Waaay Back To The Future: Nike’s 23-Year Journey To Make McFly’s Shoes Real

Nike’s Tinker Hatfield not only designed the original shoe concept for the film, he made it a reality 23 years later. Also: here’s why the MAG doesn’t have power laces.


Last week’s release of Nike’s 2011 MAG, the “most famous shoes never made,” is already heading towards a bright future. The shoe inspired by Marty McFly’s futuristic footwear in Back to the Future II sent thousands of fans to an eBay auction where the first 150 pairs have already raised almost $1,000,000 for Michael J. Fox’s foundation to “erase Parkinson’s disease from the space-time continuum.” But Tinker Hatfield, Nike’s head shoe guru, who has designed Air Jordans, among other iconic shoes, spent at least part of the launch talking about the past, more specifically, 1988–the year he got a call from director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale to be a part of the Back to the Future sequel.

Hatfield and Parker’s original 1988 sketch for the Nike Air product featured in the film.

“The first movie had been a big hit and they were looking to expand it into a trilogy,” Hatfield told Co.Design at the launch event in Hollywood. “They needed someone to design some futuristic products for Back to the Future II and thought that Nike would be the best at envisioning the future.” The products concepted by Hatfield, Nike CEO Mark Parker and their team included those legendary Nike Airs with power laces–thus launching more than two decades of speculation, campaigning, and general nerd angst.

“Shoe senses when to tighten laces/must push button to release laces”

In 2007, a group of fans launched a grassroots campaign named McFly2015, begging Nike to make the shoes. Nike listened, kinda, releasing a special edition series of Nike Hyperdunks with the distinctive teal-and-gray coloring and Back to the Future-inspired typography. But that didn’t satiate the masses, who wanted a shoe that was 100% true to the concept. They also wanted power laces, especially when it was discovered that Nike had pulled a patent for an “automatic lacing system” in 2009.

That same year, Hatfield’s team at Nike began working closely with Universal on the MAG (that’s “Magnetic Anti Gravity” technology, a term used in the film)–a unique collaboration that would intertwine both of their creative legacies into a singular product. Negotiating the vast field of both companies’ intellectual property was tricky, but when the team introduced the concept that funds from the shoe would benefit Fox’s work, the deal clicked into place, says Hatfield. “It was all because of this idea that we’d be giving back to the foundation.”

Christopher Lloyd makes an appearance, to a standing ovation, at the launch event.

At an event last week in Hollywood, hundreds of sneaker freakers lined up to get an in-person peek at the first MAGs, hundreds of which glowed behind a two-story glass wall at the entrance to the Montalban Theater. Guests were treated to peeks at film paraphernalia like Doc’s plutonium case while they sipped Pepsi (of course) at “Cafe ’80s” and posed for photos on a hoverboard. There was, of course, a DeLorean outside mocked up in perfect detail, right down to the “Save the Clock Tower” flyer on the dashboard. This 1985-by-way-of-2015 environment and the stealthy buzz that fueled it was thanks to a creative team at Wieden+Kennedy, who worked with Nike’s events team to make the launch a reality.

When Wieden+Kennedy sent out a company-wide email on a Saturday morning asking if anyone liked Back to the Future, art director Max Erdenberger remembers replying enthusiastically in the hopes of working with one of his favorite films. “It’s one of those movies like Star Wars,” he says. “It holds up.” He and writer Caleb Jensen were placed on the top-secret project in December, when they began concepting the teaser spot, reaching out to the trilogy’s cast of characters for the launch film, and sketching out the launch event. Jensen even flew down to meet with director Zemeckis to go over their ideas for bringing his story back to life. Erdenberger and Jensen, both huge fans, were thrilled to work on the project but also hope that reviving the franchise isn’t too successful. “We don’t want them to remake it with Jesse Eisenberg or something,” says Erdenberger.

For the shoe’s big reveal, Erdenberger and Jensen worked with @Radical Media to shoot a film set the original Lone Pine Mall, where a Nike retail store now anchors the complex. Bill Hader stars as the Nike store employee and NBA player Kevin Durant is the “customer.” Christopher Lloyd makes a cameo as Doc, and behind the counter, that’s Donald Fullilove (Mayor Goldie Wilson from the films) and Hatfield himself. Gale, the original screenwriter, consulted on the dialogue.

A plutonium-inspired case at the Universal Studios launch. Photo by Chris Hornbecker.

Invitations to 25 influential footwear bloggers went out a few days before the event, and many of them were flown to Los Angeles, where they were ensconced at the W Hotel in Hollywood and carted to a press event at Universal Studios on Thursday afternoon held (where else?) at the Clock Tower. An invitation to the event included an authentic-looking ’80s-era Pepsi and a version of Doc’s brushed-aluminum blade sunglasses from the future. Dozens of blog posts began populating the Internet hours before the launch event. Thursday afternoon, the first photos of the shoe hit the web and Nike MAG started trending on Twitter. Thursday night, the official site and film were launched online at causing another flurry of attention. In fact, by Friday morning the videos weren’t playing on YouTube due to the surge of traffic.

Wieden recruited four designers to reimagine the movie poster for Back For the Future. Here’s one by Will Sweeney.

Last week also saw another historic announcement: Not only is Nike donating all its proceeds to Fox’s foundation, Google founder Sergey Brin and his wife, Anne Wojcicki, are matching all donations up to $50 million. They, too, have a personal connection to the disease: Wojcicki founded the personal genome startup 23andMe after Brin discovered he has a genetic proclivity towards developing Parkinson’s. Fox made the matching announcement Thursday night on The Late Show with David Letterman when he promoted the shoe (and did you catch Fox’s brilliant guest star turn on Curb Your Enthusiasm last night?). A pair of shoes to be signed by Fox (along with their own plutonium-esque case) were auctioned off live at the Hollywood event for $37,000.

Hatfield, who had lunch with Fox six weeks ago in New York, thinks the financial potential for this campaign is massive. As a model, Hatfield points to the Lance Armstrong Livestrong campaign, which Nike also launched, that raises about $50 million a year for cancer research. He cites the Livestrong yellow bands, which Nike designed, as an example that consumers are generous and compassionate for causes. “Once you let people know they have the opportunity, they just give and give and give,” he says. If Livestrong is indeed a model, Hatfield seemed to be hinting that items at more affordable price-points might be available after the auction closes on September 18. In fact, there’s already a lower tier: Ceramic models of the shoe were being sold at last night’s event for $88.00 (of course).

Nike’s Tinker Hatfield on stage with the evening’s emcee, Joel McHale.

Eradicating Parkinson’s is certainly a plus, but for most people buying the shoes, here’s what they really want to know: Why no power laces? Although the film has its own way of explaining it (clever: it’s not 2015 yet), Hatfield said they did indeed design a self-lacing mechanism at Nike. The problem was, it was neither reliable or cost-efficient for this particular model. “It would have driven the price up, way up,” he says, when the goal here was to raise as much money as possible for Fox.

However, they’re still working on it, Hatfield promises. “Come back and talk to us in 2015.”

About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato