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Vans Competition Pulls Sneaker Brand Into Hong Kong Political Row

A shoe design in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement could land Vans in hot water with Chinese consumers.
Naomiso's entry for Vans' Custom Culture competition | Source: Vans website
  • Zoe Suen

HONG KONG, China — Vans is the latest brand to become embroiled in the escalating anti-government protests that have swept through Hong Kong since March 31.

A Canada-based artist by the name "Naomiso" has submitted a shoe design in support of the city's pro-democracy movement to the 53-year-old sneaker brand's annual Custom Culture shoe contest. The terms of the customisation competition state that the entry with the highest votes will win $25,000 and have their design produced by Vans. Neither Vans nor VF Corporation, which owns the brand, have responded to BoF's request for comment.

Since voting commenced on October 1, the design submitted by Naomiso (who could not be contacted to comment for this story) drew over 140,579 votes and counting. The entry with the second highest number of votes, by "Madillusionsart," received 10,147 votes at the time of this article’s publication. Three winners will be announced on December 19, but it remains to be seen whether Vans will indeed produce the controversial shoe and face the wrath of its consumers and retailers in mainland China.

This isn't the first time a footwear brand has been pulled into the political crisis unfolding in Hong Kong. In June, Nike cancelled the mainland release of its collaboration with Undercover, after the latter brand's designer Jun Takahashi posted a photo on Instagram in support of the Special Administrative Region's ongoing demonstrations.

On Lihkg (Hong Kong's reddit-like forum which has become home to protest-related communications), user Li Zhaoyu has posted a link with the entry, saying "Vans will produce these shoes if it gets the most votes. To let more people know what's going on in Hong Kong, vote once a day!" Li's post has since received over 4,200 upvotes.

“I would be very skeptical if Vans press on with it,” says Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “The Chinese government will use all of its power to make sure multinationals don’t make it look bad. If the Chinese government says that no one should buy [Vans’] shoes, they’re going to struggle as a brand.”

Tsang raises the example of Hong Kong’s flagship airline Cathay Pacific, which came under fire from the Civil Aviation Administration of China after some staff members supported the protests.

In May, American fashion group VF Corporation, which owns Vans, Timberland and The North Face, reported a 12 percent year-on-year increase in revenues for the period ending March 30, 2019. The growth was led by Vans’ 9 percent revenue rise in its home market and a 17 percent revenue boost in China.

Naomiso’s customised Vans Authentic sneaker features a red bauhinia flower, figures in yellow gas masks and helmets and a yellow umbrella — all symbols of the pro-democracy movement that began in reaction to a proposed (now withdrawn) extradition law, but have since expanded into a fight for five key demands, including an investigation into alleged police misconduct by the local police force and resumption of democratic reforms.

The protests have been destructive to local consumer sentiment and inbound tourism, which has long contributed to the city's status as a retail and luxury hub. On October 2, the Hong Kong government reported that year-on-year retail sales dropped a record 23 percent in August — the worst on record — alongside a 42.3 percent drop in mainland visitors to the city. Luxury brands have taken a hit, and investment bank Cowen & Co estimates that for the likes of Tiffany & Co, if protests continue until the end of the year, a 10 to 60 percent decline in Hong Kong sales could translate into a 1 percent to 4 percent earnings-per-share hit.

The Chinese government has condemned the movement, and on the 70th anniversary of communist rule on October 1, a Hong Kong high school student was the first to be shot by local police officers in the months of unrest. On October 4, the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoked emergency powers to ban masks at public assemblies, to take effect Saturday. "The violence is destroying Hong Kong,” Lam said. “We must save the present Hong Kong and the future Hong Kong.”

Updated 10:05 BST on October 5 2019: 

On October 5, Vans removed the entry from the Custom Culture site and published a statement on its Hong Kong Facebook page, confirming that "a small number of artistic submissions" had been removed "based on the global competition guidelines."

"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...This decision was taken to uphold the purpose of Custom Culture. We greatly appreciate the effort that every single artist has made to contribute to this forum, and we look forward to many more contributions from our fans and consumers around the globe."

The post has drawn over 13,000 comments, the most liked of which expressed disappointment in the brand. "Which part of the design goes against the principle of 'celebrating creativity and spreading positivity'?" Facebook user Winny LW asked. "Your decision [to remove] the design reaching the highest votes completely violates all the points you mentioned. This is such a disappointing decision and is completely unacceptable."

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