How the New Balance MT580 Became a Cult Classic

From beginning as a budget runner for Japan, the MT580 became a staple for New Balance connoisseurs around the world thanks to Mita, Hectic, Stussy, and more.

Mita New Balance MT580 MTH Hectic
Flight Club

A Mita x Mad Hectic x New Balance MT580 from 2008. Image via Flight Club

Mita New Balance MT580 MTH Hectic

There was a time in the early 2000s when getting the chance to buy a pair of the New Balance MT580 was akin to winning the lottery. In Tokyo, where the shoe rose to prominence, people would flock by the thousands to stores that stocked the limited-edition colorways to enter their name into a raffle in hopes they’d be lucky enough to purchase a pair. In an era when the hype sneaker market and aftermarkets were in their infancy, the MT580 cast a foreshadow on the coming decades.

The New Balance MT580 has by now earned a cult following, but it wasn’t supposed to be here. The shoe, a chunky trail runner originally designed as a budget model in Japan, could have easily stayed there. It could have died in the ’90s, when it was an ugly duckling on shelves compared to flashier, techier models like the Nike Air Max 95, the Reebok Insta Pump Fury, or the Puma Disc Blaze.

After its mid-’90s debut, the MT580 was relegated to sales bins, although not doomed there. The allure of its rugged colors and aggressive sole turned the MT580 into a favorite for affiliates of the streetwear brand Mad Hectic and venerated Japanese footwear retailer Mita Sneakers.

“It was a secret trend amongst our own people,” says Shigeyuki Kunii, creative director of Mita Sneakers, of the silhouette’s prominence in Tokyo’s Harajuku scene.

Thanks to a few important admirers, the New Balance MT580 did not stay a secret. Once a regional exclusive intended as a takedown of an American shoe, the MT580 was sustained through the turn of the century by Japanese tastemakers, arrived in America to scattered fanfare years later, and returned to stores once more recently in a fresh era of interest around New Balance that could give the MT580 its biggest stage yet.

When New Balance Japan first released the MT580 in 1996, the intent was to create a cheaper version of the American-made M585. (Neither are to be confused with the American-made M580 from 1992.) New Balance produced the MT580 in China, which allowed the brand to sell the shoe for ¥12,000, equivalent to around $110 in 1996. The shoe was introduced as part of the trail line; the “MT” in “MT580” stands for men’s trail.

New Balance 585 Original Catalog

A New Balance catalog from ‘96 shows that the two silhouettes are nearly identical—they’re even listed at the same weight of 392g each. They both have a stocky midsole with New Balance’s Encap and C-Cap foams and a graphite Rollbar piece. The specs for both shoes were mostly the same, save for small differences in the lacing, upper, and sole. The M585 used an EVA cup insole where the MT580 had a cemented insole, and the M585 had mesh and synthetic leather on its upper where the MT580 used cordura and nubuck.

The MT580 debuted in bolder, earthy colorways that helped it stand out: a brown and a moss green that were distinct from the M585’s sporty combo of navy and white. The MT580’s palette eventually widened with the help of Mita Sneakers when New Balance tapped the store to work on special editions of its sneakers.

New Balance 1996 Catalog Trail Running

“Around the end of 1998, we received an offer from New Balance Japan to collaborate with them on product development,” says Kunii.

The store could have chosen to work on a New Balance model that was already popular in Japan, like the 576 or something from the brand’s 1000s range. Instead, Mita selected the MT580, an idiosyncratic choice that had become almost part of a uniform for their staff. In developing their own versions of the MT580 with New Balance, Mita Sneakers consulted with Naotake Magara and Yoshifumi “Yoppi” Egawa from Mad Hectic. Yoppi had already proven his appreciation for the model, having once purchased the entire MT580 inventory Mita had in 1998.

By 1999, Yoppi was working with Mita and New Balance Japan to extend the life of the MT580, updating its original colorways with cues pulled from Vasque boots. The partnership was the first of its kind for New Balance, which had never worked with two outside entities for a three-way sneaker design, nor had a shop led a collab in Japan.

“The unique collaboration format, which was unprecedented at the time, and the story that developed from the history of the original color material up, all reflected the Harajuku culture and Japanese way of essence of the time too,” says Tetsuya Shono, a lifestyle director of sports style product at New Balance Japan who started there in 1997 and got his first MT580s around 1999.

Stussy Mad Hectic New Balance MT580

The first two sneakers from the New Balance x Mita Sneakers x Mad Hectic released in December 2000, then in low production numbers and to a relatively small audience.

“After the first release,” Kunii says, “the buzz was amplified by articles in monthly fashion magazines and word-of-mouth on the streets.”

By the time the second set of two came around before the year’s end, Shono remembers, Mita had to establish a lottery system as a fair means of distributing the limited amount of shoes to the growing number of people who were interested in them.

