The sneaker design submitted by Strawberry Mansion High School

Update, May 28:

They did it! Art students at Strawberry Mansion High have scored $50,000 for their school’s arts program by winning the grand prize in Vans Custom Culture contest. Their Philly sneaker design was deemed tops in the “physical shoe” category, beating out of thousands of submissions from around the nation.

Original story, published May 13:

A soft pretzel. The Rocky statue. A cheesesteak, wiz wit. And yes, of course, “jawn.”

Illustrated in vibrant graffiti style, these local staples adorn a fresh pair of Vans slides, thanks to five Strawberry Mansion High School students and their teacher. The team entered their 215-inspired design into the 11th annual Vans Custom Culture.

Out of thousands around the nation, the Philly kicks have made it into the top 50 and are now contenders for the $50,000 grand prize.

Will they win the funding for the school’s art department? Up to you. You can vote once a day for your favorite physical shoe design (*ahem* the Strawberry Mansion one) and your favorite digital design on the Vans Custom Culture site. Voting closes on Friday, and Vans will announce the top six winners the week of May 25.

Students entered the contest under the leadership of first year art teacher Heather La Pera, with work starting in January, according to principal Brian McCracken.

They worked piece by piece — adding a design element here, a painting embellishment there, with the project integrated into regular class learning.

“Just getting to see how excited children were to show off their work as they came up with these clever ideas was so exciting,” recalled McCracken, 33. “The planning was organic. As kids just get really excited, the ideas start generating.”

Philly’s Vans are teeming with local shoutouts.

The shoes are built around a red, white and blue 215 graphic that replaces the traditional “1” with an illustration of Center City’s One Liberty Place skyscraper. A hoagie is sandwiched between a styrofoam cup of rainbow water ice and a Broad Street street sign. There’s even a hot pink ode to “Fresh Prince” on the backs of the shoes.

McCracken’s not sure which place Strawberry Mansion is in. He noticed the photo of the school’s design ascending on the voting page, and hopes that means the sneakers are climbing up the leaderboard, too.

Strawberry Mansion is the only Philly area school in the contest. McCracken thinks his school’s sneaks also stand out for another reason.

“Someone mentioned to me if you were a sneakerhead a lot of other styles don’t speak to that. When I look at it, I think that the Philly one, you could wear,” he said.

The back of Strawberry Mansion High School’s design Credit: Vans Custom Culture

Vans’ Custom Culture contest usually awards schools $75k, but a spokesperson for the brand said it had to restructure this year’s competition because of COVID-19 shutdowns.

Some schools couldn’t finish their physical designs in time, so Vans opened a digital design version of the contest and adjusted the prize winnings to $50k for each winning school in the physical and digital sneaker contest, giving away $100k total. Two runners up in each category get $10k each.

Strawberry Mansion High is an under-resourced school that was nearly closed down in 2013 and has since battled a historically bad rep. McCracken said the school would use its $50k winnings to bolster its media career path program. Students in that program should be using the newest version of Adobe, with all the compatible certifications, computers and cameras. But, said McCracken, that’s costly.

“We make it work with some free versions,” he said. “And that’s just compliments to the teacher for making it work in the current situation.”

Right now, the school doesn’t have any other potential funding sources to fill that void, McCracken said.

“[Winning] would be a wonderful way to start with all the pieces, instead of trying to seek them out and put them together ourselves.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...