New Balance, well known for the ‘Dad Shoe’ reputation that their sneakers have obtained. They were the sneaker of choice in Silicon Valley (everyone remembers OG fashion icon Steve Jobs rocking the 992’s). But when did New Balance transition from your dad’s favourite shoe to consistently pumping out sneaker of the year contenders?
We take a look at the history of New Balance, how they transitioned into sneaker royalty and the collaborations and co-signs that helped them along the way.
Where it all began
New Balance began way back in 1906, created by a gentleman called William. J. Riley. Initially known as New Balance Arch Support Company, Riley was fascinated with how chickens balanced on their three-pronged feet. Seeing this inspired the creation of New Balance’s flexible arch support with three support points. New Balance was not a sneaker company originally; they merely sold arch supports to workers who had to stand for long periods.
In 1956 Riley sold his arch support company to his daughter Eleanor, and her husband, Paul Kidd. The arch supports caught the eye of athletes rather than workers and in 1960 and this inspired the first-ever New Balance silhouette. The Trackster released in 1961.
The sneakers were popular, but sales were slow, leading to selling the company to current chairman Jim Davis in 1972. What a stroke of genius this was as Davis has since steered New Balance to become one of the biggest sneaker companies in the world.
New Balance continued to grow as the hobby of running did, but it wasn’t until the iconic N logo featured on the 320 in 1976 that their popularity spread globally. In 1988 New Balance released arguably their most popular silhouette, the 574. This particular sneaker wasn’t just popular for runners and became the first style that people wore casually. The brand’s popularity boomed when A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg name-dropped them in the track Buggin’ Out.
New Balance has continued to grow, their 900 series gaining the most traction of any of their new releases. It helped that sneaker design legend Steven Smith was behind the design of the majority of the 900 series.
New Balance has a reputation for using high-quality materials and superior construction techniques. This ensures the sneakers last the test of time. Although a completely different company to the one founded, arch support is still at the forefront of every shoe they create. You may even see a chicken printed inside some New Balance boxes as a nod the companies founder.
How did they go from running trainers to streetwear royalty?
Success isn’t new to New Balance; they have consistently thrived for many years. However, they were always known as sneakers for older consumers. With Steve Jobs rocking them at Apple presentations and many of the less popular silhouettes landing in discount stores, New Balance had a stigma around them that they were not ‘cool’.
The introduction of their new Senior Global Collaboration Manager, Joe Grondin, is to thank for the massive boom in popularity and becoming a mainstay in the streetwear industry.
By handpicking niche, collaborative partners with dedicated, younger fanbases, New Balance has been able to finally gain the interest around their releases that the likes of Nike and Adidas have become accustomed too.
By partnering with a brand such as Teddy Santis’ Aimé Leon Dore, known for its eclectic mix of sportswear meets high fashion, New Balance would’ve caught the eye of ALD’s following and put them on the radar for that audience.
Any other examples?
Montreal based JJJJound and Miami brand Stray Rats working with New Balance done exactly the same thing for them. Tapping into these niche markets, knowing the fans of the brands will be clamouring at the chance to purchase the collaborative sneaker. New Balance has gained a vast yet organic streetwear following which has seen their popularity skyrocket.
New Balance has also allowed these brands to work with unfamiliar models that sneakerheads probably aren’t familiar with. Sure we’ve seen ALD collab on the 990 and 997, but they also took over the less recognisable 827 with massive success.
Streetwear consumers love to be different. We appreciate it when brands put this kind of effort in; they have not just milled out tired, obvious silhouettes in a different colourway to make money. We have seen similar success with Stray Rats 827 model and Casblanca’s 327 Idealisté.
That is not to say that there isn’t a place for the classics to be reimagined. Joe Freshgoods recently put his magic touch on a pair of 992s, dressing them in a mix of pinks and burgundies. A sneaker that now resells for around £700.
JJJJound have also taken over the more traditional NB silhouettes with tremendous success. Subtlety has always been vital for JJJJounds products, so adding these minor adjustments to a classic shoe like the 992 is what you’d want from a JJJJound x New Balance collab. Replacing the New Balance logo on the heel and having the sneakers in earthy, neutral tones is what every Justin Saunders fan wanted to see from this collab.
The collaborations we loved
After all that talk of collaborations, let’s take a look at the greatest sneakers New Balance have made with various streetwear giants. The list is in no way definitive; New Balance has many great pieces with both KITH and Concepts, for example. But these are the collaborations that I think put New Balance on a different level to its competitors.
Aimé Leon Dore
Aimé Leon Dore has partnered up with New Balance on numerous occasions. Each collaboration has instantly sold out. They sell for insane amounts on the resale marketplace. The two in particular that I think shows what the brand is about are their 990v2 and 997 models.
