The vancomycin family of glycopeptide antibiotics has been inspiring research in the field of synthetic chemistry since the 1980s. Recent studies have moved away from the focus of total synthesis into new territory: the design and evaluation of novel compounds based on the natural products which exhibit improved antibacterial activity. Modern approaches to drug synthesis draw together investigations into the nature of the binding environment, and innovative synthetic methodologies which provide solutions to the challenging structural features and stereochemistry associated with this intriguing class of compounds. New analogues, derivatives and dimers of the natural products, as well as recent successes in the total synthesis of the complestatins are described in this tutorial review, covering literature from the last decade. © 2012 The Royal Society of Chemistry.