How do you make a shoe for everything and for everyone? Sculptor Tom Sachs takes on this challenge with his new Nike project, the General Purpose Shoe – GPS for short. Although it is the descendant of one of the most collectible and sought-after shoes ever, the Mars Yard, the GPS hopes to achieve Sachs’s goal of making an accessible, high quality and wearable shoe. Unlike its predecessors, the shoe will be restocked, with an upcoming launch on September 2nd.
The General Purpose Shoe is the grandchild of the first shoe Tom Sachs ever released with Nike. The Mars Yard was designed for use on Pasadena’s Martian surface simulator and garnered instant cult acclaim. Although Sachs designed it for athletic use, and hoped people would wear them to death, the Mars Yard immediately hit the shrink-wrapped archives of sneakerheads. A second iteration, the Mars Yard 2.0, corrected some of the material shortcomings of the first edition, but still came at a high retail price. The Mars Yard project used expensive premium materials and techniques, which Sachs laments drove the price past a lot of people’s budgets and might not have been worth it in the end. The second release also drove up the hype around the Mars Yard project even more. If you still want a pair, you should expect to spend four or five figures.

The General Purpose Shoe is dodging the hype, intentionally. Nike ran ads declaring the shoe “boring,” ironically saying that “your sneakers shouldn’t be the most exciting thing about you” and that they are simply tools for living. So, the GPS is your Swiss Army Knife (or Leatherman, as Sachs prefers). Although it might not be the best for elite athletics, or other specialised tasks, it was designed to support a long day at work and a night out, that is, for general purposes. It is also affordable; at $110 to $109.99 – which lands a penny below the New York City sales tax cut off – Tom Sachs wanted this to be within reach of more than just the wealthy.

Still, the shoe’s first release sold out almost immediately, even in its uniquely broad size range. The GPS is Nike’s first ever shoe to have a full size run. Beginning at a women's size 5 and going all the way up to women's size 16.5 (men's 3.5 to men's 15), the shoe is designed to fit just about everyone. Sachs even flipped the men's and women’s sizing on the box’s size sticker, a small but meaningful gesture of inclusivity in a traditionally gendered industry. The first drop of the exclusive Studio colourway is long gone, but a set of new releases is impending. If you can’t bear the wait, they are already on reselling sites for a couple hundred dollars. But, Sachs emphasises, this shoe is here to stay, and will get on many more feet before long. The General Purpose Shoe is all set for its September 2nd release.
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To kick things off, I was hoping that you could introduce yourself. Tell us how you ended up designing shoes after a long and illustrious career.
Hi, my name is Tom Sachs. I'm 56 years old, I'm a sculptor, that's my day job: I do exhibitions, museums, and galleries. But for the past 10 or 15 years, I've been working with Nike, specifically with Nike Craft, to make shoes. I think it started in 2005, but it really got going in 2009, when I made a Nike Craft shoe called the Mars Yard for Tommaso Rivellini, the man who holds the international patent for Mars Lander, or Mars Entry Descent Landing Sky Crane, one of the smartest minds in the aerospace industry. And this kind of came out of a many years’ collaboration with Tomasso and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and my interest in spaceflight and space exploration.
What happened with that first project?
The Mars Yard became a cult classic and kind of the paradigm of hype culture, one of the rarest and most collected shoes ever, which was never my intention. I always wanted to make something for everyone, something that everyone could wear. I don't think that there's a difference between a sculpture and a painting, or a movie and a great book, or a cathedral and a sneaker. It's all sculpture to me, it all has sculpture values. And I have always wanted to make something that everyone could enjoy. I love the elitism of the art world because it allows my resources to keep going. But ultimately, I don't truly love it because it's not me! I couldn't afford my own art, I don't have money like that, money isn't that much of a priority. To me, the priority is having rich experiences, and living a full life of sensuality, touch, smell, taste, and doing things like sports. So, should I just jump into what the General Purpose Shoe is?
