Tom Sachs Wants to Change the Way You Look at Sneakers

Tom Sachs is not here for the hype.

The artist behind the NikeCraft Mars Yard, a highly sought-after silhouette that’s valued at over $8,000 on the resale market (depending on which version you get), is musing in his New York studio about getting his Nike sneakers to the most accessible point they’ve ever been in his decade with the brand.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if people could have shoes that represent the humility of doing the work?” he says as he references the artists, photographers, and blue-collar workers that were the inspiration for his latest sneaker, the General Purpose Shoe (GPS). “I took that idea of ‘your favorite pair of jeans’ and wanted to make shoes that have that workwear quality.”

Similar to the Mars Yard, the GPS shares the ethos of being made as a tool to be worn every day. Unlike the Mars Yard, which was released in limited pairs and carries an air of prestige among certain sneakerheads, the GPS is Sachs’ most widely available sneaker.

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It’s also his most affordable, with a $110 box price. It actually could’ve even been less, as the artist’s original intent was to have the sneaker retail under $100, but not at the expense of some of the comfort features built into the midsole or other perennial factors that help the shoe maintain its durability (the outsole of the shoe can be resoled after it’s worn out).

“It took me a decade to understand the best practices with sneakers that make it come out to over $200 at retail,” he says. “That’s a lot of money, so $109.99 is a good value to me. It’s not the cheapest, but it really delivers for a Nike product.”

It’s also intentionally built with no frills—an idea that was spotlighted in the sneaker’s debut advertisements that touted it as “Boring,” setting off a wave of commentary among purveyors of streetwear culture.

”I think the Boring ad did a good job of getting to what he’s really been trying to do with NikeCraft for the last ten to fifteen years—he wants his shoes to be worn,” says Leo Sandino Taylor, Nike’s VP of Global Catalyst Brand Management. He admitts that part of the ad was meant to poke fun Internet trolls who were commenting on the GPS’ early leaks. “Tom’s not an anti-sneaker culture guy, it’s more that he wants to know that what he designed works and that people are using them.”

Although Sachs doesn’t believe your sneakers should be the most exciting part of your personality, he does believe that every sneaker has a personality of its own. You can tell by the way he breaks down the small nuances of the GPS.

In between pointing his finger to accentuate the importance of the upturned curve and roundness of the sneaker’s toebox, he tells anecdotes of making several people on his design team cry over having to do it over and over again to get that ever-so-slight detail just right.

“Those subtle distinctions are what makes us happy,” he says. “It’s almost like a car’s headlights and grill are its face. Some cars are happy and some cars are mean, others are sad.”

What’s the GPS’s personality? “I think this represents a joyfulness, while also having a take-no-prisoners, I’m-going-to-get-it-done kind of attitude”

Here, Sachs talks more about making the world’s most boring shoe, how everyone can be an artist, and why everybody should do push-ups.

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I heard that your relationship with Nike actually started after you personally confronted Mark Parker in 2009. Is that true?

I interviewed Mark during Stages in Paris and we had known each other and had been friends for about four or five years by then. I’ve always been a devout consumer. I’m a consumerist, but I’m also a skeptic.

In order to really be a true skeptic, you also have to be a true believer. Nike in a lot of ways is the ultimate consumerist brand, so I remember having a really heated conversation with Mark about what was wrong with Nike and consumerism in general and he said to me: “You think you can do a better job?”

Through that, the Mars Yard was born, and it was a true collaboration in the same way that the GPS today is a true collaboration. In fact, I think the GPS is the fair evolution—ten years after that conversation and all the things that went wrong with the first one.

What were some of the missteps on the first one?

The main thing that went wrong with it, in my view, was that we didn’t make enough of them and they became a cult classic and helped elevate the hype bubble, which to me is not what sneakers are about. To me, it’s about making something that supports you in life while you’re doing other things. But they can also be a great expression of your identity, too.

One of the reasons I always wanted to make sneakers is that I make no distinction between sculpture, painting, a cathedral, or a movie when it comes to shoes. They’re all art to me. It’s all the same approach. They hold the same values of transparency.

When I see someone wearing my shoe, it’s like they’re wearing my sculpture and there’s something really rewarding and humbling about that.

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In the sense that anything can be art, do you believe everybody has some artistic ability?

Absolutely. It’s the same as the saying, “If you have a body, you’re an athlete.” You might not be an elite athlete, but I believe everyone can be an artist. You might not sell your paintings to make a living, but it doesn’t matter what you do. It’s how you do it. That’s kind of the philosophy.

