Masters of Their Craft: 10 Years of Tom Sachs and Nike's NikeCraft Partnership
Tom Sachs is one of the most famous and influential contemporary artists in the world today, known for his fascination with outer space and NASA, his playful-yet-impactful critiques of consumer culture, his bricolage-style practice and, of course, his NikeCraft efforts with Nike. 2022 marks 10 years of NikeCraft, so we're taking a stroll down memory lane and highlighting the most memorable moments from the partnership's first decade. Houston, we have liftoff!
2012: Mars Yard
Though Sachs and Nike's partnership produced its first products in 2012, the story actually begins in 2009. That was the year when Sachs and then-Nike CEO Mark Parker came face to face and the idea was born. There are two different versions of this story: one, told in Howie Kahn and Alex French's book Sneakers is that Sachs, hosting an event in Paris, saw Parker and decided to give him a hard time.
'I was basically bashing Nike really hard for making crappy stuff,' Sachs said in Sneakers. 'And at one point, Parker, was like, "You know, Tom, you're really good at talking sh*t, but you haven't really designed anything. So I'm going to put the challenge to you: Show me how to do it, man".' ,
The other version is that Sachs and Parker began talking when the latter was trying to put together 'STAGES' a Nike-sponsored exhibition for Lance Armstrong's charity with artists ranging from KAWS to Shepard Fairey and Sachs himself. When the two were talking, Sachs mentioned to Parker that Nike sneakers didn't adapt to the needs of his team – which, as far as he saw it, were the same needs an astronaut would have. This cordial chat led Parker to offer Sachs a shot at designing his own Nike sneakers.
No matter what happened, the end result was the first Mars Yard sneaker, released after three years of R&D. Nike performance sneakers are often designed with a specific athlete in mind, but the Mars Yard stretched the definition of an 'athlete' – Sachs wanted to make the perfect shoe for a mechanical engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. The exact engineer was Tommaso Rivellini, the man who invented the airbags used for the Mars Rover missions, and the shoe was named after the testing ground that the Mars Rover was trialled on.
The first Mars Yard sneaker introduced Sachs' signature tan-and-red colour scheme, borrowed an outsole from Nike's SFB Boots, took detailing from the lunar overshoes astronauts wore on Apollo lunar missions and featured an upper made of Vectran fabric – the same material used on Rivellini's Mars Rover airbags. It debuted alongside Sachs' 'Space Program 2.0: Mars' exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. The shoes were also accompanied by the first set of NikeCraft apparel, jackets and totes made of materials like mainsails from boats and automotive airbags with details like hidden storage compartments, paracords and more. Sachs doubled down on his outer space theme with this apparel: it was meant to offer features that would prove useful in a 'voyage through space.'
Also of note is that staff at 'Space Program 2.0: Mars' were gifted a pair of Tom Sachs x Nike x Cole Haan (then under the Nike corporate umbrella) 'Mission Control' wingtips, a Swoosh-ified brogue that was designed with assistance from Salehe Bembury, who was an Innovation Designer at Cole Haan back in 2012.
2013-2017: Mars Yard 2.0
After the first Mars Yard and the Space Camp exhibit, the partnership between Sachs and Nike briefly went silent – but behind the scenes, Sachs was tinkering like always. The original Mars Yard sneaker didn't live up to the famously fickle artist's expectations, and Mark Parker suggested running it back. 'When Parker suggested re-releasing the Mars Yard, I first thought, "Ew, gross, crude, crass commercialism",' Sachs told Esquire. 'But then I realized it was an opportunity to fix something I was embarrassed by.' The result was 2017's NikeCraft Mars Yard 2.0, an updated and upgraded version of the original Mars Yard.
'[The first Mars Yard] passed the abrasion test,' said Sachs. 'It passed the strength test. It passed the folding test. It passed all the tests, but when we started using it it didn't meet our expectations. It's not until you really wear something and realize ... we used a new material, and we expected better.' The main issues faced by the original Mars Yard were twofold, one on the top and one on the bottom. Vectran is a tough, durable material, but it wasn't made for sneakers and it would tear somewhat quickly with wear. This wobbliness extended to the sole, which would wear down much more rapidly than Sachs expected.
