In May 2012, Nike partnered with artist and self-described bricoleur Tom Sachs on an extremely limited NIKEcraft capsule collection. Launched in conjunction with his SPACE PROGRAM: Mars exhibit, which featured fabricated lunar modules and actors in space suits in an installation meant to emulate a Mars landing.
The NIKEcraft collection consisted of a waterproof reversible trench, with a reflective lining adorned with Sachs' signature art style depicting the periodic table of the elements and atomic electron configurations, a lightweight hooded Marsfly jacket with a Sachs' 10 Bullets patch on the chest, and a lightweight tote utilizing materials normally used in automotive air bags, boat sails and even space suits.
Of course, the most anticipated item in the collection was the Mars Yard Shoe. Designed with NASA mechanical engineer Tommaso Rivellini in mind, the sneaker spoke to space-age materials and the casual dress codes of the world's most innovative minds.
"The rocket scientist uniform of today is faded jeans, a golf shirt, and sneakers. These shoes are built to support the bodies of the strongest minds in the aerospace industry," writes Tom Sachs in his description for the sneaker.
The shoe itself is built on the sole of the Nike Special Forces Boot, with a tread meant to provide traction on the simulated Martian terrain in Pasadena, California, while the uppers utilized vectran ripstop material used in the Mars Excursion Rover airbags.
Despite passing rigorous wear tests and durability tests prior to launching, over the years Tom Sachs and his team discovered what he refers to as "an unknown" when it came to the shoe's materials. With rigorous wear and stress on one particular area, the vectran fabric tended to rip from fatigue.
But through that failure, Tom Sachs and Nike were able to learn and improve. The Tom Sachs x NIKEcraft Mars Yard 2.0 replaces the vectran with a more durable polyester warp-knit tricot mesh, which is eminently more breathable and flexible. Nike describes the material as something that's "not sexy but honest," but in that way it actually provides more of a parallel with Sachs' oeuvre.
"This isn’t a reissue," emphasizes Sachs. "It’d be easy to see this as a reissue, because from across the room it looks the same, but it’s got new material and a couple of small changes. Things went wrong last time, and we addressed each and every one of those."
In addition, the SFB sole has been modified after feedback that the desert-minded sole often slipped on smooth surfaces like tile and steel.
“We inverted the little nipples at the bottom," notes Sachs. "Our affluent urban users—which is our true constituency—needed inverted nipples so it works on slippery concrete and steel surfaces that you encounter in the city.”
To launch the shoe, Sachs' studio and Nike have opened the Tom Sachs Space Camp on New York City's Governor's Island. Carrying elements from Sachs' Space Program, the exhibit consists of a screening of A Hero's Journey, a film by Van Neistadt and starring Sachs and members of his team, and several obstacles inspired by the thrice-a-week calisthenics Sachs makes his team perform in the studio.
But perhaps the most important inspiration behind the exhibit is failure.
"This exhibition is about failure," says Sachs. "It’s about personal failure. Everything in here you will do to failure."
Indeed, in order to buy the shoes one must complete the multi-stage course, which is a test of mental and physical abilities. Each station has an "easy" path or "hard" one, but no one person is meant to pass with flying colors.
After watching the film, space campers are then indoctrinated in a changing room modeled after Sachs' studio. Before undergoing the course, they're given customized Nike Dri-Fit tees emblazoned with Sachs' NASA logos and Nike warm-up pants. Part of it feels like an elite training program, and part of it feels like joining a cult.
Every station is rigged to Sachs' specifications and is imbued with his signature art style, but with a touch of Nike's sports heritage. In that, one can really see the commonalities professional athletes have with professional artists.
"Athletes and artists have the privilege and curse of doing what they love, so they only have a busman’s holiday—it’s a 7-day-a-week, 24-hours-a-day job," says Sachs. "The things that you exhibit in a place like this, or the moves you display on the court, are things you have mastery over, but behind every mastered move there is 10,000 hours of failure."
The exhibit tests space campers' upper-body strength in rope climbs, dexterity in line-drawing, and balance in several platform-jumping exercises that almost seem pulled out of Ninja Warrior. Yesterday, we gave a sneak preview of what attendees can expect to see in a Facebook Live video.
But for all of Sachs' reverence for NASA and other American institutions like McDonald's, he remains keenly aware of the exploitation and human cost that got the country into its prosperous state.
"We got to the moon by abducting people from Africa and forcing them to work in the fields to gain economic independence from Europe and build an industrial force so powerful that we could build rockets, go to the moon, and kill God," says Sachs. "It’s an incredible thing that was built on unbelievable sorrow and torture. America’s a complex place, so you have to look at it both ways."
Though Sachs considers himself a citizen of the world, he is decidedly not a fan of President Trump, who he describes as "an embarrassment." But he does think the controversy and fervor ignited by the current administration can be viewed as a positive wake-up call for all people to take a more active role in learning about the issues that divide the country, and its history of attempting to sweep its past sins under the rug.
Like the exhibit suggests, slight improvement is built only through countless failures. And perhaps if it can work for artists, athletes, and people who just want a chance to buy his shoe, maybe it's also something America can learn from.
"I hope that my art works to represent the breadth and complexity of all these issues and isn’t just one thing. It’s there to help you come to terms with these things for yourself."
The Tom Sachs x NikeCRAFT Space Camp exhibit is open from June 8-18. June 8-11 dates are currently booked, but the 15-18 time windows will be available soon at nike.com.
For more information on the Mars Yard 2.0 sneaker, check out this post.