Imagine a pair of Vans shoes designed to look like a surfer catching a wave. Or a pair with a bespectacled face staring up at the wearer.
These were just two of the entries in last year's Custom Culture competition sponsored by Vans to stoke creativity in high school students and raise money for their schools. (See some of the 2014 entries in our photo gallery, above.)
This year, the national contest attracted 3,000 submissions, which have been winnowed down to 50 semifinalists that as of Friday go to a public vote. The competitors are vying for $50,000 for their school and the chance to see one of their designs sold nationwide.
"This is the greatest thing ever," said Steve Van Doren, whose father co-founded Vans in 1966.
The competition provides an outlet for students to explore their creative imaginations and gives the company an opportunity to support arts education, he said.
The contest has resulted in donations of more than $400,000 to high school art programs across the country since its 2009 inception.
"Programs like Custom Culture play an important part in helping to bring more attention to the importance of the arts in high school curriculums," said Robert Lynch, president and chief executive of Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit partner with Vans.
"Together with key partners like Vans, we are working to raise awareness of the need for arts education in all of our nation's schools; encourage high school students to embrace their creativity and the opportunities it can leverage; and inspire a new generation of innovative, forward focused youth," Lynch said.
This year's process began Jan. 5 with high school art teachers signing their classes up to participate. Each class was given four pairs of blank Vans shoes, with each to represent one of the competition's themes of action sports, arts, music and local flavor. Any materials could be used to doctor the kicks.
When the submission process closed Feb. 13, the pool was narrowed to 250, with 50 schools representing each of five regions: California, Southwest, Northwest, Southeast and Northeast. Vans employees then selected the top 50 semifinalists. Now the judging goes to the public, and people have until May 11 to vote to determine the top five schools.
Twenty students from each of the finalist schools will be flown to New York City to showcase their designs for a panel of celebrity judges, with the overall winner earning $50,000 for their school's arts program. The winning designs are turned into actual Vans shoes and sold nationwide, with proceeds going to Americans for the Arts. In addition, Vans donates $4,000 each to the four runner-up schools.
Also partnering with Vans -- and providing extra awards -- are retailer Journeys, the Laguna College of Art and Design and the Truth smoking prevention campaign. Journeys will award $15,000 to the best local flavor design, and the the top 50 semifinalists will have the opportunity to compete for $10,000 by customizing a skateboard deck inspired by Truth's "Finish It" campaign.
The Laguna College of Art and Design is offering $125,000 in total scholarship awards for one student from each of the top five schools.
Vote on this year's semifinalists on the Custom Culture website.