Vans Tapped 4 Artists to Design Shoes For Black History Month, and We Talked to Them All
This is the first time Vans is releasing a collection for Black History Month, which comes with four customizable, limited edition sneakers and a $40,000 donation to the Black Art Futures Fund, supporting community-based Black arts organizations across the country. While each of the emerging artists tapped for the project — Rewina Beshue, Chris Martin, Sydney G. James, and Tony Whlgn — are close friends and collaborators of the brand, these shoes are their first originals, and they are proud to share them with the public. These four artists focus on a variety of mediums (Chris is also a tattoo artist, for example, whose symbols are connected to the history of the South), but they all aim to amplify the voices of their communities throughout their work.
The artists created their custom patterns with free rein in their home studios individually. "We wanted [them] to have the freedom of expressing themselves without a brief so they could say something personal and meaningful," Matthew Even, Creative Director at Vans said. Now, shoppers are able to choose their favorite print and apply it to whichever shoe silhouette they choose. Throughout the month, each artist's story will be unveiled at vans.com/blackhistorymonth, though the work to support the Black community does not end with the month of February.
"As a brand founded in the belief that we are a people company, supporting our communities has always lived at the core of everything we do. Racial inequality in the US is fueled by systemic racism and we all have the responsibility to dismantle these systems of oppression. We commit to take action for the long haul because Black Lives Matter," Vans told POPSUGAR, confirming that through Vans's "Foot the Bill" initiative, small, Black-owned businesses will continue to be spotlighted on the site. Ahead, we spoke to all four shoe designers, who explained a bit more about the inspiration behind their work and shared close-ups of their graphics.
Inspiration for the shoe: "My love and fascination with optical illusions. One of my biggest inspirations is Akiyoshi Kitaoka. He is a psychology professor who specializes in visual perception and visual illusion using geometric shapes. His work is absolutely fascinating. He's mastered the art of optical motion illusion using colors and shapes. I love interactive art. I wanted to create something mesmerizing and playful."
Color palette: "[The black-and-white brings] simplicity. I love using colors and sometimes get a little crazy with them, but for this project I wanted the tone of the piece to be in the pattern and not the colors. It's a loud print, so I figured toning down the colors would create a nice balance."
"I am very proud to work on a project that gives back to Black communities around the country. That is very special to me."
Coolest sneakers she ever owned: "My first 'cool sneakers' were Vans. I got my first pair in the sixth grade and they were Old Skools, the navy and dark blue colorway. I got them as a gift from my parents because I was trying to learn how to skate. I painted all over them and friends of mine drew on them with Sharpies. I felt really cool. I wish I still had them."
Best feedback she received on the shoe: "Seeing people love the shoe was extremely heartwarming! I received the best comments via DM from different people in my community telling me how proud they are of me and how much I inspire them. I greatly appreciate feedback like this because that's my goal with every art project – to inspire my friends and uplift my community. I am very proud to work on a project that gives back to Black communities around the country. That is very special to me."
Follow Rewina here.
A Close-Up of Rewina's Pattern
Why he works in black and white: "I honestly just love the clean contrast and how easy it registers."
The importance of the bird symbol in his work: "In Toni Morrison's words, 'Wanna fly, you gotta give up the shit that weighs you down.' Overall, birds and swallows, in particular, are bound to freedom and are reoccurring themes that give meaning to the work I do rooted in slavery."
"The person wearing this shoe has invested in the conversation of American history and its future."
Tattoo designing vs. shoe designing: "Figuring out how my work could register onto a 3D canvas was a learning curve, but I approached it similarly to placing a tattoo stencil. I went through my book of flash designs and held them up to the actual Vans slip-on and figured out what designs contoured the best."
Who his shoe design is for: "The design represents history and freedom, so the person wearing this shoe has invested in the conversation of American history and its future. It's an honor to be a part of the first Vans Black History Month shoe launch, and I'm definitely looking forward to seeing how this program evolves."
Follow Chris here.