To fix these problems, the Mars Yard 2.0 replaced Vectran with a breathable polyester warp-knit tricot mesh that increased durability and reduced annoying 'hot spots' on the interior. The tongue and heel tab – or, as Sachs called them, the 'donning straps' – were secured to the upper with a stronger X-shaped box stitch than the original versions, and the tread of the outsole was inverted to make it more adaptable to urban environments as original SFB tread was designed for trails. Sachs even gave Mars Yard 2.0 wearers their choice of mesh or cork insoles!
Another interesting feature is that Sachs designed the 2.0 to get dirty quickly – he abhorred the idea of his shoes being resold or stashed. '[Someone] keeping the shoes on a shelf and never wearing them is my worst nightmare ... the main thing my shoes do is they embrace the concept of transparency. The midsole will show filth – they have stain-amplifying features. They show other people that, 'Hey, I was here, and I did something.' Even the shoebox nods to this, stating that the Mars Yard 2.0 is only 'valid once worn, and worn to death by YOU.'
2012's Mars Yard was far from a misfire, but it was the Mars Yard 2.0 that made Sachs a sneaker superstar. If you wanted to get a pair, you had to hope for a spot in one of Sachs' 'space camps', events held in New York and London that brought parts of his studio practice to life for the general public. After watching The Hero's Journey, a nearly 40-minute film of a girl who quits her desk job to work at Sach's studio and has a brief cameo from Frank Ocean, attendees were put through ten tests, from climbing ropes to tying knots and making tiny Tom Sachs x Nike-branded satellites out of clay. Only after that could the shoes be purchased, though they did drop on the Nike website weeks after the event.
Though Sachs may be an avowed opponent of reselling, his shoes aren't averse to aftermarket dollars. In 2022, the Mars Yard 2.0 regularly sells for over $5,000.
2018-2019: Mars Yard Overshoe and Kids' Mars Yards
Sachs may have cured the ills of the first Mars Yard and established himself as a certified sneaker legend with the Mars Yard 2.0, but he wasn't even close to being done. Though the 2.0 was leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor, it still flat-out sucked in inclement weather – rain went right through the upper!
In 2018, Sachs' endless tinkering lead to the creation of the Mars Yard Overshoe, a weatherproofed version of the past two releases. A red and tan Mars Yard sneaker with a boot-like baby blue midsole plus technical buckles sat inside Sachs' solution to inclement weather, namely a Dyneema shroud. Dyneema is an ultra-tough and lightweight fibre that can be found in boat sails and ropes, making it the perfect solution to keep the elements away without increasing bulk. You could wear this shroud all the way up to keep rain, sleet and snow away from your kicks, or roll it down to avoid getting hot when conditions improved. 'Its nickname is the March Yard – for March, the worst month of the year,' Sachs quipped when the shoe released.
There was even a third way to wear the overshoe: without any shroud at all. Though it may not have been the intended purpose, many enterprising sneakerheads and amateur customisers took a razor blade or X-Acto knife to the Vectran shroud, cutting it off completely to reveal the Mars Yard within.
The Mars Yard Overshoe was accompanied by Paradox Bullets, a 23-minute offshoot of Sachs' famous Ten Bullets film and the first time the shoe had ever been seen. Besides Paradox Bullets, the Mars Yard Overshoe was joined by Sachs and Nike's most technically advanced piece of apparel yet: the 'exploding poncho.' The poncho came as a slimline pack that can be wrapped around the wearer's waist, but when its ripcord is pulled it billows outwards into a full-fledged weather-resistant garment, complete with Sachs/Nike branding. A pair of special shorts completed the offering
A year later in 2019, Sachs released the Mars Yard in both toddler and crib sizes. These pint-sized, flexible-soled Mars Yards were inspired by the newest 'member' of Sachs' studio team: his 10-year-old son Guy Louis Armstrong Sachs. 'Bottom line, my son is on the sculpture team now,' said Sachs in a Nike press release.' He's an important part of the team and he's got his French work smock, his 10 bullets onesie and, now, he has his Mars Yards. The shoe is very, very flexible and that's what you ultimately want when developing a strong new member of the team – you don't want a lot of structure.' Lastly, Sachs was spotted wearing some truly wacky Solarsoft sandals – that seemed to be a one-off prototype as they never released – and images of an unreleased, 1-of-30 Mars Yard sneakerboot made the rounds as well.
