Behind the laces: A closer look at Marty McFly’s 2011 Nike Mag


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By now you’ve probably heard that 1,500 pairs of 2011 Nike MAGs -- real versions of the fictional futuristic 2015 Nike Mag sneakers that Marty McFly wears in the 1989 ‘Back to the Future’ sequel -- are being auctioned off -- a 150 pair a day for 10 days -- to raise money and awareness in the fight against Parkinson’s disease.

You’ve probably also heard that, unlike the ones depicted in that film, these shoes lack the totally awesome (but in the age of Velcro and elastics, hardly necessary) capability to lace themselves.


But unless you’re a hardcore ‘Back to the Future’ fan and/or over-the-top sneakerhead, there’s probably a good deal you don’t know about the origins of what many have (until now) dubbed the ‘greatest shoe never made.’

In the run-up to the Sept. 8 announcement of Back For the Future -- a new partnership between Nike and the Michael J. Fox Foundation that aims to ‘erase Parkinson’s from the space-time continuum’ --

the Beaverton, Ore., athletic footwear company secretly gathered many of the key people involved with the original Nike Mag in a soundstage on the Universal Studios with a couple dozen journalists and bloggers from around the world -- many flown in by Nike at the last minute -- to reveal the 2011 Nike Mag, and talk about how it -- and its fictional doppleganger -- came to be. Among those on hand were Nike Chief Executive Mark Parker*, Nike’s vice president of innovation, design and special projects Tinker Hatfield, lead developer/lead innovator on the 2011 Nike Mag project Tiffany Beers, and ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy co-creator and co-writer Bob Gale. The discussion touched on the early incarnations of the shoe, the origin of the name, why creating shoes for the silver screen is important for real-life shoe design -- and just when we might expect some honest-to-goodness self-lacing Nikes.

A few excerpts from my conversation with Hatfield:

How Nike ended up in ‘Back to the Future Part II’

Tinker Hatfield credits Nike’s global director of entertainment marketing for ‘arranging the marriage.’ ‘I think we found out about it about a month before we came down here to meet with Amblin [Entertainment], and at that point the script was still being written. At that meeting, we were asked to imagine what the future looked like -- especially the footwear of the future. We knew a little bit about the idea behind magnetic levitation -- hence the name Nike Mag. Discussions after that focused on ways to make the shoe ‘come alive,’ which resulted in the idea of them being self-lacing.’

The inspiration for that paint-flecked sole


‘It’s called Zolatone, and it was used a lot in the the ‘60s but had a lot of resonance in the’80s,’ Hatfield said. ‘You’d see it on things like the interiors of Airstream trailers.’

Technical challenges in bringing the shoe to life

‘Electronics are pretty tricky,’ said Hatfield, ‘especially in a shoe that’s meant to be flexible enough to be worn, not to mention one that lights up at the touch of a button. On the original version, to make them light up, Michael J. Fox had to have a 3-pound battery in his back pocket, and wires running down both his legs. Even then they didn’t stay illuminated for very long.’

On why the shoe resonates with fans

‘They’ve become kind of a modern-day version of the ruby slippers from ‘The Wizard of Oz’,’ said Hatfield, ‘and I think they’re that iconic because they seem to symbolize the optimistic part of the future.’

Why creating make-believe shoes is important


‘One of the reasons we take these projects is because they open up a sense of fantasy and creativity,’ said Hatfield. ‘Every time we do this we end up getting ideas that lead back to our other athletic shoes. A project like this makes you feel like you can do anything. It’s very freeing to be able to think of shoes in a completely different way. You can take chances in a way you can’t when you’re [designing a shoe for] an elite athlete.’

On whether a self-lacing sneaker is in the works

‘Look, the date in the movie is 2015,’ said Hatfield. ‘And I’d say that’s about the stage in the process

we’re at right now. We have some prototypes but they’re not quite ready for prime time.’

The 10-day auction at ends at 8:58 p.m. PDT on Sunday, and as of Friday (according to the running tally at the partnership’s Back For The Future website) there are 450 pairs of the 2011 Nike Mags up for grabs.

-- Adam Tschorn


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[*Updated 9/21/11 12:46 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly spelled the last name of Nike’s CEO Mark Parker as Palmer.]