Yeah, that sounds good!
To me, a sneaker is a sculpture. There's no difference. It's just a sculpture that connects us with the ground. I think there's sort of nothing more important in an outfit than the shoe. Whether that's a pair of heels or a sneaker, they are something that connects us. Certainly, the most important piece of equipment in sports is that thing that connects us with the ground. If you had to have a terrible tennis racket or terrible shoes, you'd pick the terrible tennis racket, and you would probably do better.
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I think in terms of this relationship between the Mars Yard’s dual releases and then the GPS, there seems to be a bit of a conceptual jump – from something grounded in the futuristic, not quite science fiction but more of that flavour, to something quotidian and tool based. So, what bridged this gap for you?
That’s a great question. I would maybe answer it by saying that the General Purpose Shoe is a place where all the failures of the Mars Yard were corrected. I was always trying to make something plain, but for a very specific purpose: it was always a shoe that was meant for Tommaso Rivellini to work in the Mars Yard, the artificial Mars, that is the Mars Yard in Pasadena. But also, to work in the funding hallways of the NASA Headquarters in Washington, District of Columbia. I imagined him wearing sneakers instead of shoes so that he could walk quietly through the halls, and maybe hear some intel that could help him with his budgetary roles.
But the Mars Yard’s main failure for me was that we didn't make enough of them, it was too expensive, it was too specialised, and it had a bunch of technical problems. It has taken a decade of learning through making at Nike. We made two versions of the Mars Yard and tried to correct a bunch of the problems of the first edition, and we made it better, but we also made it worse. The second round also became even more collectible than the first, simply because there were more of them. That's when the market really took off, weirdly, because there were enough of them to sustain a collector base. But the shoe was still expensive at $200 retail, because it had pig skin and leather lining and other special materials: it was a bear no expense shoe. Really just the Nike community indulging Tom.
But this is different?
The General Purpose Shoe got to correct all of the errors of that project. Its retail price is $110, $109.99 which means that it lands one penny below the New York City sales tax cut off, so kids can buy this for back to school, and it's a good value. It’s value engineered. It sort of looks like a cup sole, but it's really a three-piece sole. So, it's got a lot of great support and traction. It's much more comfortable than a cup sole, and for 110 bucks, it really delivers. More than anything, I really wanted it to be for everyone. I wanted the shoe to be an invitation to everyone and to not be an elitist thing, like the Mars Yard became.
How did you work to make this shoe inclusive for everyone?
Everyone means everyone. And that's why, for the first time ever in Nike history, this shoe is being released in a full size run. That means that it's available from a women's size 5, all the way up to women's size 16.5. Or men's 3.5 to a men's 15. Because normally, a men's 7 is the smallest size. And that means half the population can't wear it. It's a patriarchal gesture, because women have smaller feet, they're often excluded. But we're making it in the smaller sizes so that it can fit everyone. This isn't a men's shoe or a women's shoe, it's a shoe for people with feet. And I'm going to brag, this is something that I'm really proud of. If you look here on the box, on the sticker with the shoe size, there are all these little sizes. But here on the GPS’s box, the information starts out with a women's 11 – which translates to a men's 9.5. So, in other words, the first thing you see is a women's shoe size. It's been the other way around for my whole life.
This might seem like a small distinction here, just flipping those; it also might seem like a small distinction to do a full size run. But it's fundamental to the project. We kind of have been struggling internally, all of us at Nike. This is just general and it’s something that we've had a tremendous amount of support for – we understand that it's a patriarchal system that we're trying to change. So, this is a small but important step. And I think you can expect more from us because inclusion is a priority.
“To me, a sneaker is a sculpture. There's no difference. It's just a sculpture that connects us with the ground.”
On this thread of error correction, I'm curious to hear about how the Nike Wear Tester program informed the General Purpose Shoe. How did that experience track through the design process?