2020-2021: Mars Yard 2.5
With the Mars Yard 2.0 firmly entrenched as one of the very best sneakers of the 2010s, Sachs was sneaker royalty – even if being so was never his intention. Rumours of new Mars Yard releases seemed to pop up monthly, and the signature Mars Yard colour scheme was reused on in-line Nike releases from the OverBreak to the SB Team Classic. Sachs also hosted an online 'I.R.S.U.' program during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, encouraging NikeCraft fans to stay creative from home.,
Then, in November 2020, Sachs was spotted in what appeared to be a new Mars Yard sneaker. It featured the same familiar tan and red colour scheme as its predecessors but was bolstered with a black rubber toe cap, lightened with TPE panelling and featured a new-jack lacing system. Shortly thereafter, Sachs was spotted in yet another unreleased Mars Yard design, this one featuring an ACG Mountain Fly-style combination of a toothed rubber outsole and a cushy React foam midsole.
As the buzz for the new Mars Yard grew more and more intense, Sachs revealed the model's name (the Mars Yard 2.5) and precisely what it had been made for: an extensive wear test. This time, the wear test was global. Sachs asked potential participants to post a one-minute video to their Instagram feed explaining why they should be selected. The lucky few who were made the cut were sent a pair, then asked to wear the shoes as they went about their daily lives, record their experiences and log feedback with the NikeCraft team. In between tests, the shoes would be sent back to be sanitised and repaired, then mailed back to the participants.
'With this particular challenge, we are engaging people to really think about [the Mars Yard 2.5] and bring different perspectives, both culturally and environmentally,' said Sachs. 'This is an opportunity to invite a larger audience to really indulge in our favourite part of the process – learning about things and making stuff. The process is the most valuable thing, and if the end result is a great pair of shoes, that’s fantastic, but I think it’s really important that the testing process celebrates the journey.'
Sachs would also ask the Mars Yard 2.5 wear-testers to partake in special activities, which he'd post on his personal Instagram page or YouTube channel. These were wide-ranging – one, an 'architecture mission' tapped wear-testers with picking five architectural points, visiting and documenting them and then making a map of the experience, while another, the 'output before input' challenge asked wear-testers to wake up five minutes before they normally would and work on developing new creative habits – and taught participants one of Sachs' main principles, namely that doing something is the best way to learn how to do it 'correctly.'
Over the course of the wear test, Sachs gave 150 testers the Mars Yard 2.5, and was able to accumulate over 216,000 hours of real-time data. What Sachs is planning on doing with this data is something that only he knows!
2022-Beyond: General Purpose Shoe
All that's listed above has led us to now: 10 years of constant innovation, tinkering and feedback through NikeCraft, an effort that's worked to both (partially) satiate Sachs' inscrutable curiosity while providing sneakerheads and art lovers alike a new way to interpret their worlds.
At the top of 2022, the latest sneaker project from Sachs and Nike leaked. It's slimmer, sleeker and less technical-looking than his Mars Yard shoes – some compare it to the Killshot, a Nike tennis classic, while we also see a little bit of Waffle One in the design – and it's called the General Purpose Shoe. At face value, this may mean that it's a shoe designed for everyday living, the ultimate product of Sachs' footwear 'research' through NikeCraft. However, Sachs is never one to do the expected, and we're sure both he and NikeCraft have more surprises up their sleeves for us over these next ten years.