At a time when three-ply masks necessarily hinder traditional mediums of self-expression, we’ve all been turning to its visual counterparts instead. Enter Do It Yourself (DIY) culture and its tremendous impact on social media platforms over the pandemic.
Now, if you are one of those 3 a.m. YouTube junkies like me, chances are that you must’ve crossed paths with a parallel universe of artsy ASMRs. Yes, those addictive customisation videos where YouTubers swipe an acrylic solution across a new pair of Air Force 1 before stenciling, painting and packing their orders with fancy zip tags. Well, guess what? Footwear giant Nike is increasingly threatening that livelihood, not just for art collectives like MSCHF with their controversial Satan Shoes, but for countless individual customisers.
In a lawsuit, filed last month in California, Nike accused Drip Creationz—one of the largest shoe customising companies in the world—of deconstructing Nike shoes, adding new material to them and reselling them for more than its retail price. “That violates trademark and copyright laws,” Nike lawyers said, as noted by CBS MoneyWatch.
“Our goal is to help ensure consumers are able to buy our products that are both authentic and authorised by us and there is no confusion for consumers,” Nike said in an email to CBS. “None of the items sold by Drip Creationz are authorised Nike Inc. products.”
When it comes to those one-man operations we’ve been fond of on YouTube Shorts, the customisers make money by either designing and selling a shoe from scratch online or working with clients seeking a specific design. That’s where the problem lies for Nike. When someone customises one of its shoes, it is “materially altered in ways neither Nike nor our partners approved or authorised,” the company said. This may involve using trademarks and branding from other companies that Nike never agreed to collaborate with.
“The more unauthorised customisations get manufactured and sold, the harder it becomes for consumers to identify authorised collaborations and authentic products,” according to Nike. “Unchecked, post-sale customisation undermines our brand because we lose control of what the brand means and what our message is.”
For most of its part, Nike wouldn’t outright admit if it plans to legally challenge other customisers after the Drip Creationz case is resolved. But CBS MoneyWatch noted how the company has filed a second lawsuit alleging trademark infringement against former employee-turned-customiser Jeffrey Waskowiak and his company KickRich.
Let’s be honest here, no one knows exactly when people started altering Nike shoes, but those involved in the industry stress that the practice is decades old. It’s also important to note that the practice is not exclusive to Nike shoes. Adidas and Vans are some of the other brands that have gained traction within the sneakerhead community.
One of the top-selling athletic shoes in the US, however, is the Nike Air Force 1. According to the market research firm NPD Group, AF1’s are the shoes that many customisers use—given its large blank canvas. CBS also outlined how most customisers are either experienced artists, fashion fanatics, savvy entrepreneurs or all three. “A majority of people are just one or two artists working out of their garage or basement doing one or two at a time just as a side hustle or hobby,” said Aron Solomon, a Montreal-based attorney and self-proclaimed sneakerhead to the media outlet.
The boom of sneaker customisations can essentially be linked back to social media. With dedicated communities on platforms like Reddit, customisers are often seen posting pictures of their designs, raking in orders and comparing notes with fellow artists on their techniques. According to CBS, new customisers rely on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter “to learn where to buy the right paint, when to layer colors, how to perfect their stenciling and other practical tips.”
“None of this is being done out of malice,” Solomon added in the interview. “If anything, it’s just encouraging people to buy more Nikes.”
The Nike lawsuit essentially sets boundaries as to how far consumers may go under the law to alter and resell its shoes as a commercial product. Given Nike’s stance, these boundaries are now hazier than ever before. “Does the line stop at painting faces or logos on a shoe, for example, or does it extend to replacing the sole, tongue or leather?” CBS wrote. Either way, Solomon believes that “Nike is making a giant brand mistake” in pursuing the case.
In the Drip Creationz suit, Solomon said Nike could have a tough time proving whether or not the company has suffered any monetary losses. Another customiser, Rasheen Dixon, believes Nike could hurt itself even more by winning in court. “Nike is going to lose a lot of US-based customers if they crack down on this because nobody wants to wear a Nike Air Force 1 that everyone else can have,” he said.