A Close-Up of Chris's Pattern
Sydney G. James
The significance of her red, black, and green design: "When first approached by Vans for this Black History Month activation, I knew the colors I was going to use before my idea was even fully formed. Red, black, and green, simply because I wanted to visually represent the diaspora. It may not be obvious at first glance, but that's the order in which I laid out the color palette in the design. The red features a Ghanaian textile pattern, the figurative black is the woman, and hints of the color black are in the zipper in the design, and lastly, the camouflage pattern is the green. I chose to make mine full of color because in my head, I wasn't 'designing a shoe' per se, I was making a piece of MY art that would be presented on a shoe. My goal was to make a Vans shoe feel like a Sydney G. James art piece that would adorn a foot."
The woman on her shoe: "The woman featured in the design is my go-to muse, Jonni. I've painted several murals featuring her since 2016, from Detroit to Hawaii and from Ghana to beyond. I paint her so much, I came up with the hashtag #jonnionthespot, and featuring her was more than fitting for a task such as shoes! Although she may look the same or recognizable in the pieces that her face is featured in, she feels different in every one. Now #jonnionthespot is 'Off the Wall,' and moving out in the world as she herself truly does."
"As I am soon to become a 42-year-old Black woman, I have created art . . . professionally and MY way. There's something poetic and encouraging in that."
How she interprets her shoe: "I designed an original camouflage pattern that features the African continent with Ghana and Sierra Leone highlighted (as they are the countries I have traveled to in Africa), Detroit and the Dwennimmen symbol of humility and strength. What I hope people see is an overall 'unveiling of self.' She's unzipping this camouflage, revealing herself and all of her Blackness, unashamed and fully aware of the 'self.'"
Why she used the iconic Vans checkerboard print: "It was important to incorporate the checkerboard print because it is an iconic staple of the Vans brand, and I wanted it to look and feel like a true artist/brand collaboration. I wanted the look to be specific to both parties but united as one item."
What this collaboration represents in the context of her career: "The design is special because for me, it goes way beyond a shoe. It brings my life as an artist full circle. As a child artist (like many young artists) and into adulthood, I've always drawn and painted on clothes, walls, and shoes. My parents granted me such liberties. And now, as I am soon to become a 42-year-old Black woman, I have created art in all three mediums professionally and MY way. There's something poetic and encouraging in that."
Follow Sydney here.
A Close-Up of Sydney's Pattern
How it felt to collaborate with Vans: "I instantly reverted back to my childhood (lil' Tony Whlgn) when I first purchased a pair of gray Vans Eras in 2009. This was back when my friends and I would all gather around a school computer, hoping that one day we'd get to design our own artist series-inspired sneakers. Fast forward – as that day approached, the dream felt more real. Sneakers are an interesting and wearable medium to create on and with this opportunity I hope to build a stronger and more intentional relationship with Vans."
The best part of his sneakers: "My favorite aspect would have to be the flower mask. It symbolizes inner and external self-growth and planting love in the world. It is a representation of our Whlgn motto: 'We Humans Love to Grow & Nurture,' not conform to society. It is to be thy true self. The checkered pattern is honestly another favorite aspect of mine. I feel it speaks strongly to the classic Vans details that people love and know them for. That detail was almost second nature."
"My friends and I would all gather around a school computer, hoping that one day we'd get to design our own artist series-inspired sneakers.
Why his sneakers are black and white: "In my opinion, the conversation we've seen in America in recent years has been in black and white, 'Plain Sight.' The conversation has been uncomfortable for most, and with this piece, I wanted to represent the mood of that conversation through simplicity of design."
How his experience at Mark Ecko influenced his work: "My experience at Ecko taught me how to edit myself and how to aesthetically collaborate with myself using my passion for fine art and design. When I saw how corporate marketing had an edge on streetwear, it taught me that if I wanted to elevate my career, I'd have to be more expressive and vulnerable with detaching from my work. I needed to allow my work to be consumed by the outside forces of the world we live in. My story, my message, and my background all work together to give me a better sense of who I am as a contemporary artist."
Follow Tony here.