I’m not making this up. There are many people throughout history that’ve believed that this is true, from Joseph Boyd to Thomas Aquinas. The approach you take needs commitment, passion, and doing what you love.

If you don’t know what you love, your first job is finding what you love. Even if that means finding a second job to pay the bills at the same time. Your job is to find your calling. The hero’s journey is to find that.

What was that journey like for you?

Obviously, I’m speaking from a place of extreme privilege because I was lucky enough to find it in my early 20s. I spent a decade doing other things while I was also doing my night job as sculptor. I was finding ways of committing to my life as a welder—which I was trying to get better at, too—and infusing that job with the same spirit I had for my art.

Asking me to weld is actually a secret way to get me to do a job. I’ll always answer the call because you have to stay connected to your roots and you have to do your push-ups.

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Push-ups? Is that like a metaphor or the actual exercise?

Push-ups meaning “practicing your skill.” If you’re a musician, it means knowing your scales. If you’re a pilot, it means reading the latest journals about avionics. Push-ups can mean a lot of things to different people.

That’s a really fascinating approach to your craft. Was that part of the philosophy behind this GPS project?

I grew up in an upper-middle-class house and I had three pairs of sneakers. That was normal and the only way I got new ones was when I grew out of them. Now, look in your closet. You probably have twenty or more.

I thought to myself, “Having twenty pairs of shoes isn’t making my life better. What if we could have less, so we could do more? How could we make it so these sneakers didn’t own you, but you own them.”

When you have that much stuff, your possessions can weigh you down. And if you can have less stuff, then you can focus on the doing of the thing.

I wanted to make a shoe that wouldn’t be a specific running shoe, but a shoe that you could wear all day at work, wear at night when you’re going out, and you can feel confident that it could fit like your favorite pair of jeans.

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Like workwear?

Jeans are workwear, but they’re also acceptable for CEOs of Nike or Apple or whatever. They’re all wearing jeans and a button-down shirt. Traditionally, it’s workwear. Same with this. I wanted to make something that was universal—something that looks better with age, when it rocks a stain.

It’s a canvas for the scars of your labor. If it had all kinds of decorative doodads and it was overcooked, you’d want to keep it perfect, which is a different kind of shoe. This one is really just about letting it be an expression of your life and your adventures.

Of course, it should also be a perennial piece. Something that could last through generations of time and could work on different people, in different sizes, and different colors. That’s why it’s a tremendous triumph that this was produced in a women’s size 5 to a women’s 16.5.

Speaking of that, this is going to be your most widely available Nike shoe. Why was that important to you?

It’s a huge run because traditionally a shoe like this would start at a men’s 7, which would exclude a tremendous amount of the population—mainly women’s sizes.

We are not trying to make a men’s shoe or a women’s shoe. We’re trying to make a shoe for everyone and, in a lot of ways, disrupt the patriarchy that’s hidden within the size production of sneakers across all brands.

That’s the biggest triumph for me in all of this: that it’s an invitation to all and it’s truly a full size run. It might be easy to forget that with all the hype around shoes. But that’s kind of like the important thing about these shoes to me.

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That’s interesting because as consumers we never really think about the whole context, we only think about getting our size.

It’s true and pardon the advertising about it, but it is a story for me personally and it is ultimately something Nike is trying to do. Revolutions start with small things and one thing I’m proud of is that the box leads with women’s sizing first above the men’s sizing. Men are going to have to look at their size second.

I think it’s meaningful. If you had no context, you’d see this as a men’s shoe. But if you stepped back 10,000 feet—it’s a women’s shoe too. Actually, it’s not a women’s shoe or a men’s shoe. It’s a person’s shoe, because all those distinctions about gender are so personal and up to the person. That’s not for me to say. It’s for me to provide.

The “Boring” ad that first showed the GPS sparked a lot of conversation on the Internet when it dropped. What was the intention behind that and what was the comments section like for you?

There’s a rule I follow and that’s: Thou shalt not read thy comments. And you really shouldn’t because that’s the worst place on Earth, but it’s irresistible.

I can tell you what it means to me: I’m always looking to keep things as simple as possible, but not simpler. It’s produced to be value-engineered. To me, those are the best things in my life. I love a pair of 501s. They’re the only jeans I wear. The only watch I wear is a Casio DW5600E and when it breaks after four years, I get a new strap. And when that breaks I’ll buy another one.

