Tom Sachs Discusses Failure, Selecting Materials and Collaborating with Nike for the Mars Yard Shoe 2.0

The history of the Tom Sachs x NIKEcraft Mars Yard Shoe is, without a doubt, one for the books. Releasing 5 years ago, the first Mars Yard Shoe took both the sneaker and design worlds by storm. Promising to deliver superior stability in rough terrains, the shoe featured premium technical materials, including the soles of the Nike Special Forces Boot and ridiculously strong Vectran fabric from the Mars Excursion Rover airbags.

The only issue? For many owners, the Vectran creased and tore after just a few wears, proving failure can reveal itself even after vigorous testing. Instead of going into hiding, Sachs and Nike got to work designing The Mars Yard Shoe 2.0—an updated version of the sneaker that incorporates thick mesh in place of the Vectran.

The Mars Yard Shoe 2.0
Foam detail on the tongue
All the goods brought back from the Space Camp pilgrimage

For the release of the sneakers, Sachs also held Space Camp, an obstacle course located on Governors Island, which was meant to make purchasing the sneakers more challenging for resellers and to spark a conversation around failure in the design process. The course included a series of 10 obstacles, ranging from landing a miniature helicopter to climbing and sliding down the hood of a pick-up truck. All proving to be somewhat challenging, the obstacles quickly reminded you that success is no walk in the park.

After spending the day at at Space Camp, Sachs walked us through his NASA studio space in Soho, as well as his views on sneaker culture, what it means to fail as a designer, selecting the right materials and how to handle working with massive companies like Nike:

C77: The packaging of the Mars Yard Shoe 2.0 (the zine, the type on the box, etc.) is about more than just a sneaker. It’s a testament to the meaning of possession—what it means to possess and what people decide to do with their possessions…

TS: It seems that, like every great civilization, we’re at this phase which is very close to the end, and it’s called decadence. In this time where dogs have private jets taking them around to meet us in different destinations on one end, and people are struggling for food on the other, that we’ve not been able to coordinate our resources so that things are more even is a pretty big indication that we’re at or past some peak.

“These shoes are only valid if worn by you. Posers need not apply.”
A page in the zine on cost and possession

With this great decadence and this sort of impending doom also comes some good thinking and some amazing analysis. There’s always an opportunity to become self-aware. I’m not saying that you can stop the tides, because total destruction is the only solution. But, if you can kind of come to terms with the things in your life, that’s one way of understanding your mortality and making the most of your life.

We’re always looking to find more meaning in the things that we’re attached to. Repair your things before you replace them. Use them until their end or yours. Pass them on when they don’t work for you anymore instead of having your possessions control you. Sneakers have always been a coveted thing for me. I remember mowing the lawn all summer to get my first pair of Nikes when I was 15—when there were something like three available models—because they were lighter, I played soccer, and it was a fantastic fun little performance tweak to obsess over.

Sachs’ studio space in Soho

Things have gone so far that I think there’s an opportunity with this shoe to embrace experience. These aren’t meant to be put on a shelf, but to be worn and worn to death. The transparent nature of the materials—that they don’t hide stains but show them, that they’re the natural materials of polyurethane and rubber and pigskin and nylon and polyester—tells a story of how they’re made. I think that makes them unlike any other shoe. They are self-aware or something.

We’re really beginning to have sort of an accelerated detachment from the hand that has been able to provide us unbelievable quality at lower costs and incredible consumer choice with possibly endless variations. This is echoed in all things from food to pornography, where every possible whim and desire and culture and option is presented before us.

How do you feel about all the Mars Yard Shoe 2.0 reselling that’s already been cycling through eBay? At one point, they were reselling for around $1400.

If you go first, you should expect it to hurt. I think it’s fine they cost $2,000. They’ll cost 200 next month, and if you want them now, pay, and if you want them in a month, pay something different then. There’s a benefit to getting them now—you’re first, and there’s a cost.

The “Nike Test Lab”
Mars Yard Shoes put through the ringer
A neat ceiling footwear storage solution.

I think reselling is embarrassing for the people who do it. It’s kind of shameful. I don’t understand businesses that are just about generating money. I don’t understand trading as something that helps us. Banking makes the world go ’round and creates more money, but it’s not really doing anything—it’s shuffling. And that’s true whether you’re trading sneakers or trading stocks or options or futures or whatever. I have a hard time explaining to myself how trading works because money itself is such an abstract concept, and it takes us away from, again, the most important thing in life, which is experience.

Keeping your most expensive sneakers in storage due to rarity is kind of this backwards notion. We feel like we need to preserve things that are inevitably going to deteriorate…

It seems that the majority values money over experience, and those people are simply representing the majority. It’s very easy, because money does control us and we have to do so many things for money, to get confused for a second and think that because something is expensive, you should take extra care of it. You should take care of everything equally, whether that shoe is $10 or $1,000. Because then you get the best experience out of it, and the best things in life are free.

Cord eye candy

Your experience with the Mars Yard Shoe exposes the design process as a trial-and-error, failing to then succeed eventually type of cycle. By exposing these truths, what do you hope to show people, especially those that aren’t involved in design?

I hope that we can come to terms and accept that things fail. Not on purpose, like planned obsolescence. This is my attempt to make something that didn’t fail so you could buy another one. I was wrong, I made a mistake. I feel very honored that I was allowed to correct that mistake. Some people and systems and things are not as forgiving. I was very lucky that we didn’t make enough of them last time, and it was good that we didn’t make enough because they fell apart. But that people loved it so much despite its failure that we were allowed to make another one so more people could have it… people seem really happy about that.

Did Nike think you were crazy for wanting to make the Mars Yard Shoe 2.0 about how you guys failed the first time around?