According to NPD Group, athletic shoe sales grew more than 35 per cent in the first six months of 2021 compared to the same frame in 2020. The very notion that the global athletic footwear market is expected to hit $66 billion by 2027 doesn’t help Nike’s case either. While the footwear giant is busy defining boundaries between artistic and commercial expressions, it won’t be long before customisers move on and find another pair of shoes to work with.
On Monday 29 March, the infamous internet collective MSCHF released 666 pairs of the ‘Satan Shoes’ made in collaboration with rapper Lil Nas X in a PR stunt to promote the artist’s new song ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’, which debuted on YouTube the Friday before. The controversial shoes sold out in less than a minute. In fact, everything about Lil Nas X’s recent stunt was aimed to shock and divide, and it did. What most of us didn’t expect is that Nike would go after Satan, but not Jesus.
The $1,018 (£740) trainers, which feature an inverted cross, a pentagram, the words ‘Luke 10:18’, and “1 drop human blood,” were made using modified Nike Air Max 97s. Shortly after the drop was announced, Nike denied its involvement in the project, and has now claimed trademark infringement. “It has asked the court to stop MSCHF from selling the shoes and prevent them from using its famous Swoosh design mark,” reports the BBC.
What the brand didn’t seem to mind was MSCHF’s drop #7 of the ‘Jesus Shoes’—customised white Air Max 97s with soles containing water from the Jordan River that the Brooklyn collective had blessed by a priest. Nike didn’t bother to disavow the shoes then, to the disappointment of at least one designer on MSCHF’s team who spoke to The New York Times last year. “That would’ve been rad,” he said.
Nike stated in its filing that “there is already evidence of significant confusion and dilution occurring in the marketplace, including calls to boycott Nike in response to the launch of MSCHF’s Satan Shoes based on the mistaken belief that Nike has authorized or approved this product.” It included screenshots of comments from social media users expressing their outrage or vowing to never wear Nike again.
It further noted, “In the short time since the announcement of the Satan Shoes, Nike has suffered significant harm to its goodwill, including among consumers who believe that Nike is endorsing satanism.”
MSCHF is known for its viral stunts, from MasterWiki, its own WikiHow-style rip-off of MasterClass and its live recreation of all 201 episodes of the American version of The Office series over Slack to its latest ‘Birkinstocks’—Birkenstock sandals made from Hermès Birkin bags. According to Quartz, MSCHF “originally conceived of the Jesus Shoes as a way to troll sneaker makers and their fans about the proliferating number of sneaker collaborations.”
The Satan Shoes with Lil Nas X were nothing less than a logical follow-up. However, they could prove costly; in addition to asking the court to make MSCHF cease fulfilling orders for its Satan Shoes, Nike is also seeking damages. Was it worth it? If you ask Lil Nas X fans, they’ll probably answer positively.
“Since publicly coming out as gay in June 2019, Lil Nas X has unapologetically embraced his queerness in the face of his crossover fanbases of country and rap, two communities who—he remarked in a BBC interview the same year—were not overly accepting of homosexuality,” reports gal-dem in a love letter dedicated to the artist’s latest music video.
In an Instagram post accompanying the release of his new song, Lil Nas X wrote to his teenage self, recalling the fear of rejection that is still a sad reality for many LGBTQI+ people: “Dear 14-year-old Montero, I wrote a song with our name in it. It’s about a guy I met last summer. I know we promised to never come out publicly, I know we promised to never be ‘that’ type of gay person, I know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist. You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry. They will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am. The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”
It would be an understatement to say that not everyone is thrilled with the directorial choices in the video, especially as it relates to Lil Nas X’s sexuality, but that’s not stopping him from taking the criticism in stride. The musician has been all over social media, from Twitter to TikTok, with some top clapbacks. Here’s one, for example, where he rightly points out that religious diehards always warn queer people that they’re going to hell—only to be pissed when people embrace the idea of damnation.
Although Lil Nas X’s mastery of memes is nothing new, he admitted himself to being affected by the hateful comments he received following the launch of both his new song and the Satan Shoes. “I’ll be honest all this backlash is putting an emotional toll on me,” he wrote in a tweet. “I try to cover it with humour but it’s getting hard. My anxiety is higher than ever and stream ‘Call Me By Your Name’ on all platforms now!”