Footwear brand Vans launches skatepark underneath Waterloo station

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 London Waterloo station.

In its previous guise as the Old Vic Tunnels, the underground space was where intrepid audiences lapped up performances by experimental theatre group Punchdrunk. Now, tattooed, long-haired and long-shorted skateboarders 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 mega brands Apple and Nike. They have taken over what is a potentially a potent youth culture venue – next to London's biggest legal graffiti wall and the undercroft skate park on the nearby banks of the Thames, which was recently rescued from the clutches of developers by the mayor of London.

Although skateboarding has waxed and waned in popularity since California surfers moved to the streets in the 1950s, Vans has now taken on a life of its own with sales on track to hit $2bn (£1.19bn) this year as more and 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 last Thursday's opening that means both teenagers and fortysomethings are likely to arrive on four wheels or foot to attend concerts or film screenings below the cavernous arches.

The brand was founded in 1966 by Paul Van Doren, a Californian entrepreneur who was quick to spot the sport's growing popularity, developing trainers with distinctive thick soles that were perfect for gripping the top of a skateboard, and reinforced toes to cope with the friction as skaters honed their carving skills on the pavement outside their house.

It lost its independence a decade ago when it was swallowed by VF Corporation, which also owns more than 30 clothing brands including 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. "After we purchased it, it grew very nicely but then three years ago it exploded. It grew too fast which is a little bit unhealthy because 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 it 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 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 to climb Haba Mountain helped produce sales growth of more than 20% in Asia Pacific last year.

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