I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Vans Custom Culture Brand Marketing Manager Scott Byrer on a cold day in New York City to enthusiastically talk about the exciting ways Vans Custom Culture supports arts education in addition to the company’s thriving partnership with Americans for the Arts. I loved the excitement in which Scott spoke about his passion for arts education. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.
JW: I’d like to know more about the history of Vans and how the founders were inspired to launch a sneaker company.
SB: Vans was founded in 1966 by Paul and James Van Doren, Serge Delia and Gordon Lee. The company started small, with one store originally selling shoes directly to the public. In those days, customers were able to walk into a store and select their own custom shoe colors! This originality and creativity has remained an integral part of the Vans brand DNA to this day. The company grew quickly, being the first shoe brand to create a product specifically for skateboarding and as such, we’re known today as the original action sports footwear and apparel company, with collections including authentic footwear, apparel, accessories and snowboard boots that are sold globally in more than 170 countries. If you’re curious to see a visual story about the history of Vans, you can check out a video our production team created on our Off the Wall TV site.
JW: Can you tell me a little about how Van Custom Culture decided to start supporting high school arts education programs throughout the U.S.?
SB: Vans Custom Culture began as a much smaller project lead by a high school art teacher in Colorado, Franky Scaglione, and his best friend, Shawn Gruenhagen, who is a sales rep for Vans. The competition was originally held between classmates at Wheat Ridge High School in Denver who customized blank Vans shoes that Shawn brought them. It morphed into a larger, national high school art competition once Shawn brought the idea back to the Vans marketing team at our headquarters in Southern California. Using Franky and Shawn’s original concept of a competition around custom shoes, we launched the first national edition of Custom Culture in 2010. The goals of the program were the same then as they are now. First, give high school students a chance to express themselves creatively. Second, put some much needed funds back into the hands of high school art programs. Third, create a platform to raise awareness for the importance of art education in our schools.
JW: And to think the inspiration came from an art teacher – I love that story! How does the competition work today?
SB: The competition structure is fairly simple. The first 2,000 U.S. based public or private high schools to register for Custom Culture receive four pairs of Vans shoes (106, Sk8-Hi, Slip On and Authentic) to customize completely free of charge. Each pair is then customized by students to represent one of four themes: Action Sports, Music, Art, and Local Flavor. Photo submissions are made online via the Vans Custom Culture website (Due April 7, 2014) after which an internal selection and external public vote whittles the entries down to a group of five finalists who travel to New York City for the Final Event. At this event, a panel of judges selects a grand prize winning school, which receives a $50,000 prize donation to its art program. Each of the four runners up also receive donations, along with two additional $10,000 donations awarded on behalf of our program partners, Journeys and truth, to two other finalist schools.
JW: How has your partnership with Americans for the Arts enhanced this Vans Custom Culture arts education funding program?
SB: Americans for the Arts established itself long ago as a leader in the effort to drive awareness for the importance of the arts and particularly art education in our schools. Since we began Custom Culture with the goal of raising awareness for the importance of art education, we knew that guidance from experts was necessary, leading us to partner with AFTA nearly two years ago. Their guidance has a allowed us to make an even greater impact via a $50,000 donation that AFTA then distributes amongst high schools via grants. Additionally, AFTA uses part of this donation to create educational materials distributed to various schools and community organizations.
JW: How does technology play a role in the work you do as well as how your colleagues at Vans collaborate?
SB: Technology is vital to nearly everything we do at Vans, from design to production to distribution and marketing. For Custom Culture in particular, members of a large cross functional team from various departments devote their time and energy to plan and execute this huge competition yearly, each of them relying on tech in one capacity or another. For instance, our in-house video production team uses state of the art technology to shoot, edit and produce video content that tells the story of Custom Culture. These videos are uploaded and shared to multiple interactive platforms online which are created and maintained by a team of web developers and interactive/digital managers that literally build our sites and social presences from scratch. Another great example is our visual team, who’s tasked with creating an incredible experience for students at our final event in June. This experience is planned via sophisticated 3D models which allow our team to visually transform the interior of our venue and throw an amazing party that the students remember forever. Lastly, our footwear design team works directly with the winning school’s students to take their shoe design and turn it into an actual production model that is then sold in Vans retail stores and online. Our entire employee base, regardless of whether or not they work on Custom Culture, is tasked with thinking creatively and many of us have an art education background or were inspired by an art teacher or class at some point. Custom Culture is meant to be a way for us to give that experience to students who may not be able to experience quality art education themselves.
JW: How does this work environment translate into inspiring young people to explore creative careers?
SB: Our work environment is incredibly creative. The mantra we live by daily at Vans is “Off The Wall” which directly translates to thinking and living creatively. Through programs like Custom Culture, we try to expose young people to the fact that creative careers exist and one need only look as far as the halls of Vans HQ to prove that.
JW: What’s your favorite pair of Vans shoes that you own?
SB: I’ve been wearing Authentics and Old Skools for years. There’s no substitute for a pair of original canvas Authentics!