the evolution of tom sachs' NIKECRAFT and the wear tests challenging the future 'mars yard'

Jun 13, 2021

for years, a day in the life of artist tom sachs has begun with a strong cup of coffee and a series of drills — some serious physical feats, others a test of manual dexterity. these drills function to focus the body and mind to the task at hand, and for members of his studio, this means building sculpture. ‘we started doing this because I noticed that as some people in the studio were getting older, they were beginning to demonstrate the same physical symptoms of wear and tear that I had, and I was hoping to protect the young men and women who lay down their lives for our work — I didn’t want them to have bad backs,’ says sachs.

tom sachs’ artistic work has ranged from bricolage sculpture and deconstructed furniture, to full-scale interpretations of the NASA mars mission — but here, we dive into the history of sachs’ longstanding creative collaboration with one of the biggest sporting goods brand on the planet. few projects elucidate NIKE’s ‘better is temporary’ philosophy as effectively as the ongoing collaborative initiative NIKECRAFT. the endeavor has produced products since 2012, including iterative improvements to the popular ‘mars yard’ shoe and a shape-shifting poncho. underpinning every NIKECRAFT action is a transparent approach to doing, whether charting tests and trials or relaying evidence of construction methods.

back in may 2012, NIKE and tom sachs partnered on the NIKECRAFT mars yard — a shoe inspired by the artist’s interactions with NASA’s highly specialized scientists, and designed as high-performance equipment for the building of his space program 2.0: mars exhibition (see designboom’s firsthand coverage of the show at the park avenue armory in new york here). ‘at NIKECRAFT, products are developed for athletes, not consumers,’ sachs shares on the now-sold out mars yard shoe. ‘our athlete, tommaso rivellini, is a mechanical engineer at jet propulsion laboratory in pasadena, california. among many other projects, tommaso invented the airbags used on the 1997 and 2004 mars rovers. long gone are the days of wingtipped brouges, pocket protectors, and skinny ties. 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.’

special features of the first edition mars yard included outsoles borrowed from the NIKE special forces boot (SFB), vectran fabric from the mars excursion rover airbags, and detailing from apollo lunar overshoes. ‘these premium athletic shoes thrive in the rugged terrain of the simulated mars yard in pasadena, CA — as well as stealthily creeping the mission-funding hallways of headquarters in washington, D.C.’

from this dynamic between sachs’ DIY aesthetic and the wide reaching NIKE brand, an entire artisanal capsule collection NIKECRAFT was born. this partnership debut included the mars yard shoe, the trench, the marsfly jacket, and the lightweight tote. NIKE and sachs applied materials that had never before been used in sportswear — sourced from automotive air bags, mainsails for boats, and space suits themselves. each piece was packed with functionality that could prove useful in a voyage through space, featuring zipper pulls that doubled as storage containers, paracords fashioned as a tourniquet, and embellishments like a periodic table of elements on the inside of a jacket.

five years later, the NIKECRAFT mars yard relaunched in 2.0 form, featuring a material update informed by sachs’ long-term trial of the original that revealed an unknown. ‘it passed the abrasion test. 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,’ sachs explained. ‘it’s not until you really wear something and realize…we used a new material, and we expected better.’ sachs’ testing of the shoe led him to discover its limitations and durability, and learn things about material and fit that one could only learn through thorough daily use. the result was a new, improved NIKECRAFT mars yard 2.0. on the upper, the mars yard 2.0 replaces the original vectran with a polyester warp-knit tricot mesh, a more breathable material that induces fewer internal hotspots. the shoe’s red donning straps were adhered with a stronger X box stitch. on the outsole, the tread of the SFB was inverted for more appropriate wear in urban environments. finally, the mars yard 2.0 was developed with two insoles — mesh and cork.

