There’s a strong chance that someone won’t visit Flimby, Cumbria, in their lifetime. Tucked away in Northern England, the town boasts a population of 1,700, endless pastures of sheep and wind turbines, and narrow roads that wind to a New Balance factory that’s manufacturing the highest-quality athletic sneakers in Europe. It’s a cool day in August—the temperature doesn’t creep much above 60 degrees—and they’re celebrating something close to those who work in the factory and all across England: trainers and ale, real ale to be exact.
The New Balance sneakers that bear the “Made in England” label across the tongue have long been a testament to the brand’s dedication to keep production in the UK, along with being some of the most sought-after models in existence. This time New Balance has used the CT300, 576, and 1500 to celebrate pub culture, which are made to represent three different British-style beers: a golden pale, stout, and an amber red ale. All three sneakers, in fact, have “Brewed in England” across their tongue labels.
"We focus on things that are very central to Flimby and the UK. We drive a lot of inspiration from there," New Balance Senior Footwear Designer Mark Godfrey says. "The 'Real Ale' pack is embedded in the English pub culture that you can get across the world if you go into an English pub. So we think that's globally relevant.”
To further drive that point home , there were three limited-edition beers brewed in conjunction with Jennings Brewery, a local brewery in nearby Cockermouth that’s been around since the early 1800s. New Balance appropriately named the beers, “Chicken Foot IPA,” “Ye Old Flimby Prime,” and “The Cumbrian Red.” These stories are drawn from the brand’s history, and are all “real ales,” or a type of top-fermented brew.
That’s a distinction that New Balance is very quick to address and part of what makes this collection localized to those involved in the process. "This is real ale, rather than manufactured ale, and it's much more of a craftsman-oriented art,” Senior Footwear Developer Chris Hodgson says. "It's an artisan art, and we like to think that what we do is an artisan art, too.”
The detail and quality is evident in not just all three of the sneakers, but everything that takes place at Flimby. All three sneakers come with white liners, designed to represent the head on a beer that Hodgson jokes, “You can only get up north.”
If this pack of sneakers feels familiar, there’s a reason: Five years ago, New Balance also created a “Pub” pack, and the “Real Ale” pack is seen as a continuation of that idea. The UK factory is continually telling its personal story, and it’s not centered around what’s trendy for the season, but what they want to see stand strong in the future. "We like to think that when we finish it and look it, we can live with the stories. I can look at those three shoes and say, 'I can see how they represent a real ale,'” Hodgson says. "It isn't just, 'We'll make these three shoes in these three colors and think of something to sell them as.’”
Too many times, there are sneakers with obscure stories, ones that don’t resonate with more than a small population. They might look great, but there’s no real connection the people who will be buying and wearing them. That’s precisely why the “Real Ale” pack has a substantive value. "It's easy just to make one shoe and make it wild and crazy. It's more difficult to build a pack of three shoes and make them be involved in a pack with a story,” Godfrey says.
There is a limit to how premium New Balance can make its sneakers, though. In this given collection, the sneakers range from $160 to $250. As Godfrey says, "When you talk about packs, you want to keep the quality level high.” But he also knows there’s only so premium that they can make the sneakers. "If the price is too high, Chris [Hodgson] puts up a red flag and says, 'No way,’” he admits.
Hodgson gives light to the relationship between the designers and those making the footwear. "The designer designs a Rolls Royce and wants to sell it as if it's a Ford Mondeo. Even I could sell that, and I've never sold anything in my life,” Hodgson says. "We make the designers' dreams come true. The practicality is we end up with something that's a commercial compromise. We have a lot of discussions every time about what can and can't be done."
As much back and forth dialog that goes on beyond behind the scenes, there’s still the job of explaining to the consumer what they’re purchasing, the story behind it, and why the price tag is such. “It’s important to explain to people if a product is expensive why it costs that much,” Lifestyle Marketing Manager Tom Henshaw says. “The cost of manufacturing in the U.S. and the UK is a lot more expensive than in Asia. It's important for us to inform people on what happens in our factories and why those shoes are so premium. As long as consumers are educated, there's a place for this product.”
There’s also something about English-made product that makes it so cool. The customers want that “Made in England” text embroidered into their sneakers. As Hodgson recalls, “We once had the top man of New Balance Japan come over, and we sat him down in the meeting room. We said to him, "We've gone through efforts because of how much the Japanese love our products, and we can now embroider the pack of products with Japanese symbols. All he said was, ‘We like Made in England.’”
“A lot of people buy a German car or a Swiss watch. They look at the Flimby products and they want something to be intrinsically British,” Godfrey adds.
The appeal of the “Real Ale” pack is in the fact that someone doesn’t need to reside in England or frequent their local pub, watch football, and have a proper time with their mates to get a slice of the British lifestyle that New Balance is able to provide. Simply lacing up a pair of sneakers that represent the people that made them is enough, and Flimby’s manufacturing hub continues to make that possible. We’ll drink to that.
The New Balance “Real Ale” pack drops September 9 exclusively at European retailers like Sneaker Baas.