American brand Vans, known for its skateboarding culture and popular among youth, is facing backlash over the retraction of protest-themed submissions for its Custom Culture shoe design contest.
Open to entrants globally, artists were invited to customise the brand’s signature white-canvas Authentic skate shoe with their own design. The contest awards the artist with the highest votes USD$25,000 and production of the winning design on a global scale.
When voting commenced on October 1 (coincidentally also China’s National Day), a design by Canadian-based artist using the pseudonym “Naomiso” quickly lept to the top of the poll. The design featured a black shoe with a red Hong Kong Bauhinia symbol on top of an eyelet, and a group of masked individuals bearing goggles, mask and a yellow hard hat – all representations of the current anti-extradition protest movement.
Five days into the voting, Naomiso’s work had drawn 140,579 votes thanks to the efforts of netizens and Hongkongers spreading the word on social-media platforms to support the entry. The runner-up had attracted just 10,147 votes.
The sheer volume of votes caught the attention of Vans, which immediately disqualified Naomiso’s entry, issuing a statement on its Facebook page on Saturday morning: “…As a brand that is open to everyone, we have never taken a political position and therefore review designs to ensure they are in line with our company’s long-held values of respect and tolerance, as well as with our clearly communicated guidelines for this competition.”
However, those terms and conditions (“guidelines”) referred to “trademarked or copyrighted material, business or brand logos, images of celebrities, professionals, sports team logos or mascots, nudity, images of weapons / violence, images referencing drugs, alcohol or smoking, offensive content, obscenity or hate” as grounds for rejection and Naomiso’s protest-themed design featured none of those. The disqualification was made in fear of repercussions for Vans in the Chinese market.
Shortly after, another user “Lock.E” also submitted a protest-themed entry from the UK in hopes of bypassing the censorship, but that was ultimately was retracted.
Vans’ statement on Facebook kicked off more than 48,000 reactions, with angry netizens leaving comments to share their disappointment. Many loyal owners of Vans claimed the company had backtracked on its mission statement of “celebrating creativity and spreading positivity”, by evidently bowing to China’s “Great Wall”.
Vans’ parent, VF Corporation, reported that organic revenue in China increased 17 per cent last year and now represents 6 per cent of its global sales. The US-headquartered retail group emphasises as one of its four focuses in its 2021 Global Business Strategy “Distorting our investments toward Asia, with a heightened focus on China”. Recognising the growth opportunity of China, the group is supported by investments through Demand Creation locally and holds a strong partnership with Tmall and Alibaba.
Boycott and trashing
Soon after the phenomena of #boycottVans begin circulating on social media, netizens started sharing images of themselves trashing their Vans collections. Some opted for a more graceful approach: applying their own pro-democratic design onto their existing Vans shoes instead.
Meanwhile, a netizen on LIHKG (a Hong Kong forum that plays a key role in protests) compiled a list of brands all under Vans parent group – VF Corporation – calling for a boycott of all the labels. That includes denim labels Lee and Wrangler, which were spun off into a new subsidiary, Kontoor Brands earlier this year.
The Vans label is one of the company’s largest brands, contributing to 24-per-cent growth in their US$13.8 billion revenue last year.
Disruption in the distribution model
There are more than 700 VF-owned stores (16 per cent of those in Asia), but the brand largely operates through independent distributors and licensees.
Hong Kong streetwear distributors, especially more well-known retailers Manhood and Dahood, issued statements saying they were removing Vans merchandise from their shelves in response to the censorship controversy.
However an anonymous employee alleged on LIHKG that Dahood’s statement was deceptive, issued to gain support and business from pro-democratic supporters, when the owners and employees of the retailer held an opposing stance.
As the long-running protests escalate to boycotting businesses – even to the extent of trashing storefronts of businesses considered to be pro-Beijing – many Hong Kong retailers have statements on standby so they can react quickly to any negative commentary on social media in the hope of avoiding vandalism and being blacklisted by protestors.