The 997 was the first collaboration between the two and gave you an idea of the luxurious feel ALD brings to the table. There were two colourways; both made up in similar shades but one pair featuring yellow tongues whilst the other featured pink.
Everything about this collab felt premium, the box and insoles featured high quality flowered prints to give you that ALD vibe.
The 990v2 went in a slightly different direction, swapping out a colourful summery palette for an earthy dark-toned combo. A sneaker for winter rather than the 997 summer-ready version.
Both pairs perfectly reflect the brand identity of Aimé Leon Dore. To really compliment the shoes was the advertising that Teddy Santis done for the releases, using an older man and women dressed to the nines in ALD wearing New Balances. The advertising felt like a real throwback, even using NB’s old taglines. A perfect collaboration and two I wish I got my hands on.
Casablanca is a new fashion label from Charaf Tajer, a French-Moroccan mastermind. He takes inspiration from women’s fashion and implements it in menswear. They are known mostly for their beautifully intricate designs across silk shirts and knitwear.
New Balance’s collaboration with Casablanca saw them debut an entirely new silhouette, the 327. It was a risk for New Balance to partner with a relatively unknown designer on an unreleased sneaker, but a gamble that paid off. The 327 was described as having a twisted 70’s look, one that compliments what Casablanca brings to the table flawlessly. Vibrant colours feature across both pairs of the 327, one predominantly orange the other green.
The sneaker encapsulates exactly what Casablanca try to accomplish with their apparel releases, beach-ready vibes. The NB x Casablanca is a collaboration I cannot wait to see more of in years to come.
JJJJound isn’t new to collaborating with New Balance; they first tested the waters back in 2018 with the JJJJound x New Balance 990v3. As with most of the collaborative work JJJJound do, they kept the majority of the silhouettes OG styling. The sneaker featured minimal hues from top to bottom to fall in line with the design studios branding. The 990 was not traditionally the go-to silhouette for sneakerheads, so the shoe selection by Saunders was fascinating.
Fast forward to the year 2020 and JJJJound have recently dropped multiple colourways of the New Balance 992. Uncharacteristically, Saunders selected the most popular New Balance sneaker currently on the market. The 992 has seen a boom in its popularity, with the likes of Sporty & Rich’s Emily Oberg co-signing it. The sneakers come in two colourways, a classic grey version which we have come to expect and a mostly green version with hints of sail throughout.
As with most things Saunders touches these turned to gold, selling out instantly. Both pairs now fetch around £700 on the resale market.
Chicago native, designer and creative director Joe Freshgoods is a true icon in the streetwear space. He boasts collaborations with McDonald’s, the Chicago Bears and of course New Balance.
Freshgoods ‘No Emotions Are Emotions’ New Balance 992 dropped on Valentines Day. The sneaker drew clear inspiration from the day as it featured a mix of pinks and reds in various luxury materials. ‘Don’t Be Mad’ branding features in place of the classic 992 brandings.
Despite the apparent success of the 992, when Freshgoods posted about the release on Twitter one user replied:
“Never did I hear somebody wait in line for a pair of NBs.”
Joe would soon make the user feel foolish when customers were queuing around the block in the snow for a chance to cop a pair. Freshgoods even put the tweet on a t-shirt to sell alongside the sneaker. The release confirmed that New Balance is a sneaker to be reckoned with amongst the streetwear elite.
The final collaboration that I think pushed New Balance forward as a streetwear/sneaker brand was the effort with WTAPS. The ultimate dad shoe, the 992, selected.
Pronounced double-taps, WTAPS has a considerable following, adored by streetwear aficionados worldwide. The colourway selected is instantly recognisable as a WTAPS creation due to the military theme. A mix of olives and greys grace this sneaker with the odd pop of orange. WTAPS lettering replaces the 992 branding to finish this sneaker off. It is collaborations like this one that has opened the door for New Balance to broaden their fanbase.
Where next for New Balance?
The only way is up for New Balance at this point; each silhouette expertly made and exceptionally well crafted. They always had a premium sneaker that could make waves in the industry. The issue was building hype around New Balance and getting them on the feet of people who could help them reach the heights of Adidas, Jordan and Nike.
New Balance has no issue giving the brands they work with full creative control, which is why I think their recent releases have rivalled drops from their competitors. Who would have believed ten years ago that people would be queuing in the snow for a New Balance 992 as they did for Joe Freshgoods sneaker?
As long as NB carefully select niche collaborators to create excitement amongst a younger audience, they will only go from strength to strength. I know I for one will most definitely be keeping tabs on what Joe Grondin and New Balance has next for us.