Nike and RTFKT are taking their collaborative foray into the metaverse to new heights. The duo is in the midst of elevating its partnership through its latest high-profile global campaign — which sees the launch of its new Air Force 1 drop in collaboration with Japanese contemporary art icon Takashi Murakami. Each limited edition sneaker is inspired by the 10 DNA types found in RTFKT’s Clone X anime-inspired avatar project, including Takashi Murakami’s “Drip” and “DNA” Air Force 1s. Even basketball icon LeBron James is a fan, and was spotted wearing a pair earlier this week.
In December 2021, sportswear behemoth Nike acquired digital fashion business RTFKT for an undisclosed sum, after recognizing the Web3 brand’s potential in the non-fungible token (NFT) market. Over the two years under Nike’s belt, the collective has gone on to dip its toes into the world of football and sneakerheads, amassing over 450,000 followers on Instagram and 396,000 on Twitter, and become one of the most recognized Web3 communities in the world.
“It’s really difficult for a big company like Nike to take a risk and travel outside of the existing healthy business models that they have,” Benoit Pagotto, co-founder of RTFKT told Jing Daily earlier this year. “The fact that they acquired us really shows that, regardless of the ups and downs of the NFT market, it’s something that is here to stay. It’s good for the industry to see a big label committing to guiding their business towards these new adaptations.”
The three-part collective unveiled the physical sneaker designs via a Geisai-style art fair in Tokyo on April 30. Since the public reveal, RTFKT’s fans have been wildly sharing and reacting to the models, including the image of the NBA legend James sporting an exclusive pair in LA.
But when we strip away the social buzz behind the tie-up, is RTFKT and Nike’s ambitious metaverse roadmap really worth the hype?
RTFKT was on a steady growth trajectory before its acquisition by Nike. But the accretion propelled the digital footwear studio into mainstream consciousness, subsequently receiving worldwide acclaim for being one of the first metaverse-native brands.
However, the past two years have seen competition intensify, both for Nike and RTFKT. Adidas and Puma, two of Nike’s leading competitors, have jointly bumped up their Web3 community efforts in a bid to take Nike’s crown.
Adidas recently revamped its Web3 loyalty program “ALTS by Adidas” and adopted Bored Ape #8774 (who goes by the name of Indigo Herz and was bought by the brand for 46ETH) as its Web3 ambassador and mouthpiece in 2021, while Puma continues to deepen its relationship with popular metaverse platform 10KTF.
This year, the stakes are becoming increasingly high for Nike and RTFKT to maintain their leading position.
For RTFKT and Nike’s latest tie-up, it was a matter of going big or going home following a controversial first run last year. In October, the partnership came under fire for failing to exceed its community’s expectations and deliver on its promises.
Premium materials, Only 1,986 pairs, Bleached Canvas 🖐👟 pic.twitter.com/2mlzN9xwBo
— RTFKT (@RTFKT) May 3, 2023
The world’s first ‘smart sneaker’ a ‘huge mistake’?
The “Cryptokicks” IRL project was hailed as the first-of-its-kind development and saw the duo bring to life the first “smart sneaker,” which combined “decades of Nike Sneaker innovation with RTFKT’s vision to merge the digital and physical worlds,” according to RTFKT’s website.
Consisting of four colourways based on the famed Nike Dunk silhouette, the genesis sneaker drop was limited to 19,000 pairs and included novel features such as auto-lacing and chargeable power decks. It also marked the long-awaited entry of Nike and RTFKT in digital footwear.
The drop, however, was controversial. This was predominantly fueled by the news that the collection would only be distributed across the US, eliminating a vast proportion of the community who had invested money into RTFKT’s ecosystem from having access.
As a result, the floor price of the drop fell from 7.3 ETH (approximately $13,496 at the time of writing) on December 5 to 5.9 ETH (approximately $11,114) on December 6.
RTFKT was vocal about its blunders, with co-founder Steven Vasilev AKA Zaptio stating, “I think we made a huge mistake, and we take full ownership of that,” during an open Twitter session.
More drops, greater demand?
Fast forward to this year – has the platform learned from its past mistakes? In March, Nike and RTFKT unveiled the next major development in its roadmap via the latter’s official Twitter account — it was gearing up to launch its physical Clone X Air Force 1 sneakers. The announcement received over 163,000 views on the app and made headlines across major Web3 media outlets, fashion publications, and beyond.
If the Tweet’s internet wildfire spread wasn’t enough, as part of the new collection, the tie-up also released a series of hyperrealistic, 3D billboards and augmented reality-powered posters across Tokyo late last month.
The dynamic advertisements broke Nike’s record on Instagram (according to the brand), and was viewed over 1.8 million times on Twitter.
From April 24 to May 8 (this was later extended to May 10), in a similar process to its initial Cryptokicks campaign, RTFKT gave all enthusiasts a time window in which all NFT holders could exchange their token for the limited made-to-order physical Air Force designs— more commonly referred to as a “forging event.”
What it takes to remain on top
There’s no denying that the collaboration has gone big with its ambitions. But after a disappointing first run, it can longer afford to hide behind the smoke and mirrors of striking billboards and high-profile collaborations. With speculation among its community at an all time high and the pressure on to deliver, consumers will be taking note on whether the partnership learned from its previous mistakes and improved.
Overall, RTFKT and Nike’s roadmap has the potential to remain the biggest coalition that the digital fashion industry has ever seen. But competition is tight, with Puma and Adidas both forging their own ecosystems and learning and adapting from Nike and RTFKT’s past hurdles. After all, with great exposure comes great pressure to achieve more.
Whether the new campaign regains the trust of its community is to be seen. But a successful run could kickstart the duo’s redemption arc, and hail a very prosperous future ahead for sneakers and streetwear in Web3.