Just For Kicks
Eastern High School Students Compete In Vans Custom Shoes Competition
Every teacher and student in Jefferson County, Kentucky has had to adapt to the chaos that COVID-19 brought to education this spring. When schools began quarantining in mid-March, no one knew whether it would last days, weeks or months. Not only did extracurricular clubs stop meeting in-person, many of them no longer had events and activities to plan for.
There was an exception, though, at Eastern High School: the Vans Custom Culture team.
VANS CUSTOM CULTURE
Vans is a shoe and apparel manufacturer based in California that has been on the cutting edge of skateboarding since 1966. Not only does it have its own line of designs, it allows its customers to customize the shoes they purchase. In 2010, the company launched its Custom Culture competition to encourage high school students throughout the country to inspire others through art and design.
Trish Hamilton-Cooper, a two-decade veteran art teacher at Eastern High School, is the sponsor of the school’s Vans Custom Culture team. She has seen how the contest has changed over the years because, for seven years in a row, she helped her students get to the Vans Custom Culture finals.
“Now, it’s more like a grant program,” she says, and the competition is among only 300 schools. For the past three years, Eastern was unable to participate, but in 2020, it made it back in.
When the competition was announced in January 2020, Hamilton-Cooper says the first prize offering was $75,000 with smaller amounts for teams who placed second and third.
JOINING THE TEAM
The enthusiasm at Eastern for the Vans contest exploded. Hamilton-Cooper says, “After that first year, everybody wanted to be on the team.” With only 20 slots available, she had to create a system for students to apply and make the team. Students must submit resumes.
The resumes help Hamilton-Cooper and her colleagues see not only which students have talent but which ones are motivated and excited. Being a good collaborator is in some ways more important than artistic talent (although both are preferable). This year’s team consists of 18 students. There are eight sophomores, four juniors and six seniors who make up smaller photography, marketing, artistic and video teams.
The school’s past Vans success is both a lot to live up to as well as a motivator.
When students and teachers learned that March 13 would be their last day in a school building, Hamilton-Cooper and her team had no idea what would happen related to the Vans contest. Although uncertain, Hamilton-Cooper says, “I grabbed everything from the Vans table,” before heading home on that last day. It would prove to be a smart move.
She says Vans debated whether and how to proceed with the contest after schools across the country began closing. When JCPS dismissed classes, “We knew what all the designs were and one of the shoes had partial sketching, but that was the extent of the work that had been completed,” she says. “I wrote to the team and told them, ‘If we do it, it’s going to be difficult.’” All team members wanted to make it work, but they would have to figure out the safest way to proceed.
Because some high school teams’ shoes were locked in inaccessible buildings, Vans changed the contest parameters a bit. Rather than one contest with only physical shoes, it split the contest into physical shoes and paper/digital shoe designs. The top prize in each category is now $50,000 with smaller prizes for schools that rank lower.
Hamilton-Cooper began a series of door-to-door drop-offs of the shoes to various team members. Students wore gloves, and Hamilton-Cooper delivered paint to front porches whenever students needed it.
THE CREATION PROCESS
Each pair of shoes has a theme — a “local” theme related to the city where the team is from and an “off-the-wall” theme that Hamilton-Cooper says exemplifies the spirit of Vans.
Before the quarantine, Eastern’s Vans students had decided their focus would be to blend the ideas of “Louisville At Night” and “Urban Legends” on the local theme pair of shoes. The shoes depict Big Foot (also known as Hillbilly Beast) in front of the Big Four Bridge, as well as the Pope Lick Monster and Waverly Hills. This pair has a removable platform that resembles Mammoth Cave and is made of foam, hot glue and crystals.
The second pair celebrates girls who are skateboarders, musicians and artists. Hamilton-Cooper’s daughter, Katie, a sophomore member of the team, even composed and recorded a song called “Who’s That Girl,” which has been uploaded to Spotify and is part of the shoe’s marketing.
Both pairs glow under ultraviolet light and had to be painted in the dark.
While the creation process was much different during quarantine than it would have been otherwise, Hamilton-Cooper says her team was probably a lot more on-task because they had to work on the shoes individually in their homes.
“Initially, quarantine was disappointing because of how much of a highlight of my week going to our meetings was, but now, when looking back, I think it encouraged us to get more creative with our teamwork in a way that has been very unique,” says senior Rachel Graves.
Despite distance, Hamilton-Cooper says her team communicated constantly during the process of designing and creating the shoes.
Public voting for the shoes opened in early May and ended on May 15. Despite their efforts and energy, the Eastern Vans team did not walk away with a win at the end of May.
The Vans Custom Culture experience during the pandemic helped all of the students see the value of perseverance.
“This team has stayed so determined. This experience has just proven how much heart this team has when we could have easily given up,” says senior Grayson Scheuning.