The Wear Tester program was really one of the highlights of my life, because we were able to engage a community during the darkest days of Covid, and really activate a lot of people, make some great new lifelong friends, and get people thinking about humble things. Like their shoes. I think the hard lessons we learned, the real lessons we learned, stemmed from one of the challenges of the Wear Tester program, which was that you had to wear the shoes every day, for a whole semester. And so, people were doing all kinds of things with them, and we learned that there's not going to be one shoe that can do everything. I'm not sure if I was gonna run a marathon, I would wear this. I'm not sure if I was gonna play basketball all afternoon, I would wear this. But if I'm gonna go to the studio, work all day doing photography, or carpentry, or sit in front of a computer, and then go out that night wearing the same pair of shoes, I think it's perfect.
Hence the name.
For general purposes, and for the general population – for everyone – we tried to take things that would make it work for just about everything and not get you in trouble. More than anything else, we wanted it to support the activities of your life. So, we're inviting you in to say, “hey, I want to own less, so that I can do more.” I don't want my collection of one hundred sneakers weighing me down, I want to have two or three pairs a general-purpose shoe and maybe another one for running or another one for basketball or whatever you're into. The important thing is to have a little bit less, so that you can make your life about you, and not your things.
I work in a sculpture studio, and we had to watch all your studio videos. Something that stood out to us, that we were encouraged to do, is produce bespoke, very purpose-oriented tools. Tools that can get one thing done particularly well. I'm curious to hear if that's an aspect of your design process for this shoe – trying to find elements that will tackle different tasks people encounter. Or did you prioritise general design principals, like comfort, durability, etc.?
Well, this is a wonderful conversation, and I would encourage you to investigate the writings of Richard Wentworth. Really great watchmakers make their own tools. Anyone who's a really high-end craftsman in anything, ultimately finds that they have to make their own tools. But this shoe is not that. This is like a Swiss army knife. If you've ever tried to make anything with a Swiss army knife, you know you’re just gonna have bloody fingers, because it's just terrible for precise tasks. Or even a Leatherman, which is superior. None of them are as good as a specialised tool. But I think that the more specialised our tools become, the heavier, more expensive and less versatile they are.
So, I don't think that one is better than another, they're just different kinds of things. This is also a good metaphor for who we are as individuals; the best of us specialise. Michael Jordan was not the greatest professional baseball player. But he tried, and there's no shame in that. And I'm not the best at anything that I do in the studio. I'm kind of a generalist, I do a little of everything. And I think it's a wonderful exercise for a longer conversation, Isaac, I'd love to dig into tools with you because I think I've studied them pretty in depth.
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Totally. I think that this play between tool and something that allows us to use our tools is very present throughout the Nike Craft program. And I'm curious to hear a bit about the partnership with Nike more broadly beyond just the shoe. You've said that this collaboration represented the ability to operate at economies of scale and take advantage of industrial systems that your work might have played with conceptually, but not formally used in manufacturing. So, I'm curious about what the process was like for you to go from your studio to the mock-up workshop and then the factory. How did you approach this infrastructure?
It's been a decade of learning and failing, and learning and failing, and it continues to be that. There are still things about this shoe that I want to change: minor things, just tweaks that we're always working on. Since the shoe is here to stay, it will be restocked and end up on many more people's feet, we’re going to get feedback, and there will be failures. If you produce something this large, you put it into so many different scenarios, and then have opportunities to improve it. Anything's like that, everything's in evolution. So, I consider it a tremendous honour and privilege to be able to work on this scale.
I've had a lot of failures at Nike, I made something too expensive. I didn't understand in the beginning, which might sound, and is, naïve, that the shoe would cost $200 if I used full grain pigskin. Or that Vectran, which has to be cut with a laser, will add another twenty bucks to the manufacturing. All these costs get multiplied four times by the time the product gets to a consumer. I wouldn't do those things again, but they were all a part of the process. Whereas in the studio, I can do something one hundred times over and over again, if I want; I don't really have any limits there. Something is only finished when it's out of my hands and someone else takes ownership of it. So, it's a very different process.
