/ 17 January 2023

New Balance sneakers gaining in the coolness stake against Nike, Adidas

Ronnie Fieg For New Balance
Established in 1906, New Balance offered arch support for those working on their feet all day. Photo: Supplied

In an era of casualisation of fashion and footwear, New Balance has gone from the uber practical shoe loved by dads to the go-to sneaker for sneakerheads, models, rappers and internet tastemakers who deem what is cool. 

But New Balance’s reputation as “the connoisseur’s shoe” has existed since the 1970s, with its popularity coming from an unexpected place: the streets. 

“In the last couple of years, like with so many other things we love, we’ve seen [mainstream] fashion borrow more and more from street culture, which has led to [New Balance] having a moment,” says Dane Maharaj, a Johannesburg New Balance enthusiast who has been collecting the brand for more than a decade. 

Over the past three years, people today want to look and feel very different from what they had before the Covid-19 pandemic. Style and comfort in footwear were seen in conflict with each other, but today the two are being stitched together. 

If the shoe fits, wear it

Established in 1906, New Balance offered arch support for those working on their feet all day. It was not until 1961 that the first New Balance running shoe was introduced in multiple width sizes, marrying performance and style. 

“[New Balance] hit upon a novel idea: foot length had always determined the size of a mass-produced shoe, but what about foot width? That year it introduced its ripple-soled Trackster running shoe, available in a range of half-inch widths. It was a revolutionary idea, but very little effort was put into marketing the shoe,” says author Nicholas Smith in Kicks. 

The boom in amateur running in the 1970s paired with new ownership under Jim Davis. In a 1972 New Balance magazine advert, Davis — who remains the brand’s owner — says, “show me a runner whose shoes don’t fit, and I’ll show you a loser”. 

Unlike other major sneaker brands, New Balance do not identify their shoes by a weird name but by a number. The higher the number, the better the shoe, ranging from the 320 to the coveted 990 model.

“The retro runner New Balance models are most comfortable right out of the box […] but to be honest some other models are neither here nor there. The 550 and 650, which are retro basketball sneakers, are really just as uncomfortable as any other basketball shoe of that era,” says Maharaj. 

The year 1976 saw New Balance’s 320 model running shoe ranked as the number one running shoe in Running World’s inaugural shoe guide. Despite this, advertisements for the 320 model did not focus on athletes, but on mom’s and dad’s walking on the streets of the United States’ east coast cities such as Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington DC. 

In the 1980s, American street hustlers, dealers, and hip hop subcultures turned to the New Balance 990, because it was the first sneaker to cost $100, according to the New Balance history. 

“It wasn’t just the price of the 990 at the time that made it popular, but it also fit in with the city’s overall look for those who were working on the street or trying to make a few bucks. This is one of those things they had to have on the street,” ​​says Duk-Ki Yu, founder of Major, a sneaker shop in Washington DC, in a Complex report.

Phife Dawg’s lyrica in the 1991 track, Buggin’ Out by New York City-based rap group A Tribe Called Quest, “I sport New Balance sneakers to avoid a narrow path,” references one of the brand’s ads for its wider widths. With Phife Dawg’s shorter and wider stature, he probably copped a pair or two.

This rise in streetwear, elevation of sneakers into a status symbol, and the pandemic’s effect on lifestyles moved consumers towards the 990. The model infuses most of the new releases sported on the streets by cultural tastemakers such as Frank Ocean, Hailey Bieber and Donald Glover while capitalising on something that’s always been in their catalogue. 

Ultimate dad sneaker 

Today, the New Balance 990 is not the only sneaker whose come-up is underpinned by practicality and nostalgia, nor is it the only sneaker whose success is tied to subcultures. The Adidas Samba, worn by British football fans, has made a comeback through collaborations with fashion designers such as Grace Wales Bonner. Nike’s Air Jordan 1 is coveted for limited colourways and collaborations with Virgil Abloh and Travis Scott. 

But the world of cult sneakers is narrow. A 2021 report by Complex revealed that Nike was worried about losing customers to other brands such as New Balance as a result of shoppers’ growing frustrations with Nike SNKRS, the brand’s sneaker app for its most coveted products. 

What draws people to New Balance though, is that they are already retro models. Their timeless nature is genuine, says Maharaj. 

At South Africa’s top sneaker store, Shelflife, there is a strict “one pair per customer” policy on the highly-coveted grey 990 model, to avoid too many resellers upping the price online. 

​​According to reseller site StockX, New Balance has seen a 200% increase from 2021 to 2022 and is the sixth-fastest growing sneakers brand on the platform.

