by Brendan Dunne
Images by Andy Hur
Los Angeles, 1984.
A frantic, naked Kyle Reese snatches the pants off a bum in an alley. He's spotted by the cops and makes a run for it. Eventually the chase leads Reese to a department store, where he starts grabbing clothes to complete his outfit. He pulls a trench coat off the rack. He picks a pair of sneakers from a bin, checks to see if they're his size. Hiding in a photo booth, his body obscured, Reese's feet lower into the frame clad in a black/silver Nike Vandal. He fastens the sneaker's signature Velcro strap, and the chase continues.
The moment, from classic 1984 flick The Terminator, is part of the canon of conspicuous sneaker sightings on the silver screen. And when costume designer Susan Matheson heard she’d be working on Terminator Genisys, the latest film in the franchise that opens this summer and revisits the 80s setting and Kyle Reese’s character, she knew she had to do the footwear justice.
“The very first phone call I made for Terminator Genisys, before I was even officially on the film, was to Nike to ask them to make the sneaker,” Matheson remembers. “Because I knew how long it takes to produce a sneaker, especially out of the country, and then to convince a massive corporation to be willing to stop their production.”
Nike wasn’t making the Vandals anymore, having only produced the sneaker sparingly in 2013 and pretty much pulling the plug on its retro by the year’s end. So, in December 2013, Matheson started focusing on the massive task of acquiring a fresh set of Nike Vandals in order to make things right in the Terminator Genisys universe.
Calling a sneaker company up and simply asking for the shoes she needed had worked for Matheson before. As the costume designer for the 2008 film Semi-Pro, a period piece set in the 1970s, Matheson had to track down all sorts of period-appropriate basketball shoes. Chronologically correct sneakers combined with personal belief to make things extra difficult: Woody Harrelson, who co-stars in the film, is a strict vegan, and refused to wear any sneakers made of animal leather.
Matheson wasn’t going to let Harrelson’s veganism get in the way of his sneakers. But, the adidas Pro Model, a dominant shoe of that era, wasn’t ever made with vegan materials. And so, she made a call to adidas.
“adidas was willing to actually stop the factory line, which is kind of a monumental thing for a sneaker company, and reissue vegan Pro Models,” Matheson says. “They didn’t re-issue them, they just made enough for Woody Harrelson. I was not about to let him not look authentic.”
If it’s not apparent by now: Matheson is detail obsessed. It’s a necessary trait in her trade, where characters must match with and make sense in their surroundings. She’s got a personal interest in sneakers as well, having grown up on Onitsuka Tiger and the Nike models of the 1970s.
“When I moved to America from South Africa, I remember it was 1979 and the very first pair of sneakers my mother bought me for gym class was a blue pair of Nike Cortez,” Matheson says. “I think they were nylon. I think they were blue nylon with a white Swoosh. I remember feeling so American. There was something about it that was so American.”
Before her efforts in obtaining the Nike Vandal for Terminator Genisys, Matheson had actually worked with Nike in a semi-official capacity. During her time at the Parsons School of Design, she took part in a program where companies would present students at the school with a design problem. In 1991, one of those companies was Nike.
Matheson won an award for her work, which involved designing potential outfits for the Olympics.
“I designed a whole bunch of stuff and Nike picked pieces for you to actually build from scratch,” Matheson says. “I got to learn about how to make athletic clothing from scratch – make the pattern and sew it and see it through the whole design process to completion. Ever since then I’ve had a fascination with Nike.”
This fascination informed her quest for the Nike Vandal pairs needed for Terminator Genisys. When she first put the request in to Nike to get the sneakers made, the company came back with a compromise: go on NIKEiD and make a custom pair of Air Force 1s as a substitute. Again, Matheson refused to settle.
“I was like a petulant child and I said, ‘Absolutely not.’” she laughs. “Because maybe it doesn’t matter to most people, but there are people who care about details like this the same way that I care about details like this.”
