'It was really unfair,' Toronto teen says after her Hong Kong-themed shoe removed from contest

Naomi So of Toronto says she's disappointed in apparel company Vans after the Hong Kong protest-themed shoe design she entered in a contest she was on track to win was pulled.

Naomi So says her design was in 1st place in Vans contest before it was removed from website

Naomi So, 17, shows CBC News the design she submitted for the Vans shoe design contest. She says it went through a first round of approval before it could be voted on. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

A Toronto teen is finding out just how controversial making an artistic statement about the unrest in Hong Kong can be: her shoe design garnered hundreds of thousands of votes, but suddenly disappeared from an online contest.

Naomi So's family has roots in the former British colony that the 17-year-old has visited several times, so she decided to create a Hong Kong-themed shoe for the Custom Culture design contest held by Vans —  an American manufacturer of skateboarding and other footwear and apparel.

"My mom and dad have been keeping up with the Hong Kong news, and from that I became interested and researched more on what was happening," she told CBC Toronto. 

Naomi, whose family asked that CBC News not show her face or reveal the location of her school, found out that pro-democracy demonstrators have been protesting in the streets for months in sometimes violent clashes with police. She also learned it all started with a bill that would allow people accused of crimes to be extradited to mainland China. 

Using ink as her medium, the shoe is mostly black and yellow — the colours worn by protesters. The design also includes a red Bauhinia flower, Hong Kong's floral emblem. 

Naomi says her interest in the Hong Kong protests came from her parents following the news. The Toronto teen says she's visited Hong Kong several times. (

There's also the image of an umbrella along with faceless protesters wearing helmets and rain jackets — symbols of what So calls "an impactful event in history."

Art has always been a part of the 17-year-old's life, and the idea of potentially winning a $25,000 cash prize and a chance to collaborate with her favourite shoe company seemed pretty exciting too.

That opportunity was close to becoming a reality. Naomi said that earlier this month, when voting began, her shoe shot up to more than 200,000 votes in just a few days, putting her in first place, and the runner-up had around 10,000 votes.

"It was really surprising and I was excited," she said. "I felt very grateful that so many people supported me and liked my design."

CBC Toronto reporter Talia Ricci speaks with Naomi in a park. She and her family wanted the teen's face hidden during the interview. (Turgut Yeter/CBC )

But on the fourth day of the contest, friends who were eagerly following along told her the entry had disappeared.

"It was really unfair, I thought, because Vans didn't contact me to understand the meaning behind my shoe," she said.

"I thought it was unfair that they had taken it down even though it went through a moderation approval and was allowed to be voted on."

Naomi also said she felt the decision disrespected her ability to freely express herself as an artist.

Vans responds

Vans released a statement on Facebook about the decision to remove "a small number of artistic submissions" based on the global competition's guidelines. It's been met with a flurry of comments on social media.

"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," the statement reads.

It also says the company "greatly appreciates 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."

Naomi said Vans sent her a similar statement when the company responded to an email she sent them after she noticed the shoe had been removed. 

Not a good PR move, professor says

Chris MacDonald, an associate professor at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management, said he doesn't think the company handled the situation gracefully.

"I realize they don't want to be putting forward something that was politically controversial, but they could've found a way to honour the commitment they implicitly made," said MacDonald, who teaches ethics and critical thinking.

Chris MacDonald, an associate professor at Ryerson University, says Vans should have found a compromise to honour Naomi's votes and talent. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

He said Vans should have honoured the teen's votes and talent through a compromise of sorts.

"They may have had public relations in mind when they made the move to avoid controversy, but I think the net result is going to be worse controversy than they would've had otherwise," he said.

"Hopefully, it turns into a great business opportunity for this young woman."

'Lots of support'

Naomi said most of the responses have been positive.

"I got lots of support," she said, adding that smaller companies have been reaching out to collaborate with her and potentially help her make her design come to life. 

Despite the art opportunities coming in, the teen plans to study nursing in university because she wants to help people. But art will continue to be an important part of her life.

"I think it's important for people to express whatever they want through art because developing something beautiful for others to relate to and engage in, is very important in this day and age," she said.

"Some feelings are not easily expressed through words."


Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She has travelled around the globe with her camera documenting people and places as well as volunteering. Talia enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she's not reporting, you can find her reading or strolling the city with a film camera.