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Staff at MSCHF — the hard-to-categorize Brooklyn-based collective infamous for weekly product drops that have included Lil Nas X’s controversial Satan Shoes (made using real blood), Guns 2 Swords (a gun buyback program that offered a sword made from donated and melted firearms) and Severed Spots (a collection of 88 dots fashioned from a chopped up Damien Hirst painting) — rarely do interviews.
The press-shy strategy has worked well over MSCHF’s five-year history, as much of what they create sells out, goes viral, causes controversy or dominates the cultural conversation. Sometimes it’s all of the above. But they made an exception last week and three members of MSCHF’s brain trust — chief revenue officer Daniel Greenberg and chief creative officers Lukas Bentel and Kevin Wiesner — logged on for a virtual interview with The Hollywood Reporter because there’s news to share.
MSCHF has signed for representation with CAA, led by a team fronted by partner Kevin Huvane and Christian Carino. After a series of viral drops and with a fan base including LeBron James, Drake, Miley Cyrus and Grimes, the collective has its sights set on Hollywood where the agency can serve as a conduit to A-list stars, major brands, sports teams and creative talent. But the trio caution that, like everything they’ve done, they expect their Hollywood projects to exist outside the box. (For example: They’re on the hunt for a star to auction off … their skull? See below.) THR asked Greenberg, Bentel and Wiesner about MSCHF culture, their favorite drops and the financial query that seems to follow them wherever they go — how do they make money?
Let’s start with the obvious because the reason that we’re speaking is that you’ve signed with CAA. After operating in a bit of a bubble for so long, what does aligning with a powerhouse like CAA signal about your plans?
Greenberg: [The three of us] started here in October of 2019 and we are officially at the two-year mark as we’re speaking today and, like you said, we’ve played in this bubble but we’ve had lots of opportunities arise. We’ve had some of the biggest celebrities, musicians and brands come to us wanting to collaborate and looking at us as a really hot, next-gen art collective. We weren’t really thinking about how we wanted to go about [collaborations]. If it happens, it happens and the most viral example is the Satan Shoes we did with Lil Nas X, which was a serendipitous thing because we’re friendly with him and he’s friendly with us and we came together on this concept.
As we go into next year, we’re thinking more about how to amplify what we want to do. How do we keep what feels right to our company DNA and amplify it? That’s what CAA adds as an organization because they really get what we want to do. A lot of people are extremely uncomfortable with the work that we do across the board and it gives people pause when thinking about working with us. CAA was the complete opposite. They were like, “We get it.” That’s big for us and what attracted us to them. There are things we want to work on as we go into next year. We want to play more in the art world, in the entertainment world.
Bentel: Just to add, as we’ve progressed, the scale and size of our projects have also expanded and gotten so much bigger. This is another step in terms of pushing our ability to achieve and push out some of these crazy ideas to the next level. We’re doing things now that we were not even capable of doing two years ago. That’s exciting for us but pushing our creative abilities to the next level requires some of this potential firepower [from CAA].
Greenberg: We don’t do a lot of interviews so people look at MSCHF and can’t figure out what we are. Are we artists? Are we an art collective? Are we a brand? Are we in the fashion industry? Streetwear? Or is it some other space? Everyone has their own view but CAA — and specifically someone as powerful as Kevin Huvane — signing us signals that we’re not just a brand. We are a creative, artistic collective and that is the light we’d rather be seen in.
Wiesner: One of the things that we say internally about what we are striving toward is what we call the opposite of the Kanye West problem. No matter how many industries he gets into, the first result you see when you type his name in Google is, “Kanye West, American rapper.” Because we are making anything we want across all types of industries, we have exactly the opposite problem, where people look at us and say, “They’re a … Who knows?” We make shoes. We make clothing. We also make video games, apps, books and artwork — very experimental internet performance artwork. One of the things that signing with CAA does is that it helps us reinforce the idea that we are some ambiguous creative entity that really is just going to keep on doing whatever we want. The goal is to never be tied down to any specific thing.
You mentioned Kevin Huvane, who, in addition to being a partner at CAA, represents some of the most famous actors in the world. What does it mean to have him on your team? Did he approach you or vice versa?
