Vans contest: California students create shoe art for shot at $50,000

Ever scribble on your tennis shoes? Moms for years have bawled out kids for trying to enliven their footwear with amateur artwork. But Cypress-based shoe company Vans, with its annual Custom Culture design contest, has put sneaker art on a pedestal.

This year, 2,000 U.S. high schools are competing for a $50,000 grand prize by turning a blank pair of Vans into artwork with a rubber sole.


And the bulk of them are from California, according to brand marketing manager Scott Byrer.

Golden State high schoolers let their imaginations flow: There are sculptural shoes, dark-gold ones with a tiny Hollywood sign, a shoe that resembles a "woodie" station wagon complete with a tiny surfboard propped inside.

It seems appropriate for California kids to be vamping up Vans. This might be the quintessential West Coast shoe, with its laid-back design and history as a favorite of skateboarders. (Company headquarters has an indoor skate ramp for employees.)

The about 400 workers at Vans headquarters recently voted on the students' shoe designs, narrowing the entries to 50 schools –- each of which designed four pairs of shoes. Beginning Friday, the public gets to vote, which will bring the field to five finalists.

It's the Southern California company's largest philanthropic undertaking and includes a trip to New York for some students at the five schools that make the finals. There, Vans awards a jumbo $50,000 check to the winner. One of the top designs also goes into limited production. Two other schools receive $10,000, and four runners-up are awarded $4,000 each. The prize money is earmarked for the winning school's art program.

A California school has yet to haul away the jumbo check. Since the program's inception in 2010, grand-prize winners have come from New Mexico (the same school twice), New York and Oregon, Byrer said. Previous Southern California finalists include Irvine's University High School in 2013 and Big Bear High School, which won $4,000 in the contest in 2012.

Competing for a spot as finalist in this year's contest are: Canyon Springs High School in Moreno Valley; Carlsbad High School; Downey High School; Evergreen Valley High School, San Jose; Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, L.A.; Marina High School, Huntington Beach; Orange County School of the Arts, Santa Ana; Sheldon High School, Sacramento; University High School, Irvine; Upland High School.

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