By now, you may have heard of the Satan shoes.
In March, a “company” called MSCHF injected a drop of its employees’ blood into the soles of 666 pairs of red-and-black Nike Air Max trainers. It added a pentagram-shaped charm to the laces, the words “Luke 10:18” – a reference to the Bible passage, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” – along the side, and named them after the devil. The trainers went on sale for more than $1,000 (£740) each; 665 sold in under a minute.
No one was more displeased by the Satan shoe, made in collaboration with the US rapper, Lil Nas X, than Nike. As the company told the Guardian: “We do not have a relationship with Little Nas X or MSCHF. Nike did not design or release these shoes and we do not endorse them.”
Within a week, Nike had obtained a temporary restraining order against MSCHF. By early April, MSCHF had agreed to accept “voluntary returns” as part of a settlement but, given the resale value running into thousands of dollars, it seems unlikely that any buyers would seek a refund.
The remaining pair of Satan shoes resides in the Brooklynheadquarters of MSCHF, where 15 or so employees continue to design, develop and “drop” artwork, apps and clothes every two weeks. These range from trainers filled with holy water (Jesus shoes) to a £30,000 Damien Hirst spot painting cut into pieces (customers could bid on a single spot).
Founded in 2016 by the content whiz, Gabriel Whaley, and often dubbed “the Banksy of the internet” for its creative guerrillaism, it is perhaps easier to define MSCHF by what it is not. It is not a company in a traditional sense. They do not make commercial goods, are not open to clients, and do not work on anyone’s behalf.
Kevin Wiesner, 29, one of MSCHF’s creative directors, describes it as an “art collective” . “Performance art is [another] good term to use,” he says.
In a year largely without catwalks or in-store drops, the Satan shoes have become more of a talking point than any pair of Air Jordans or Yeezys. The Nike lawsuit simply reinforced their cult status. And it is this very culture of hype that drives MSCHF to make pieces such as the Satan shoes as “a send-up of consumerism”.
The Satan shoes are the latest in a long line of drops that are part-prank, part-social commentary, drawn from the French technique of détournement (taking a familiar image and making a version of it in direct opposition to its meaning) and shining a spotlight on the evils of capitalism. Warhol meets Duchamp. Or perhaps, the Vetements DHL t-shirt meets Banksy.
Released in 2019, the Jesus shoes – Nike trainers that contained water from the Jordan River and were blessed by a priest – preceded the Satan shoes. Featuring frankincense-scented insoles and a crucifix pendant, they were one of the most Googled shoes of the year.
They are interested in the diminishing credibility of fashion collaborations. “There are enough [collaborations] that the word has started to lose its meaning” says Wiesner. “If two arbitrary brands are co-releasing products at any given time either the collaboration is meaningless or the distinctions between the brands are.” Both shoes are intended to mock the religious fervour around global-scale corporations.
“When you think about [the Jesus shoes or Satan shoes], we are grabbing the cultural behemoth that is Christianity and using that as a building block. The next question obviously is: where do you get another symbol that can stand on a level playing field with a cross?” he adds, possibly alluding to Nike’s swoosh.
Yet while Nike took legal action over the Satan shoes, it ignored the Jesus version. Wiesner is not able to discuss the Nike settlement but queries it in a statement on MSCHF’s cryptic website, adding that both trainers “conflate celebrity collab culture and brand worship with religious worship into a limited edition line of art objects”.
“There’s also the idea, with the shoes in particular, that nothing is sacred – whether that’s Jesus, Satan, or a $43,000 Birkin bag,” he says.
The collective is not fashion-focused but fashion tends to inspire its most interesting work. For February’s Birkinstocks it cut up four secondhand Hermès Birkin bags and grafted them on to Birkenstock cork soles to create “the most exclusive sandals ever made”.
As for the Banksy comparisons, “we’ll take it” says Wiesner, though he prefers comparisons to Warhol, the KLF and Duchamp.
Funding is unclear – even secondhand Birkin bags can cost £20,000 each, so how does a Brooklyn art collective buy four of them? According to the New York Times, which quoted the Securities and Exchange Commission, MSCHF has raised more than £8m in “outside investments” since 2019.
Wiesner maintains that, where relevant, selling things is part of the stunt. “The work isn’t the shoe. It’s the entire story around the shoe, in which the people who bought, the people who love it, and the people who desperately try to flip it for profit all enhance the overall work,” he says. “When we see a system, we’ve gotta break it … the intensity of associations make it more potent to work with.
“Capitalism! Hell yeah, we’ll take it all on. ”