Greenberg: To answer your first question, it’s incredibly flattering. We’re aware of Kevin and his position in Hollywood and he’s not only the person who signed us but he also answers my texts in two minutes, he’ll jump on a call and he has faith in us. For us, it’s honestly more flattering than just, “Oh, we’re signed to CAA or WME or UTA, whatever,” but it’s the power of the agency and the name that helps further [what we’re doing]. In terms of how we got connected, the story’s actually very serendipitous in that I had no idea who he was until a friend introduced us when I was in L.A. I showed up late to the meeting, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I could tell he was a powerful guy, but I didn’t really know because this is not a space we’ve played in. We chatted about MSCHF and told him about us and then he asked if we ever thought about getting signed because he wanted to represent us. When I found out the actors and actresses that he represents along with the fact that Christian Carino is on the team to help us in different spaces, whether that be in art, fashion, entertainment, sports, music, whatever it might be — it’s pretty crazy.
Let’s go back to the DNA. You mentioned that people are sometimes uncomfortable about what you do. How do you define MSCHF DNA and why do you think it can be off-putting?
Bentel: We see our work as an art practice, but unlike artists who may do works that are controversial and end up in a white box gallery, we’re making things that we want to insert into culture as far as we possibly can by talking to you and confronting people that we’re making the work about or for. For example, Spot’s Rampage — the militarization of Boston Dynamics robots — there are not many people who got it, played with it, but it solicited a response from the company itself. In my mind, it’s art world critique that pushes it beyond the art world to the whole world.
Wiesner: One of the tools to engage large audiences is to grab and use existing parts of culture, as big as you can get your hands on, and use those as a working medium. Starting from a basic premise, nothing is sacred when it comes to what you can play with. That means we are going to pull big brands like Nike or even the Catholic Church and use them as a tool to play with. We’re using cultural building blocks to make our own work as a way to talk about issues that we want to talk about.
Bentel: “Cultural readymade” is a term that we use a lot. We are using the building blocks that everybody witnesses when you walk out into the world and experience today’s culture, and we’re using it as material for narrative art objects.
Wiesner: And often satirizing it. When we talk about why that makes people uncomfortable, it’s pretty obvious why Hermès or Nike would be uncomfortable with us — it’s because we’re taking their entire cultural cachet and subverting it to our own ends.
The mainstream media probably most closely associates you with the Satan Shoes and then the Jesus Shoes, though there are almost 60 drops to this point. Is there a drop you’re most proud of?
Greenberg: I think we’re all going to have different answers. Before getting into this, I wouldn’t say I have one favorite. I would say I’m most proud of MSCHF as a whole. People often ask us, “Is there a best drop? Worst drop? A drop that you loved or hated the most? One that failed? Which was the most viral?” Those are hard questions to answer because when we look at it, MSCHF is the equivalent of all the drops. Sure, each of us can have a favorite, but as you look at it from an external perspective they all sort of come together into a big circle. Another interesting thing that we’ve noticed is how people associate MSCHF with what they want to associate us with depending on where they are coming from. You say that we are most known for the Satan and Jesus shoes but you’re coming from the entertainment space. On the polar opposite, we have a small but very passionate legal community fan base and the lawyers are most interested in Mickey 2024, which is a drop we did over the summer. Then people may like a fashion object like MSCHF X and say, “Oh my God. They made this for me.” We also have 65-year-old art collectors who think that they are the main fans. If you asked 10 very different people the same question — “Are you MSCHF’s core audience and demographic?” — you might find that they all would probably say yes. Our base spans from high school kids to 65-year-old art collectors and everything in between.
As for me, as a sneakerhead, having the chance to work on the Jesus Shoe, that year’s fourth-most-googled shoe, and following it up with the Satan Shoe, which probably right now stands as the most viral shoe in history, is incredibly cool. Coming from business school, that’s my answer, but these two, who came from the art world, will have different answers.
Bentel: I would agree that the Jesus and Satan Shoes are pretty up there. But personally, I think Severed Spots is one of my favorite pieces. It was crazy behind the scenes and I won’t get into that, but being able to buy a Damien Hirst painting and chop it up into pieces is something that no one in their right mind would do. That was an incredibly interesting experience. To Kevin’s point, if you hold something as a sacred object and don’t give yourself the permission to touch it or engage with it or chop it up, that’s a missed opportunity. We’re not really afraid of that here. More recently, I would say Guns 2 Swords, an idea that was two years in the making. It took so long to figure out how to do that. We had that idea long before Jesus Shoes and we spent a lot of time kicking it around as a concept. It’s incredible that we finally got to a point where we could pull an actual gun buyback program off and do all the receiving and sword casting.
