LL Cool J as the patron saint of a corporate turnaround?
Only at Vans.
“People always ask me, when’s Vans going to be better?” said Kevin Bailey, Vans’ global brand president, in an interview with WWD. “When’s Vans going to return to growth? Going to win?”
To answer that, he turns to the rapper’s classic, “Mama Said Knock You Out.”
“Don’t call it a comeback, we’ve been here for years,” Bailey said, adapting the song’s lyrics. He also enjoys punctuating his meetings with Vans’ top leaders by blasting the song.
The brand has, indeed, been here for years and was celebrating its 57th birthday on Thursday as executives from parent-company VF Corp. descended on New York for a flurry of meetings with analysts and press.
But Vans has not been very Vans-like lately — and Bailey, who came back to the brand for his third tour a year ago, knows that more than most.
The turnaround he has orchestrated and is now in the process of implementing has been a long time coming and looks to both get the brand back to its roots and to give it a future spin.
One example is the decision to go “style fluid,” eliminating the distinctions between men’s and women’s looks and just letting people choose the size that works for them without bothering with the gender-specific label.
It’s a change that resonates strongly in 2023, but is also simply an acknowledgment of how consumers have long shopped the brand.
“We call it style fluidity because we think you don’t have to get into who people choose to be, and represent themselves as,” Bailey said, revealing the shift for the first time. “We don’t have to get into a pronoun game. We embrace everyone’s individuality and who they choose to be. But we’re also saying, you can dress however the heck you want to dress.
“Rock stars have done that forever. Skateboarders wore skinny jeans and they were women’s jeans,” he said. “So we don’t need to have men’s and women’s in the traditional sense…. Our classics, the number of guys that bought hot-pink skate shoes and women who bought black with skulls and crossbones — we could never tell men’s and women’s [sales]. It’s labeled today, but we’re going to start moving away from labeling and go from an extra small to a double XL.”
That’s one of many changes at Vans — which has been sorely in need of a turnaround and is the largest business under the VF umbrella, huddled alongside The North Face, Timberland, Dickies, Supreme and others.
For the nine months ended Dec. 31, Vans saw sales fall 11 percent to $2.8 billion, a 7 percent drop in constant currencies.
While Vans was the powerhouse that fueled VF for years, it lost its way and became a worry to investors, contributing to a shake-up at the apparel giant, which saw chairman and chief executive officer Steve Rendle exit abruptly in December.
Vans might have just grown too quickly or in the wrong ways.
“I honestly think we lost some of the soul of Vans over the last several years, because I do think we allowed trends to dictate who the brand was rather than make sure that we were being intentional about what we do,” Bailey said.
Vans also moved away some from its core of skateboarding.
“That’s the way a brand goes to die,” he said. “We cannot simply be a fashion brand. We cannot. That is a really dangerous space in my opinion.”
Now Bailey is focusing Vans’ operations around four groups — skateboarding, active outdoor, lifestyle and pinnacle.
The people who work on each group’s shoes, apparel, marketing and so on are all being put together.
“They sit together in teams,” he said. “They actually have their own space. And then they will have their own tribe and we will support them with consumer insights people and strategy people. And they’ll be thinking much more specifically about how they come to market in that way.”
It’s an approach that will allow apparel to get a little more focus at what is still largely a shoe brand, opening up potential for more complete looks.
“It’s easy for a person who wears Vans shoes to pick up a T-shirt or a hoodie, but harder for them to say, ‘I’m going to style out and wear other stuff from the brand,’” Bailey said. “I think this is where we weren’t being consumer-centric and by operating in different ways, standing alone… They weren’t thinking about a consumer head to toe.”
Focusing the brand around core areas and being more customer-centric should help Vans avoid pitfalls — like chasing the streetwear trend and borrowing too much from the buzzy Supreme’s playbook, getting into the drop game.
“There was a belief, I’ll just say without doing the work, there was the belief that Vans had the right to play in streetwear,” Bailey said. “And we certainly saw it, how many fashion brands have leaned into this space. But again, that was a trend and a fashion moment, and you have to be really careful there.
“It’s another good example of where, ‘We want to be in streetwear, we want to be relevant, we want to have 52 weeks of drops,’” he said, referring to the brand’s prior strategy. “We have no idea how to do that. We didn’t build the structural capacity to do that. Our friends at Supreme literally come out with a different line every week. And it’s a small capsule of a line. It’s not a broad-based line. A $4 billion company can’t put out a small capsule every week. And we didn’t structurally think about, ‘How would we need to build the right mechanisms to do that? How do we have the right team?’”
Now Bailey is thinking structurally, setting up the teams around certain aspects of the brand and doing a lot of research to understand where customers are at a given moment.
VF has long been seen as a savvy operational player with a strong supply chain, but this is a kind of retooling of the front half of the back end.
“We didn’t transform fast enough for the way the marketplace was changing,” Bailey said. “We know that our consumers have been evolving at a faster pace. We know that the marketplace has been changing at a faster pace. And VF has been this very consistent, steady, structurally appropriate place for large unit businesses. Very good at large minimums, mass production, very good at wholesale in the past.
“Where we didn’t evolve fast enough is the elements of our business to be more agile, be more responsive, to pay closer attention to consumers, to leverage consumer data, to make decisions, to be more digital,” he said.
Now Vans is looking to stay scrappy, but also become a little more buttoned-up, with the corporate structures that will carry it to $5 billion in sales and beyond.
It’s an evolution — just don’t call it a comeback.