Naomi So loves to create art and was crazy about Vans shoes, the skateboarding world’s sneaker of choice.
So it made sense when her brother suggested the Toronto teenager enter a contest to design a new Vans model, an annual event where the winner is chosen partly by online voters.
What came next was a little less expected.
First the 17-year-old’s colourful design — featuring images from the Hong Kong protests — soared to the top of the Custom Culture competition, far surpassing other entrants from throughout North America.
Then just as abruptly, the company pulled her entry from the competition, prompting widespread complaints that it had buckled to pressure from the Chinese government. Vans sales in the mainland have been growing rapidly of late.
Overnight, the polite, well-spoken high school student — who says her Christian upbringing has taught her to “spread only love and not hate” — was swept into a geopolitical typhoon. Centred around canvas running shoes.
“I just think it was really unfair of them to take away my design. It had followed all the rules,” she said in an interview. It “was a huge disrespect to the freedom of my expression, which stands as one of the chief features of the brand.”
Hong Kong demonstrators and their backers are among those condemning the decision. They’ve called it the latest example of Western enterprises putting profits from China ahead of the pro-democracy cause, and applauded the artist — identified on the contest site simply as naomiso.
But So’s story is not quite as straightforward as those activists might imagine.
Her design features a yellow umbrella, the bauhinia flower that forms Hong Kong’s logo and a group of people in gas masks and helmets, all emblematic of the mass protest movement.
So said her parents are immigrants from Hong Kong and have been following recent events there closely, which meant the idea came to her almost immediately. She says the protesters are “voicing out their opinions, and I think that’s really important in this day and age.”
Yet she insists she was not trying to take a stand herself.
“I see my role as a designer, but also as a reporter. Reporters use a camera, pen and paper and I use my artwork as my medium to express,” So says. “It’s really sad to see the many places in Hong Kong that I have visited to be in such disarray.”
In fact, she and her family have so far balked at giving a Hong Kong company permission to produce shoes based on her design. The manufacturer wants to donate the proceeds to groups supporting the demonstrations, but So said consenting to that “would be me taking sides.”
She also has no illusions, though, about what was behind the Vans decision.
The company, a division of VF Corporation, said in a statement that it has “never taken a political position and therefore review(s) 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.” A “small number” of entries were removed as a result, it said.
I see my role as a designer, but also as a reporter
But So said her design and all the others had to first pass through a vetting process before even being posted online. Within days, hers had garnered 200,000 votes. She’s convinced its removal was “100 per cent” motivated by the bottom line.
The high-school senior actually grew up in California — where Vans was founded — the family moving to Toronto six years ago to help care for her aging grandparents. Now a Canadian citizen, she says she plays competitive soccer and finds that sketching and painting helps relieve stress.
But despite her sudden fame as a potential footwear designer, So said she dreams of becoming an emergency-department nurse, not an artist.
“I wanted to do something that directly helps people,” she said. “I feel privilege growing up in North America; it makes me want to give back to the community and the people around me.”
Meanwhile, the family is being careful to manage her public persona amid a bitter international dispute, choosing against having a photograph showing Naomi’s face appear with this story — or naming where she goes to school.
“Even though we are an ocean away, still there are locals here who would act stupid,” said Wilson So, her father. “I don’t want any of that to cause any inconvenience, or worse problems, for us.”