Greenberg: That’s the sword we made that Grimes carried at the Met Gala.
Kevin, I want to get to your answer but first, can you say how Grimes got your sword?
Greenberg: Again, a lot of celebrities over the years have just become fans and Grimes knew we were working on it. We’re friends and we also know she loves swords, so she said, “I’m going to want one.” We said, “Cool,” but we were not aware of the Met Gala component. When it happened, it were like, thumbs up, that’s very cool. There’s a laundry list of celebrities that have bought or interacted with our work, whether it be Miley Cyrus, Kylie Jenner and Grimes to Bad Bunny to LeBron James to Drake.
Back to you, Kevin?
Wiesner: Oh boy, I’m going to give you the weird one. First of all, when we’re making drops, one of the core criteria is that they should hit in one sentence but hit harder in three. So, my favorite drop that we’ve ever done is This Foot Does Not Exist, which was a hotline for AI-generated feet pics. I hate always being the feet guy, but the thing that this project did so well is it absolutely hits in one sentence, like, “Hey, we trained a robot to make pictures of feet for all you foot fetishists out there.” But when you dig into it, there’s a lengthy manifesto attached to this project that outlined these points about feet pictures as a particular type of internet phenomenon that has no other good parallel. They are both super valuable and super worthless to different groups of people. They completely defy standard notions of censorship because they’re both pornographic and totally normal and/or ridiculous memes at the same time. You cannot censor that.
And the whole economic dynamic around them is bonkers. It remains, to my mind, one of the most successful projects because it deals with a relatively esoteric view of the dynamics of feet pics and it’s the kind of thing that makes a good article for a digital media publication that could get 10,000 clicks on it during a good day. It’s the perfect example, to me, of using absurdist formats to Trojan horse really interesting conversations to a mass audience they might not otherwise have.
You were right, Daniel, three very different answers. Now, you mentioned the economics of feet pics but so often when MSCHF is mentioned, people draw assumptions about your economics. CAA wouldn’t sign you if they didn’t see the economic impact of what you do, so I have to ask, how lucrative is the business and how do you make money?
Greenberg: What’s money? (Laughs.) That’s the answer you want from the chief revenue officer of a company. In all seriousness, we don’t really like to get into it too much but at the end of the day it’s as simple as this: We sell stuff and that’s how we make money. Sometimes we make free stuff and sometimes we sell stuff. When we sell stuff, we make money. When we do stuff like This Foot Does Not Exist, that’s free. Severed Spots and Guns 2 Swords, we sold those. That’s sort of the plain and simple way of saying it without getting into too much detail.
Wiesner: I’m not the chief revenue officer but I will add that we try to play as fast and loose with commerce as with anything else. When we put out Jesus Shoes, we priced them at $1,425, arbitrarily selected because Matthew 14:25 is the verse where Jesus walks on water. And so, we said, “OK. For the concept we’re working with, that’s absolutely the best price.”
Greenberg: Every sneakerhead friend that I had said to me, “You can’t sell a sneaker for $1,425. You can’t do that.” We said that we can do whatever we want. We make decisions not based on unit economics or profit margins. We do it in service of the story. Next year, if we have something that will be the best possible story and it should sell for nine cents — hypothetically speaking — we will do that. Of course, you can’t make any profit on nine pennies but if it furthers the story we are trying to tell, we will do that.
Bentel: Obviously, some drops perform very well for us, money-wise, but doing things that don’t make money also confuses the heck out of people. It’s one of the most interesting things.
Wiesner: There’s so much power in doing things that clearly aren’t making money. No one can wrap their heads around it.
It is sort of mind-blowing for someone like me who sits at a desk and types all day, but things are different for you in Brooklyn. What’s your office culture like?
Wiesner: We also spend a lot of time sitting in front of computers all day.
Bentel: Yeah, we do spend a lot of time sitting in front of computers.
