In the multibillion-dollar world of sneakers that's largely populated by big shoemakers and even bigger celebrities, Vans could be considered the little brand that could.
The massive market for sports footwear—which topped $21 billion in the U.S. alone last year, according to the National Sporting Goods Association—is dominated by behemoths such as Nike, Adidas and the insurgent brand Under Armour. Yet in a sector characterized by athlete endorsements, Vans—a brand owned by VF Corp.—has quietly grown into a $2 billion imprint.
Vans, however, distinguishes itself from the competition in one particular way. In a culture driven by the outsized personalities of stars and sports figures—and some companies' reliance on those attributes to promote their brands—Vans has seen 21 consecutive quarters of double-digit growth by eschewing the imprimatur of celebrities to boost sales.
"We think about it from an authenticity standpoint," Kevin Bailey, president of VF Action Sports and Vans, told CNBC in a recent interview at the company's New York showroom. The label, which launched in 1966 and became a hit among the California skateboard and surfing set, prides itself on being a "very simple product," Bailey said.
"We've been blessed to have celebrities, musicians, artists, athletes love our brand and appreciate the fact that it wasn't [part of] an approach to them," said the New Jersey native, who at one point served as director of retail operations at Nike.
Bailey acknowledged how athletes and celebrities can sometimes "play a role" in helping a brand seem authentic to consumers. That said, linking its shoes to high-wattage names including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Kanye West—whose Adidas-branded boots sold out within days of their February release at $350 a pair—is an indulgence Vans doesn't see as integral to its success.
"We won't often go to you and say, 'Hey, we'd like you to be a part of our program, or design a shoe for you and you sell it,'" Bailey said. "We don't do that, and more often than not they ring our doorbell. And often we say no, because it's not right for us."
"We want them to come to us in an organic way, and tell us why Vans has meaning to them," he added.