In recent years, stars have lent their names to all kinds of sneaker collaborations. Puma had Rihanna. Reebok had Gigi Hadid. Adidas had Kanye West. Nike had ... Jesus Christ?
Not exactly. In October, a pair of "Jesus shoes" - customized Air Max 97s whose soles contained holy water from the River Jordan - appeared online for $1,425. They were designed by a startup called MSCHF, without Nike's blessing.
The sneakers quickly sold out and began appearing on resale sites, going for as much as $4,000. The Christian Post wrote about them. Drake wore them. On Google, they were among the most searched shoes of 2019.
The only thing that didn't happen, said Kevin Wiesner, 27, a creative director at MSCHF, was a public disavowal of the shoes by Nike or the Vatican. "That would've been rad," he said.
Now, in the MSCHF office in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a pair stands like a trophy.
Not a sneaker company
MSCHF isn't a sneaker company. In fact, it rarely produces commercial goods, and its employees are reluctant to call it a company at all. They refer to MSCHF, which was founded in 2016, as a "brand," "group" or "collective," and their creations, which appear online every two weeks, as "drops."
Many of those drops are viral pranks: an app that recommends stocks to buy based on one's astrological sign (which some observers took seriously), a service that sends pictures of AI-generated feet over text, a browser extension that helps users get away with watching Netflix at work.
As Business Insider recently noted, the present and future profitability of these internet stunts is dubious. Yet, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, MSCHF has raised at least $11.5 million in outside investments since the fall of 2019.
In the high-risk, maybe-reward world of venture capital, the group's antics are well known. Nikita Singareddy, an investment analyst at RRE Ventures, compared MSCHF to Vine and Giphy. All three, she said, offer "lots of delight" and encourage content sharing.
"Sometimes investors are a little too serious about monetizing something immediately," Singareddy said. "With MSCHF, there's faith that it'll pay off. There's an inherent virality and absurdness to all the projects that they've created, and it's something people want to share and ask questions about."
For starters: What is it?
The MSCHF office says as much about the company as any of its products.
A giant white pentagram covers the entrance floor. On a visit in December, an inflatable severed swan's head dangled from a ceiling beam, and a rubber chicken bong - a recent drop - sat on a coffee table, full of marijuana.
"My mom thinks we make toys," said Gabriel Whaley, 30, the chief executive.
MSCHF has 10 employees, nine of whom are men. The company Twitter and Instagram pages are private, so most of its direct marketing takes place not on social media but through text messages from a mysterious phone number.
Although the team used to run a marketing agency, working with brands like Casper in order to fund MSCHF projects, they stopped taking on clients last year. Now, they pretty much do whatever they want.
"The cool thing that we have going for us is we set this precedent that we're not tied to a category or vertical," Whaley said. "We did the Jesus shoes and everyone knows us for that, and then we shut it down. We will never do it again. People are like, 'Wait, why wouldn't you double down on that, you would have made so much money!' But that's not why we're here."
The point, he said, is to produce social commentary; the "story" the sneakers told was more important than turning a profit.
"There are several youth pastors that have bought a pair, and even more who are asking, like, 'I love sneakers, and I love God. I would love a pair of these,' and that wasn't the point," Whaley said. "The Jesus shoes were a platform to broach the idea while also making fun of it: that everybody's just doing a collaboration now."
In order to prepare each drop, be it an object, an app or a website, MSCHF's employees log long hours. Most mornings, Whaley gets to the office around 7; the rest of the team arrives by 10.
They often stay late into the evenings, conducting brainstorms, perfecting lines of code, shooting live streams or assembling prototypes. Weekends, Whaley said, aren't really a thing.
"It's not just a full-time job," he said. "This is how we live. The distinction between your work and normal life doesn't really exist here, and it's just because this is what we were all doing whether we were getting paid or not in our former lives. So nothing has really changed, except we have more power as a unit than we did as individuals."
Although Whaley eschews corporate titles, functional groups exist within MSCHF: idea generation, production, distribution and outreach.
In their past lives, most of the staffers were developers and designers, some with art backgrounds, working at their own firms and for companies like Twitter and BuzzFeed. The oldest employee is 32, and the youngest is 22.
Some chief executives of Fortune 500 companies have tried to mentor Whaley and "shoehorn" MSCHF into a traditional business, he said.
They insist that MSCHF is building a brand, that it needs a logo, a mission, a go-to product that people recognize.
But MSCHF doesn't have a flagship product, or market its releases traditionally. "It just happens that anything we make tends to spread purely because people end up talking about it and sharing it with their friends," Whaley said.
That's part of the appeal for VC firms. With software companies, for example, there are "very clear metrics and paths to monetization that are tried and true," Singareddy said. For MSCHF, that path is less obvious.
"Some of the best investments, even early on it wasn't clear what the result would be, but you're making an investment in the team," she said. "That's what makes a company like MSCHF so exciting. Venture is about taking reasoned risk - it's a true venture capital opportunity."
Whaley talks a lot about what MSCHF is and who the people who work there are - and aren't.
Running ads on subways, or trying to build a social media following, or landing a spot on the Forbes "30 Under 30" list isn't who they are. He cringes at the word "merch." ("The day we sell hoodies is the day I shut this down.")
To observers, critics and followers, the company's portfolio may amount to very successful viral marketing campaigns, jokes or something like art.
"I don't see anybody doing exactly what MSCHF is doing," said Frank Denbow, a technology consultant who works with startups. "Everybody is able to get a one-off campaign that works, but to consistently find ways to create content that really sticks with people is different. It reminds me of Banksy and his ability to get a rise out of people."
On Twitter and Reddit, users trade theories and tips about MSCHF's more cryptic offerings, such as its most recent, password-protected drop, Zuckwatch - a website that looks like Facebook and appears to be commentary on data privacy.
Among these ardent fans, the drops are treated as trailheads, or entry points, setting off mad, winding dashes in search of cracking the code.
Other followers, less devoted, may only know MSCHF for its Jesus shoes, which Wiesner said have been knocked off by sellers around the world. He is happy about it.
"If we can make things that people run away with, that's absolutely the dream," he said. "Most of what we make is us personally running away with stuff."
Ahead of the presidential election, MSCHF's employees plan to take on more political projects. (A drop in November, involving a shell restaurant, enabled users to mask political donations as work expenses; it was promptly shut down.) The company also hopes to expand beyond apps and objects to experiences and physical spaces.
"Everything is just, 'How do we kind of make fun of what we're observing?'" Whaley said. "Then we have as much fun with it as possible and see what happens."