Most fashion companies rely on long-term cash cows. But that’s not the strategy that appeals to the iconoclastic Brooklyn-based MSCHF (pronounced “Mischief”), known for selling the controversial “Satan Shoes” — Nike Air Max 97s containing human blood in the soles.

MSCHF, which the New York Times called the “Banksy for the Internet”, does not consider itself a fashion or shoe company, but an art collective. Since 2014, it has been making waves for its cheeky, internet-breaking products, from the endurance mobile game with YouTuber MrBeast called Finger on the App, which in the latest edition offered $100,000 to the last player touching the screen, to a locked iPhone with celebrity phone numbers, sold for $25,000.

Recently, it’s been launching more fashion projects, such as its $650 “Global Supply Chain” handbag — a mash-up of recognisable silhouettes by Hermès, Celine, Dior and Balenciaga. Last month, it released a $250 sneaker collaboration with Acronym, an edgy Berlin-based tech wear brand coveted by streetwear aficionados.

MSCHF founder and chief executive Gabe Whaley sees fashion as an attractive new canvas for his artistic practice. “It naturally engages larger audiences in a more mainstream way, so those projects are eminently more visible than others we do,” explains Whaley, who sometimes speaks in conceptual terms, leaving much to be interpreted.

Fragrance container in box with label ’Smells like WD-40’
A perfume MSCHF sold in 2023 with the aroma of an industrial lubricant
Black training shoe
The Nike Air Max 97-based ‘Satan Shoes’, made in collaboration with Lil Nas X © Kendall Mills

“Fashion is a great space to play in, because people have a complicated relationship with [it],” he continues. “On one hand, its symbol, on another hand, its utility. Our path forward really depends on how well we’re able to blur the lines between the two.”

Instead of following the typical retail strategy of creating a product that can be sold endlessly, MSCHF thrives on commercial unpredictability. “If things do well on paper, financially, that doesn’t mean we’re going to keep selling it,” says Whaley.

Lukas Bentel, a founding member and co-chief creative officer, adds: “In some ways, it’s more predictable to be this unpredictable rather than doubling down only on one product or one category type. We can pivot our direction very quickly.”

While unorthodox for business growth, this approach gives MSCHF the freedom to generate fresh ideas that grab people’s attention. It doesn’t rely on tactics such as performance marketing or shooting ad campaigns to sell its products. “People think MSCHF has some secret sauce for marketing,” says Kevin Wiesner, another founding member and co-chief creative officer. “You have to start with a product interesting enough that people want to engage with it.”

MSCHF’s creations tend to comment on the absurdity of consumer culture. Often, fashion items are cool pastiches of iconic brand symbols, a visual hallmark of internet remix culture that pushes against copyright laws. Then, they just let the internet do its thing.

That has sometimes caused trouble. In 2021, MSCHF was sued by Nike for copyright infringement when it sold 666 pairs of the “Satan Shoes”, which used Air Max 97s as part of its collaboration with rapper Lil Nas X. They were priced at $1,018 each, an allusion to Luke 10:18 in the Bible — “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” — which was printed on them. The shoes’ air-bubble soles contained drops of human blood, allegedly from MSCHF’s employees. The lawsuit was eventually settled and MSCHF agreed to refund those who wanted to return the shoes. Some pairs were listed for as much as $15,000 on resale sites such as eBay.

Man in white t-shirt and shorts sitting in studio room with piles of cardboard boxes, wires and ducting
Whaley says he sees fashion as an attractive new canvas for his artistic practice

“Our projects always start as a concept first,” says Wiesner. “But then there are some [product] categories that lend themselves to being vehicles for those concepts.” Whatever the outcome, “we try to use various aesthetic languages to make the objects tell a specific story”, adds Bentel. 

Over the past five years, many of the biweekly limited edition product drops (some items are evergreen) on its website have gone viral. From $48,000 Birkenstocks made with leather deconstructed from Hermès’ Birkin bags in 2021 to $48 perfumes in 2023 that smelled like the industrial lubricant WD-40, MSCHF’s products sell out quickly, many in less than a minute.

Last year, its $350 injection-moulded Astro Boy-inspired “Big Red Boot,” worn by regular suburban junior high schoolers to NBA players such as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and rapper Doja Cat, had more than 100,000 orders on the first day, according to Whaley. “There are other items that have sold pretty similar amounts, but just extended over a longer period through either different editions or colourways.”

Man and woman wearing black outfits and white training shoes
The MSCHF-Acronym sneaker collaboration
Collage picture of man checking face of woman holding handbag with other handbags on a table
The collective’s ‘Global Supply Chain’ handbag

While MSCHF declined to disclose specific revenue figures, its irreverence has attracted investors and blue-chip art galleries. Between 2019 and 2020, it raised more than $11.5mn across three funding rounds from investors and family offices. Even though it engages in marketing collaborations, such as its 2022 tie-up with Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty, MSCHF predominantly makes money from selling its own products and art, according to Whaley. Since 2019, revenues have been growing 100 per cent annually. 

The founding members of MSCHF met in the 2010s, during the golden age of internet creativity in New York, when venture capital was abundant for ecommerce start-ups and digital-native creatives such as artist Ryder Ripps, marketing agency K-Hole (famous for coining the term “normcore”) and DIS.

The latter two were creative heroes for Wiesner and Bentel, who were part of New INC, the incubator led by New York’s New Museum for forward-thinking and artistic internet projects. They met Whaley, a former BuzzFeed employee and West Point military academy dropout, through mutual friends and struck an immediate kinship. “We were going to be adversaries or we’re going to be very complementary,” says Whaley.

In 2014, Whaley began releasing work under the name “Miscellaneous MSCHF”. Soon, he started working on projects with Stephen Tetreault, now its chief operating officer, and Ramdane Sennoun, now the company’s chief technology officer. But in 2019, Whaley, Tetreault, Wiesner, Bentel and Sennoun cemented their partnerships as founding members and set a target of raising $3mn in seed funding (they succeeded).

MSCHF is now preparing for an art exhibition in New York this September, following well-attended shows at Daelim Museum in Seoul in 2023 and at Los Angeles’ Perrotin gallery earlier this summer. In LA, 4,000 people attended the opening, braving a two-hour wait to enter the gallery. 

“It’s not easy to touch that many people like that,” says Emmanuel Perrotin, owner of Perrotin, which represents MSCHF as well as artists such as Takashi Murakami, Daniel Arsham and Maurizio Cattelan, who have also worked with fashion labels. Perrotin describes MSCHF as a Cattelan for the digital generation. “They are creative on products, but also creative on the communication about the products too,” he says.

“It’s the brand model for the future,” agrees Azelle Rose Harris, founder of marketing consultancy Maia Agency. “It avoids all of this unnecessary — and soon-to-be automated — marketing tactic that’s part of a complicated path to convince someone to buy in, instead of creating something so interesting that they want to be a part of it.”

The more recognition the company receives, the greater the temptation for it to be pulled in and follow the existing playbooks. “That’s just the most natural gravitation of it all,” says Whaley. “But we’ve just been reminding ourselves that MSCHF is this Trojan horse that quickly infiltrates a space, turns it upside down and then leaves.”

True to its rule-breaking ethos, no one knows what it will do next.

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