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Vans Custom Culture Contest Inspires Sneaker Artist Sydney Kay’s Career

After entering a high school art contest, sneaker artist Sydney Kay found her calling.

“I was introduced to the competition by my art teacher — prior to that, I had never heard of hand-painted shoes,” Kay tells FN.

As a student, Kay was among a group of finalists in the Vans Custom Culture sneaker design competition, a national contest that gives budding teen artists a chance to embrace their creativity and bring attention to diminishing arts education budgets.

Finalists in the competition, which is now in its seventh year, are vying to win $50,000 for their school’s art programs, among other rewards, in a voting component that launched Wednesday.

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Sneaker artist Sydney Kay’s customized slip-ons.
CREDIT: Courtesy

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“I painted slip-ons with a vintage music theme in an attempt to do something a little out of the ordinary,” Kay recalls of her past submission, which had a design that featured “a bright, pastel color scheme and detailed graphics of a record player.”

“They were definitely not your typical pair of sneakers,” she says.

Kay credits the Vans Custom Culture competition for providing a creative outlet for budding designers when arts programs in schools across the country are in crisis.

“When I was in high school, it was always a struggle to get the school to fund our classes for the supplies we needed, and our art program suffered because of that,” she recalls. “It’s ridiculous because artists and designers play such an important role in the world, but the educational system doesn’t find any value in it.”

Kay says the experience opened doors and fueled her artistic expression.

“I started designing and painting shoes as gifts for friends and family,” she shares, “and then quickly realized that I could turn this into something much bigger. I set out to start my own business after graduating high school, and since then I’ve been working on building the brand Sydney Kay Customs.”

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Sydney Kay’s customized sneakers for R&B singer Kehlani.
CREDIT: Courtesy

One year after launching her customized shoe business, she received a sponsorship from Angelus Direct, and has been commissioned to create kicks for rapper Future and R&B singer Kehlani, whose customized Air Force 1’s ranks among Kay’s most challenging design projects.

“The majority of the sneaker consisted of her ‘You Should Be Here’ album artwork, which is essentially a lot of multicolored cloud patterns and micro details,” Kay recalls. “It was extremely difficult to maintain a high quality paint job on such a small scale, and on top of that, I hand-painted all of the packaging and lettering on the straps. It was such a long process that I lost track of all the hours I put into it, but it was worth it.”

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