Greenberg: Someone like me that has ADHD, I could never work at a company that you just have to focus on one thing for months. Before this I worked at a fintech company and I was there 14 months. During that time, I did basically nothing because nothing new was getting done. I would literally be kicking my feet, versus here, we’re doing a new drop every week. I can be working on one thing for an hour and then the next hour, it’s on to something new — sneakers to food to fashion to art to video to weaponry — all in the same day. Our culture is based on doing a lot of really cool things at once. We’ve also turned down lots of money for not-cool things. That is one thing that I think we’re aligned on. Other than that, again, while it’s fun, it’s also a ton of work. Most normal companies may launch a new product twice a year. We’re doing a new launch every week and it’s often never in the same space, so it’s not like we get to utilize the same supply chain or the same team.
Wiesner: Every day we have the experience of being total newcomers in an industry, which keeps it really fresh and often means that we are able to get through timelines that no one can even conceive of because they know how long it’s supposed to take. We never know that and it’s a real advantage sometimes. Or a disadvantage.
What’s the biggest amount of money you’ve turned down and why?
Greenberg: I won’t say the exact number, but I will say there have been eight-figure deals that we’ve said no to as a group. That’s what makes MSCHF so great because we can agree when something would not be cool and it’s not something we should do. You have to dig really deep sometimes, but somewhere down there you will find that voice that says, “OK, fine, guys, I know this is lame. This is pathetic.” Or, eventually, after a lot of debating, the realization comes.
How do you make those decisions as a team? Is it a vote?
Greenberg: It’s really a gut feeling. At the end of the day, even with the fighting, we all pretty much almost always agree. And that comes from working together so long and that we’ve known each other four years. It’s an understanding. We used to have meetings about ideas, and they would last two or three hours with 20 minutes of fighting over one idea. Now, these meetings take six minutes. You just know. It’s almost like sharing a brain at this point. If there are days when we don’t agree, we still speak the same language and can discuss whether or not it’s a good idea for us.
Wiesner: It’s not a top-down thing. It emerges out of the accumulation of drops that we do. We also have a shared gut sense that is born out of hours and hours of fighting each other before we had that shared gut sense.
Your founder, Gabriel Whaley, told The New York Times that the future may include physical spaces or experiences. Is that still in the mix?
Greenberg: We don’t know. MSCHF is interesting in that we’re evolving and changing all the time. I haven’t read that piece in a year. But if I read Gabe’s last interview with The New York Times now, I’d honestly imagine 95 percent of it would be incorrect at this point. We evolve. While we might have a plan for next year, if you talk to me in four months, that plan might be obsolete. Do we want to do more stuff in the real world? Maybe, maybe not. It’s not even like I’m hiding something, it’s just we genuinely don’t know until we see.
A new MSCHF publication.
Hopefully, people in Hollywood read this and if so, they may want to do business with you. What do you want them to know?
Greenberg: Be scared of us. Be very afraid. No, don’t actually. If you use the Satan Shoes with blood in it, we’re not here to do formal collabs with people in Hollywood. We are here for whacked-out ideas. And we already have some of them.
Bentel: Nothing is sacred.
Wiesner: Brace yourself.
Greenberg: Who knows what next year holds? We’ve done a lot of crazy, impactful, viral nut stuff on the internet, and now we’re invading this Hollywood territory that is new to us. It’s going to be interesting to play in that space. As you can imagine, we’re not going to play as other people would. We’re going to take the MSCHF approach to whatever we do. Using that same word again, it might make certain people uncomfortable and ask, “What is this? Why is this happening?”
You seem like you’re in the incoming call business, but is there anyone you want to call?
Greenberg: While we do a lot of stuff with really big people, we’re also interested in the really obscure people and weird brands, like Flex Tape, the industrial adhesive. We’re big ass fans …
Bentel: Big ass fans.
Greenberg: We’re totally serious. Sure, we have every cool fashion brand and celebrity hitting us up, but if you saw us doing something with an adhesive sticker, like, “Wait, what?” Playing in weirder spaces is cool.
Wiesner: You don’t have to write this, but my ask to all the glorious folks of Hollywood is that we really want someone to let us sell their skull. We want to auction it while they’re still alive.
Bentel: We’ve wanted it for a while.
Bentel: It’s a presale. They get to keep it for as long as they are alive.
Wiesner: Acquisition won’t occur until after death. It’s just an ironclad contract. If anyone reading this would like to offer their skull, our DMs are open.
Greenberg: They’ve been pitching it for years. If this ever happens, I will applaud these two.
Bentel: It will be bigger than any other skull art ever.
Wiesner: It will.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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