The Air Force 1 may have been a passable alternative for those without a keen eye for sneakers, but Matheson felt she had a mandate to get it right. Not only would Reese in the film travel back to the same time period, but the film also matches the original sequence on a shot by shot level, so the shoes had to be right.
Matheson considered her options. There was the route of tracking down an original pair on eBay, a platform that’s often a goldmine when searching for vintage sneakers.
“Of course, I looked on eBay. I looked on Etsy. I looked at auction sites,” she said. “I contacted everyone I knew who might possibly have the sneaker. But not only do you need to find the sneaker in pristine condition, but you need to find it in the size of the actor and the stunt double.”
She even tracked down the team who did costume design on the original Terminator, but the Nike Vandals used for that film hadn’t been preserved.
Why not just have someone build a replica pair of Nike Vandals for the movie?
“I’m all about authenticity. What’s the point of making a fake if you can actually convince the real company to make you the real thing? Which I did.”
After some back and forth between Matheson, Paramount Pictures, and Nike’s entertainment marketing division, the sportswear company acquiesced. It would halt production in a factory and produce around 20 pairs of the Nike Vandal, all for Terminator Genisys. The brand provided her with plenty of pairs: a handful in the size 13 of actor Jai Courtney who plays Kyle Reese in the film, and a size run to make sure she had a pair for whatever stunt doubles were hired.
While she’d finally acquired the pairs, successfully becoming the only person in the world at the time with a set of freshly created Nike Vandals, her woes surrounding the sneakers were not over. In a mystery that still hasn’t been solved, around half of the sneakers were stolen from the set one night. Matheson took it as a sign.
“I knew that this sneaker was important to the authenticity of the movie but I didn’t realize how important the sneaker was to so many people,” she says. “In some weird way it was validation that clearly this sneaker has a lot of sentimental meaning.”
Fortunately, she had personally set aside a handful of pairs, including those for actor Courtney and his stunt double. The show was able to go on even with the dwindled stock.
While Nike did create the sneakers for Matheson, it didn’t charge her or the studio for them. In fact, the company probably lost money on the whole thing given the production costs involved in bringing a sneaker back out for such a small run. What’s more, the company didn’t have any requests from the studio for more Swoosh involvement.
“It’s not an advertisement for Nike,” Matheson explains. “It’s not a product placement for Nike. This is a request from the creative filmmakers. Nike made absolutely no request for us to put any other Nike in the movie of any kind.”
In a strange turn of events, Nike actually decided to bring the Vandal back just a week before the July 1 release of Terminator Genisys. The colorway that came back on June 25 was even the exact same black/silver one spotted in the Terminator films.
There are some differences between the promo pairs created for the film and the retail ones that released though. The promo Vandals created for the film look more like the retro versions of the 2000s, which skip out on some of the details of the original shoe. The retail release of the Nike Vandal is much more oriented toward the 1984 shoe, coming without the extra piece of piping on the side and with the original stitching. The retail pair has the two circles below the Swoosh on the medial side of the shoe, where the promo one does not. The retail release also features a leather tab on back, where the promo pair has canvas there. And of course, the Vandal made for Terminator Genisys has its promotional status called out on the tag.
It’s hard to imagine that the timing of the sneaker’s comeback is purely coincidental. Nike’s original announcement made no mention of Terminator, although its title contains the phrase “It’s Back,” which could be interpreted as an allusion to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back” catchphrase from the movies.
Matheson was shocked to learn that the sneakers were coming back, insisting that Nike had no interest in the model when she initially approached the company about producing pairs about a year and a half ago.
So how did the Nike Vandal end up back on shelves? Did the company decide to produce a couple thousand pairs in order to make some money back on the promo ones it made for the film? Was Matheson’s request the catalyst for the latest edition of the shoe? The timing is too much for it to be a coincidence, but Nike hasn’t commented on the connection.
For anyone who spots the sneakers on-feet during Terminator Genisys, know that the return of the Nike Vandal is no accident. Rather, it’s the result of a costume designer who went the extra mile and got a billion dollar company to meet her demands.