”
Off the wall, Off the charts
On March 16, 1966, brothers Paul and Jim Van Doren, along with partners Gordon Lee and Serge Delia, opened the Van Doren Rubber Company in Anaheim, California. Unlike most shoe brands at the time, Vans, as they would come to be known, were manufactured on site and were of better quality and, perhaps most importantly, durability, than other rubber-soled footwear.
Vans’ first product, the #44 Deck Shoe, now called The Authentic, boasted superior materials and construction: 10-ounce canvas, four-stitch backstays and vulcanized rubber soles. It was this construction that would grab the attention of an unanticipated audience — skateboarders — and set the course for Vans. By the mid-1970s, skateboarding phenoms like the Z-Boys of Santa Monica and Venice, or “Dogtown” were sporting these trendsetting kicks.
“Dogtown skaters Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta asked Vans to create a shoe to help them skate better,” said Bobby Gascon, global marketing director for Vans. “We did, and the world’s first skateboard shoe was born, as was the tag ‘Off The Wall.’ Vans knew then that the birth of this culture was not a passing trend, but a true alternative lifestyle.” In 1995, after almost 20 years of ups and downs, including a Chapter 11 filing, Vans made a strategic decision to reach beyond its action sports “shoe of choice” status. It became the title head sponsor of the Warped Tour, the largest traveling music festival in the United States.
“Many Vans athletes were also musicians or had friends in bands who ended up being featured in skate or BMX videos,” said Gascon. “The action sports culture often works in sync with music culture, pulling trick and style inspiration from one another.”
A year later, Vans sponsored the inaugural Triple Crown of Skateboarding, and subsequently purchased the Triple Crown of Surfing. By 2000, the Triple Crown series encompassed skateboarding, BMX, surfing, wakeboarding, snowboarding, freestyle Motocross and Supercross.
“Vans has always been a part of the action sports culture rather than just a sponsor of it,” said Gascon. “We saw early on that these athletes needed platforms to advance their sport and to make a living and grow the culture. Vans made a commitment to them.”
In addition to backing high-visibility action sports events around the world, Vans made good on its commitment by opening “House of Vans” skatepark/ art gallery/music venue/ indie film house locations in New York, Chicago and London.
Even as these hybrid venues continue to spread the gospel, Vans has not abandoned Orange County. This past summer, the headquarters’ 500 employees moved into a new, 182,000-square-foot building in Costa Mesa replete with dart boards, billiards and drum sets. And, with annual revenues at $2.3 billion and rising, the 14-acre plot leaves plenty of room to grow.
Neither its runaway success nor its corporate acquisition in the late 1980s has affected Vans’ core ethos of personifying action sports for the youth, skate and street cultures. “We remain Southern California originals, and believe that we are still at the epicenter of action sports,” said Gascon. “There’s no other place where you can surf, ride the Vans Skatepark, skate the Combi Bowl and snowboard.” All before bedtime.