“For avid runners and ahead of the curve tastemakers alike, the 990 is a mark of quality and superior taste. There have been updates to the design since ’82, and more colour options, but the 990’s aspirational status symbol aura has never changed,” says Shelflife. 

“Worn by supermodels in London and dads in Ohio,” reads the 2019 campaign for the 990, which allowed New Balance to leverage its comfort and quality and social capital that fuels consumers to buy into trends. 

The sleek, clean sneaker focuses on minimalism and quality. The New Balance consumer is mature in their style choices of cut, colour, and they are too cool for graphics and overt logos. New Balance’s competitors make great shoes, but they’re just not the modish dad sneaker. 

The typical “dad sneaker” is chunkier, neutral-toned and favours comfort and function. Luckily for New Balance, today’s fashionable folk favour clunky, comfortable walking shoes, sweater vests and loose-fitting jeans and pants. 

“New Balance’s core-line is Asia made and mass produced, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re of inferior quality,” says Maharaj. 

New Balance’s other premium ranges of shoes are “Made in USA” and “Made in UK”, an uncommon choice for mainstream shoemakers, because costs to manufacture in these countries is relatively higher. The UK range is hand-machined and probably the best quality general release shoes you can buy, adds Maharaj.

New Balance is the only major footwear brand still producing more than four million pairs of athletic shoes a year in the United States, according to its website. They have not been making an entirely new shoe silhouette or range of products.

Right collab, right time

Savvy collaborations with renowned designers perpetuates the brand’s popularity across today’s sartorial tribes. Since 2020, the brand has launched dozens of collaborations with other brands. Sticking within the existing catalogue of sneakers — especially the 990 — collaborations with Miu Miu, JJJJound, Kith, Donald Glover and Aimé Leon Dore are highly coveted and well-paced so as to not overshadow one another. 

“I think we’re a leader in the global lifestyle and global collaboration space because we’re relentlessly focused on being the best version of ourselves, not the biggest version of ourselves,” says Chris Davis, New Balance’s chief marketing officer and son of owner Jim Davis, in a Complex report. 

Even Shelflife paired with local designer Dr.Z to collaborate with New Balance on the 574 model, which saw the “City of Gold” take inspiration from Johannesburg’s train network and the “Parktown Prawn”, says Nick Herbert, Shelflife’s founder. 

These collaborations aim to get press mentions that speak to different style tribes simultaneously: Miu Miu’s collab speaks to fashion’s high rollers, Aimé Leon Dore speaks to sporty menswear tastemakers and Donald Glover’s collab pairs well with his dapper style.  

These collaborations build an extended community that affirms the belief that New Balance are cool and against the grain. 

The collaboration that stands out the most is with Aimé Leon Dore (ALD), the nostalgic New-York-based brand known to set the bar for menswear trends today, founded by Teddy Santis. In January last year, ALD’s sneaker collaboration was based on the obscure 550 model, a basketball shoe that was almost forgotten about since its release in 1989. 

In just over a year, the 550 has gone from zero to hero after the viral “runners aren’t normal” campaign, ALD’s tiny wink to New Balance’s history. Other campaigns tap into different subcultures with features featuring basketball players, rapper Action Bronson, and restaurateur Eddie Huang. 

There is even desire for the 550s in South Africa. Online searches for “New Balance 550s” spiked since the campaign launch in January 2022, according to Google Trends. 

“My favourite pair of New Balance is without a doubt my Grey Made in UK 1500s. They were my first pair of Made in New Balances and made me feel like Action Bronson,” says Maharaj. 

Like Santis and Maharaj, people have true affinity for the brand, while some are trend hoppers. 

“I think we will see the fashion crowd lose interest in the 990s and 550s, like they do in most things, but they will always hold its place in street fashion and sneaker culture,” says Maharaj. “In South Africa, over the last decade I’ve seen New Balance come and go in the mainstream consciousness and they haven’t always been hits.” 

Over the past 18 months, ALD’s New Balance collaborations have earned $30.5 million in media value, according to data analytics firm Launchmetrics. ALD’s and Santis’s effect on the brand has led Santis to become the creative director of the “Made in USA” collection, New Balance’s premium line. 

“What happened with a lot of other sportswear brands in the past decade [is] they found these great partners […] and that partnership became so big, it outshined what the business needed from a foundational standpoint,” says Teddy Santis, in an interview with the Business of Fashion, who has become New Balance’s Made in USA creative director. 

Now that New Balance has established its own lane, the hard part is maintaining its fashion footing.