It’s a brisk summer night in the north of England, and New Balance has assembled six of its most passionate collectors for a dinner on the floor of its fabled factory in Flimby. Oh yes, they’ll also receive their own 1-of-1 dream sneakers that they’ve spent the last few weeks designing—and years imagining.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of Flimby’s factory, where New Balance produces its “Made in England” sneakers. Since then, the brand has grown a cult following and the shoes made there exhibit the best that the company can manufacture. There are collectors here from across Europe and the United States, tears running down their cheeks as they’re handed their sneakers by Andy Okolowicz, the factory manager.
It’s a bold move by New Balance to center a marketing campaign and experience around people who love the brand but don’t have the same recognition factor as rappers and celebrities. But for a company that’s always chosen to do things its own way, this should come as no surprise.
“The whole [collector] community is something that we’re aware of. They’re a group we want to please, and we know they have really high standards,” says New Balance’s Creative Design Manager for Europe, Mark Godfrey. “We want to fulfill their desires in the product, and we make sure it appeals to them.”
The six people who were invited to design the sneakers (myself not included) were given the opportunity to choose from the brand’s 991, 1500, and 576 models and make them with the materials and custom text of their liking. “A couple of weeks ago the guys sent us their initial designs. We looked at them and thought, ‘Yeah, these will work really well.’ The fun part was taking them to the factory to find the materials that suited their designs,” says Godfrey, who helped guide the collectors in creating their sneakers. “It was fun to be on hand and steer them in the right direction. But these guys know what they like, and it was quite easy to make their fantasy shoes happen.”
It’s not often that you see brands caring about the people who contribute to their sales and cherish the products that they make year after year, and it was a big deal that New Balance invited this small group to create their own sneakers. The feeling was reciprocated by those invited to the event. “When people got their shoes they were teary-eyed. It’s a big thing. I don’t even have a pair of 1-of-1 custom shoes,” Godfrey says. “It was really cool to see people who really support the brand get their own shoes now.”
We spoke to all six of the collectors to find out which sneaker they made and why they did it that way, as well as how it felt to be get the chance to do this in the first place.