“We always talked about doing the Satan Shoes internally and when Nas told us about his new song we knew it was a match made in heaven (or better yet hell),” Daniel Greenberg, one of MSCHF’s founders, wrote in an email.
Nike on Monday sought to indicate its stance on the kicks in the clearest way possible: It launched a federal lawsuit asking the court to have the sneakers destroyed.
In the complaint filed in the Eastern District of New York, the behemoth athletic-wear company referenced social media backlash from people who vowed never to buy Nike products again because of the Satan Shoes. The lawsuit alleges trademark violations by MSCHF and demands the prank company relinquish to Nike any profits it made from selling the sneakers.
“This was done without Nike’s approval or authorization, and Nike is in no way connected with this project,” the company wrote.
Representatives of MSCHF said Thursday that they had been open about their lack of affiliation with Nike and were surprised by the lawsuit.
“MSCHF strongly believes in the freedom of expression, and nothing is more important than our ability, and the ability of other artists like us, to continue with our work over the coming years,” the company said in a statement. “We look forward to working with Nike and the court to resolve this case in the most expeditious manner.”
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office declined to answer a question about whether the company could face legal repercussions for marketing the sneakers. The Consumer Product Safety Commission did not respond to questions about the safety of the product containing human blood, which can carry viruses.
Each pair of Satan Shoes is decorated with small inverted crosses and the phrase “Luke 10:18,” a biblical passage that references Jesus seeing “Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Red numbering on the back of each shoe identifies it as belonging to one of 666 pairs that MSCHF is selling for $1,018 each. Typical Air Max 97s sell for about $100 to $200.
By Monday afternoon, a website created to market the sneakers said all but one pair had been sold and the last would be distributed Thursday by lottery. On Thursday, MSCHF said the lawsuit would prevent them from completing the giveaway.
Unlike some of MSCHF’s other projects, the shoes are more than just a gimmick. The devil theme is a sarcastic play on public criticism that Lil Nas X says he has received for being gay. The 21-year-old rapper, whose legal name is Montero Lamar Hill, has said he wrote “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” for his 14-year-old self, who had “promised to die with the secret” of his sexuality.
“People already demonize who I am and put me in a painting of, ‘Okay, he’s evil, he’s doing this, he’s doing that,’” Lil Nas X told the entertainment news outlet Complex. “So it’s like, you know what? I’ll take that. I’ll be that, and I’m going to make the best of it.”
Backlash to the shoes largely centered on the idea that the product promotes evil.
“Our kids are being told that this kind of product is, not only okay, it’s ‘exclusive,’” tweeted South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R). “But do you know what’s more exclusive? Their God-given eternal soul. We are in a fight for the soul of our nation. We need to fight hard. And we need to fight smart. We have to win.”
Televangelist Mark Burns tweeted that the Satan Shoes are “a reason why we Christians must be prayed up ready to battle in the spirit with the Voice of the Holy Spirit. This is evil & heresy and I pray that Christians rise up against this.”
In a nod to the outrage, Lil Nas X published a tongue-in-cheek apology video in which he suggests that he’s about to renounce the shoes before the screen cuts to a shot from the music video of him crowning himself with Satan’s horns. The singer also took a swipe at fast-food restaurant Chick-fil-A, which has donated to organizations that oppose same-sex marriage, with a mock-up of a fake sneaker tailored to the business.
Sneakers, which have been linked to fashion and entertainment for decades, have become signifiers of cultural relevance and common collectors’ items. Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, said she expects that some consumers who rushed to buy the Satan Shoes will turn them around for a profit on the resale market, where the media hype will make the sneakers valuable commodities.
But Semmelhack said other customers will inevitably be drawn to the narrative tied up in the shoes. In addition to their shock value, she said, the sneakers seem to reflect Lil Nas X’s frustration with his treatment as a gay man.
“I think the message that he’s trying to send is more complicated and deserving of a larger discussion than it being simply a marketing ploy,” Semmelhack said. “He is making a comment about society.”
Tim Elfrink and Brittany Shammas contributed to this report.