No, because Nike is a company populated by championship athletes, and all athletes know that in order to fail, you must succeed. I think they’re a company that embraces failure. If you look at their public relations profile, they, like everyone else, fuck things up constantly but have used failure as a lever. I think that’s one of the things that makes them shine—that they embrace what’s wrong. I mean, there are plenty of reasons to hate any big company. In order to be that big, they have to do things that smaller companies wouldn’t dare do. But embracing failure is the core of growth. Once you can really go for something, you’re not afraid of failing.

If you’re trying to get to new places, you will always fail. Even if you break that record, there’s always that record to be broken. So, you’re never really succeeding; you’re just trying as hard as you can, leveraging your assets and doing what you can to grow. But failure is sort of the name of the game. I can’t remember what it is in baseball, but if you hit the ball half the time as a batter, you’re like the greatest player that’s ever lived. If you hit it just a little bit less, you’re still pretty good. But if you only hit it two out of five times, you’re in the minor leagues. So basically, even the best people are failing more than they’re succeeding; they’re just failing a little bit less. Babe Ruth was still mostly a loser.

There isn’t a lot of language for failure. We’re in this horrible world of Barry’s Boot Camp, push harder, “Is that all you got?” “Well, no. But it’s a long road, and I gave all I got, and that’s why my elbow hurts three months later.”

And failure is such a harsh word—people are afraid of it simply because of how it’s used.

Guess what? It’s coming to a life near you. Death: The ultimate failure of your life. It’s unavoidable. No one can escape it.

Prototypes in the works
Chandelier
The basement workroom

Space camp itself was kind of designed to make you fail over and over, but somehow you go through it and still felt encouraged to finish. How do you approach that line of knowing that people are going to fail but then also wanting to encourage them at the same time?

Well, we don’t want you to fail—we want you to succeed. But we also want you to push to the limit of failure, and fail, and go beyond it. That’s what happens in the studio in practice here, but when we do an art show, we don’t want the work to fail. We don’t want the work to be incomplete. We want to show our best. But sort of like in basketball—you practice the moves that you’ve mastered, and you use the moves that you’ve mastered in the game, but you don’t really practice moves that you haven’t mastered in the game. You could try, but you’re putting yourself at a lot of risk, and that can be embarrassing.

Real champions practice and rehearse and practice and rehearse and fail on their own time. In the studio, we make a lot of sculptures that no one ever sees; sculptures that are not successful. Behind every one sculpture that’s out there, there are ten sculptures in this room that are not complete.

Hopefully we succeed by doing our failures on our own time. Because if you only do what you know, what you’re good at, you kind of are a prostitute. You’re just doing it for the money. You’re not doing it for the love of it.

Do you have any advice for designers collaborating with a massive company like Nike?

Know your strengths and weaknesses. You’re small, you care more. You’re willing to stay up all night. Your number one job is doing the job. You don’t have money, they do. Understand their strengths and weaknesses, that they have money and machines and capabilities, that their number one job is keeping their machine going, which is different from yours.

Understand where your worlds intersect and expand on those. Develop on those. Make something that’s 50% you and 50% Nike. Don’t just decorate one of their things. Push the limits. Demand more of them. Demand the impossible. Be realistic and demand the impossible. They are slow, you are fast.

Make your important decisions early because you won’t be able to change them later. They’re like a big ship that can go much farther than you can, but is harder to steer. So, if you make your steering moves early, you have a better chance of them getting to the end. Don’t let it fail because of you. Take extra time to plan those moves, and think about them early. Once you have to get going, you have to make decisions very, very quickly. And then you have to wait. And then you have to make more decisions very quickly. So, plan ahead.

Was it challenging to adjust to not being able to fix things on your own right away?

Yeah, it continues to be a challenge, but that’s part of the exchange. We were able to find something that was 50/50, and this kind of a collaboration has been much better. The first time I was learning. I have a great relationship with the designers at Nike, but the first time around was difficult. And I said “Never again” after last time, but of course, five years later, I’m doing it. I don’t have any regrets because I knew how to handle myself better—I knew what things to fight for, what things to let go. They have different strengths than I do, and I think it was very hard for me to accept that—to accept their weaknesses and to accept my own.

Cord/tool eye candy all over the place

How attached were you to using the Vectran?

The Vectran was something really exciting because I got it from NASA, and it was this abrasion-proof stronger than steel miracle material. I even had this idea that the Vectran would last forever, and then the sole would wear out and you just replace the sole. I have a pair of re-soled ones. Besides what went wrong, the idea of Vectran was really exciting. I thought I had discovered something that no one had discovered. I think that you could use Vectran in a different way—in fact, Nike Flywire is Vectran. So, if you keep it in tension as it’s intended to, it’ll do its thing. I think there was too much folding fatigue, and I didn’t plan for that. But I loved it, and I loved the storytelling in that it worked with the whole Mars thing.

A page of the zine showing what went wrong with the first Mars Yard Shoe

It’s important to note that in engineering you always want to use the least exotic material. You don’t want to use Vectran or Technora or Dyneema when you could use nylon or polyester or polypropylene for a rope or something. Those really exotic things have problems. Like Technora, which is the strongest possible rope. Technora is not UV-tolerant, so you need to keep it in a black sheath or in a bag, and then it comes out of the bag when you need it. They use that at NASA. But if the guys at NASA can use nylon or polyester, they will first. There’s got to be a reason, like a serious weight-saving or performance reason.

Do you think you still would’ve designed the Mars Yard 2.0 if you had been completely satisfied the first time around?

I think there’s always something to do. I don’t think there’ll be a third Mars Yard, but there may be a related product someday that has different applications. There are other planets to conquer.

***

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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