I love to clean, repair, and sharpen my old tools instead of buying new ones. I know sculptors who buy new chisels when the old ones get dull because they don’t like to sharpen their chisels.

The values of this shoe are simply about having less, so you can do more. I wanted to have a humbler, simpler expression so the attention isn’t drawn specifically onto the shoe, but to the whole presentation of the person.

I do think the shoes are the most important part of any outfit because it’s what connects you to the earth and it tells the story of where you’ve been and where you’re going. You know, all those metaphors and clichés in literature about shoes are true.

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The latest advertisement for the GPS is a spiritual successor to the “Boring” ad.

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As you talk about these values, it’s kind of ironic that you unintentionally also created some of the most-hyped sneakers in the culture.

That’s why this is for a general release. I did look at a lot of the comments on Instagram that day and it seemed like a quarter of them were like, “How will I get a pair for under $4,000?”

When we say “general release” we mean it. I think all of the people will eventually understand that they can have a pair.

Was this always where you always wanted to get it to since Mars Yard? To have it be affordable and accessible for everybody?

Yes. And personally, the Mars Yard was never what I wanted it to be. I mean it was many things that were wonderful that I never imagined it would be. I never thought it would be the apotheosis of hype culture or this rare holy grail shoe. I’m beyond honored by that. It’s almost like winning an Oscar or something, but I don’t really care about that. What I really wanted was for it to be on people’s feet.

I was frustrated that we didn’t get more of them out there. There were also some problems technically, which is why we did 2.0, but it was too expensive to produce. That was all my own naïveté. It was my first try.

This is what I always wanted to do and where I always wanted the Mars Yard to be. GPS is like a cousin of it. It doesn’t look exactly like it, but you can feel that they’re related.

You can definitely see some connections.

A great body of work by an artist, you should be able to tell that the artist made two different things. There should be some formal language that are visual cues that can connect them

In a lot of ways, that’s why when you see it in this color, there’s some archive cues. We looked into the archive history of colors. Organic colors compounded with bright artificial colors.

There’s a clear expression of everything. Nothing’s hidden. You can see the overlays. You can see the treads and that they’re old waffle treads with the original Nike U.S. patent cast into a new outsole. So it’s a combination of all of these old and new values, but through the lens of our studio.

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I love how you obsess about all of the details. When you think of Nike designers, they design for a specific sport or athlete. Was there a muse you had in mind for when you were making this shoe?

For the Mars Yard, it was always Tommaso Rivellini; he’s the man who holds the U.S. patent for the skycrane landing device for landing spaceships on Mars. He invented multiple ways of doing entry, descent, and landing onto the Mars surface. If Michael Jordan was the best basketball player ever, I wanted to make a shoe for the strongest minds in the aerospace industry.

With GPS, it was more designing for people who work in the studio. We wanted to make a shoe for people on their feet all day—working on table saws or holding cameras or painting—that they could wear all day and go out in that night.

I have a lot of friends who are photographers and I was also imagining a photographer as an athlete. They’re carrying a heavy camera, while being surrounded by people who are judging their appearance. So they can’t just be in a pair of Mephistos, unless you’re going for a normcore look, which I respect.

That’s their lifestyle, but it’s also my lifestyle and it’s also the lifestyle of people in the studio. I think in some ways it’s your lifestyle. There’s a universalness and I wanted to make a general purpose shoe for everyone.

When you’re surrounded by hype all of the time, it’s easier to forget that there’s more to sneakers than that.

There are a lot of people—more than we think—who share these values or want to share these values, but don’t have something that represents these values. This shoe, I hope, can be an opportunity for people to find those values in a shoe and bring them to other parts of their lives.

NikeCraft has been around for over a decade. What do you attribute to it lasting this long?

In 2009, I was brought into Nike to design an Air Force 1 colorway for an anniversary. I remember thinking about it for a while and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it because, as much as I respect the Air Force 1, it didn’t seem like I would be doing enough to just give it a paint job.

I couldn’t figure out exactly why it wasn’t right for me, but I think it’s because it wasn’t a shoe that I wore. That’s when Parker gave me the challenge of doing something that was 50/50 and since then, everything we’ve done has been 50/50. Something that neither could do without the other. And I think that’s something I’ll always do. When it’s not that anymore, that’s when I’ll know it’s time to stop.

Gerald Flores is a freelance writer covering sneakers and sportswear. He lives in Newark, NJ and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @ImGerald.

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