What are the benefits of this new process?
The joy of this is that I get to make something that everyone can enjoy, this is not an elitist object, it’s for everyone. Everyone gets to wear this. And everyone means everyone. This is not just for hype people. I'm sure some people who are collectors will collect it. You could be a completist and have every version if you want. And that's fine. But the idea is that you can wear it, and wear it to death. That the outsole can be peeled off and restored, like a lasted shoe. And the GPS welcomes that. You can do this to any shoe. But some shoes, like a Mars Yard, for example, are curved on the bottom which makes resoling harder; you can do it, but it's not for that. The GPS is also meant to rock a stain, it's suede. Suede gets better and shiny with use, like your favourite pair of jeans. We always say in the studio that it's a sin to buy acid washed jeans. It's a virtue to wear them, get them faded from use and cleaning. If you get a hole mend it, rock it, own it. Build a greater connection with your things as a way of building a greater connection with yourself, with your community and your planet.
But sneakers aren't something that people have traditionally worn to death in this way. Boots seem more similar in many ways; people will often take the soles off their boots, pop new ones on, and then continue to wear them. So, I'm curious to hear a bit about the other kinds of footwear you were looking towards when designing the GPS. Was it just other sneakers? Or were there other logics you were working within as well.
Even going back to the Mars Yard – because I really do consider this an evolution of the Mars Yard – the very first iterations did have a lasted sole (that just means a seam you can see along the sole and you can unstitch and allows you to replace the sole). But modern athletic shoes don't really have lasted soles, they’re too heavy and not flexible enough. There's a history of lasted soles in athletic shoes going back to European history. So, we went down a really long blind alley to try and find a way to do it. But in the end, a lasted sole didn't take advantage of the things that industrial production can provide, maybe answering your previous question, which is polyurethane midsoles, ZoomX foam, react foam, etc. And different compounds of rubber have different durometers that can provide a transitional structure from your body – which in my view goes from very soft, to medium soft, to hard, to really hard – to the really hard road surface.
The reason why leather is so great is because it's a little bit like our skin – it's the closest thing physically to our skin and can work as a transitional element. In engineering, you can't go from hard to soft, you must go from hard to medium to soft, otherwise you'll have a brittle connection. That's just an engineering law. I learned a lot of those engineering experiences by trial and error, and by working with the great engineers of the Catalyst Group, and before that in the Innovation Kitchen who could share their failures and learnings from years of experience and shorten my path. I've also had incredible teachers at Nike who have really helped expand a lot of the values of my studio into this other realm.
I want to hear more about the process of collaboration between your team and Nike’s. I saw someone from your studio during a space launch talk about how the Tom Sachs studio and the NASA studio are both just a bunch of guys in a garage at the end of the day. But I'm curious to hear about how you established workflows and figured out different areas of expertise. Did you mostly handle the design side of things, and then leave it to a Nike footwear specialist to tackle the technicals? Or were there situations where you had accumulated enough engineering know-how to approach some of the technical aspects yourself?
Everyone's an artist. And it doesn't matter if you're a sculptor, a lawyer, an engineer or a journalist. It's not what you do, it's how you do it. My lawyer is more creative than many of the artists I know. His name is John Charles Thomas. And he just always has an outside of the box ways of looking at everything. The same is true at Nike. For example, I’ll come up with a genius engineering thing that none of the engineers thought of, and an engineer at Nike will come up with an artistic gesture that I didn't come up with. Who knew! It's always a team effort. And with a really great team, like the wonderful team we have now, we're always swapping roles and learning from each other. This happens when you have a great team that with the ability to lead and be led, to speak and to listen, and to be very nimble about what our roles and their descriptions mean. The titles mean nothing. All that matters is the product, I don't care who thought it up – if it's me, or someone else. I mean, we have these wonderful arguments, and I don't win them all. You know, I wish I did. But thank God, I don't.
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