the shoe was thus the result of continuous adjustments — a common circumstance of sachs’ work. in this spirit, the NIKECRAFT mars yard 2.0 was released in conjunction with NIKE and tom sachs’ ‘space camp’ in new york and later london, which brought elements of his studio practice to life through a series of mental and physical obstacles. designboom was one of the first ‘space camp’ inductees to experience the course.

sachs’ learning by doing, making, and testing continued with the development of the mars yard overshoe in 2018. ‘its nickname is the march yard — for march, the worst month of the year. it is wet, your feet are wet the whole month of march,’ says sachs. the artist’s work as an impromptu wear-tester (the sachs studio became the first true urban wear-test center in NIKE history) and the development of the mars yard 2.0 was further evolved with the introduction of the overshoe. in thinking about how the mars yard 2.0 performed in bad weather, sachs allowed his frustrations with the model to channel into design solutions, which came in the form of dyneema — a super-strong fiber often used in boat rope and sails.

wearing the overshoe all the way up fends off the elements, while rolling it down makes inside, heated spaces comfortable. this duality serves the annoyances of a rainy march in new york, as well as allows for chic navigation of street and subway and fashion week. as with all of sachs’ work, the mars yard overshoe balances the raw honesty of the materials and manufacturing with the artist’s touch.

a full, transparent breakdown of the NIKE mars yard overshoe

veering from footwear, sachs and NIKE collaborated on the unusual idea of an ‘exploding poncho’ in 2019. the starting point for the poncho actually began in 2015 as the output of a design challenge undertaken by jarrett reynolds, NIKE’s senior design director for apparel special projects, in considering the notion of transforming apparel. reynolds was intrigued by the idea of a slimline body pack that could quickly deploy a poncho from its carry, and could be easily repacked after use. an early prototype led to a number of evolved concepts over the course of a few years, each helping show proof of concept but never quite clicking. reynolds eventually shared the poncho via video to sachs, from which the project blossomed into a collaborative, inventive exercise.

‘jarrett showed me the idea and expressed the problems with it — he said that it was too complicated,’ sachs recalls. ‘and I said, ‘no problem. we’ll just make a movie about it.’ in doing that, we discovered it was as complicated as jarrett suggested, so we began to work on different solutions. through a lot of exploration and testing, the studio was able to find opportunity to push on an idea that had been stuck. we simplified the deployment mechanism and the repacking mechanism. we integrated things like a drag-racing inspired parachute release mechanism, an extension flap to the poncho and the fanny pack.’

the poncho became the highlight of the NIKECRAFT ‘transitions’ collection, inclusive of the mars yard overshoe and a pair of down shorts. the poncho incorporates materials ranging from dyneema, to ceramic beads created in sachs’ studio. a buckle ensures ease of use for the waist strap, and the poncho itself was prepared from a three-layer waterproof and breathable fabric that allowed for minimal size with maximum coverage. bold printing on the back of the garment proudly announces vietnam as the location of manufacture. the collection launched on april 27, 2019 in japan to coincide with sachs’ ‘tea ceremony” exhibition at tokyo opera city art gallery (more about that on designboom here).

the production of products since 2012 and iterative improvements underpins all NIKECRAFT activities. back in december 2020, NIKE announced a series of interactive wear tests for the future mars yard 2.5. the first call-to-action asked potential wear testers to post a one-minute video submission to their instagram feed. participants were then selected and asked to put the mars yard 2.5 through its paces, record their experience, and log firsthand feedback. shoes were returned, sanitized, studied, repaired and reissued.

‘with this particular challenge, we are engaging people to really think about this shoe and bring different perspectives, both culturally and environmentally,’ says sachs. ‘this is an opportunity to invite a larger audience to really indulge in our favorite 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 has since been sharing video documentation of the various challenges on his instagram and youtube channels. these undertakings range from an ‘architecture mission’, picking five meaningful architectural points, then visiting, documenting, and making a map of them, to an exercise called ‘output before input’, which challenged participants to wake up early and use the extra time to develop a new creative habit.

see wear test videos below and more art and design projects from tom sachs on designboom here.