The successful collaboration grew more prolific as the decade progressed. From 2000 to 2009, Mita and Hectic worked on 37 different versions of the sneaker together across 20 different releases. Kunii, Yoppi, and Magara took turns designing the shoes, like a penalty shootout. There were pairs inspired by Japanese skate teams, Champion reverse weave hoodies, and the rare Nike Air Azona hiker.

New Balance, through its collaborators, even got permission to lift two Nike Air Huarache colorways courtesy of Stüssy’s distributor in Japan.

“I took the liberty of copying the Stüssy x Nike Air Huarache colors and showing Stüssy,” Yoppi says.

Stüssy’s distributor liked the idea so much they released Yoppi’s designs on two collaboration versions of the MT580 with Mad Hectic in 2003. (As there were too many names in the lineup, Mita was not officially billed on the project.) Their two colorways, one in avocado/gold and the other in thrush/beige, were pulled from the Stüssy x Nike Air Huaraches from 2000 and feature embroidery on the heels that reads “Mad Stüssy.”

New Balance MT580 Olive Raw Cashew Egg Yolk

In December 2022, New Balance released two retros of the MT580 reminiscent of those Stüssy pairs of old. Ironically, they came a year and a half after Nike brought back the original Stüssy Air Huaraches for the first time in 2021.

When the New Balance MT580 was becoming a regional icon in Japan in the 2000s, sneaker communities were taking shape on the internet. On forums where users obsessed over exclusive shoes, the geographic boundaries of these releases would dissolve as people from around the world traded information and pairs to each other.

In this era, the New Balance MT580 finally made its way to America. The shoe, by then part of a Japanese tradition of painstaking re-creation of American sportswear, was to boomerang back to the US not as the American-made M585, but as the MT580, a collector’s model stamped by the streets of Tokyo. Its arrival in 2008 was marked by an ad in the August/September issue of Complex that announced the shoe was coming to America.

Prying the sneaker from New Balance Japan, who’d made it hot, and bringing it to the US was not easy. 

“Our Japan team especially, even when I first joined, was very reticent to have the US market take any of their super, ultra-cool stuff,” says Steve Gardner, who started at New Balance in 2008 and is now the brand’s head of domestic R&D. “And for all the right reasons, I mean, those guys were the ultimate curators.”

New Balance MT580 Coming to America

The New Balance MT580 officially hit the US in August 2008, when a black/purple and a grey/yellow were released at Footaction and Foot Locker. A New Balance fan blog at the time noted that Zappos had a tonal grey pair that month too, and a different black/purple version was available at David Z in New York. Gore-Tex pairs hit shelves in 2009. The shoe got even more rugged that year when Snowboard brand 686 turned the MT580 into a full-on boot. 

New Balance’s push around the shoe in America at the end of the 2000s didn’t translate into commercial success. Mita and Mad Hectic were still cranking out hits in Japan, but stateside, it was an acquired taste for anyone who wasn’t a real New Balance geek.

“You either loved it or you didn’t understand it,” Gardner says.

It took references to American military gear to get the MT580 to begin to connect domestically. One of the releases that enlightened New Balance’s product teams in the US as to how much potential the shoe had was the Flight Jacket duo. The pack had one army green/orange pair with ripstop nylon and Gore-Tex uppers inspired by the MA-1 bomber jacket and a rich brown pair with furry liners inspired by the B-3 bomber jacket.

The shoes weren’t originally meant to release in America, but New Balance procured a tiny allocation for the US. It was around 120 pairs, enough to give the market a taste but fall well short of demand.

New Balance MT580 Flight Jacket Pack

“That shoe, though limited, people went crazy over it,” Gardner says. “That was the one that kind of set up the conversations.”

In tandem with those conversations, New Balance was planning its first American collaboration on the MT580. Much of the credit on that piece goes to Luis Navarro, who worked at New Balance from 2008 to 2019. When he started at the brand as a manager for lifestyle products, the MT580 was the first shoe he gravitated toward.

At trade shows, Gardner and Navarro courted Rick Williams and Roland Coit, who had taken over Detroit sneaker shop Burn Rubber in 2007. New Balance wanted Burn Rubber to work on a special makeup. Williams didn’t need much convincing.

“I was already very into New Balance,” Williams says. “It was about finding those MT580s overseas and only a few people having them in the States that made it special. Only a few people even knew about the model.”

When he got the call from New Balance about working on a project together, he didn’t wait for them to send him a design file. Williams hopped off the phone, took a photo of one of his personal pairs, and created the line art based off that.

“I sent it over to Luis for him to look at and he replied with a NDA and our contact,” Williams says. While he was quick to get to work on the MT580, he remembers that New Balance was a little hesitant, and tried to convince him to design a Burn Rubber version of the 999 instead.

Burn Rubber New Balance MT580

The Burn Rubber x New Balance MT580 gave the shoe a more muted palette than it was used to from Mita. It was dressed in buttery grey suede and mesh, with a white midsole, gum outsole, and argyle liner. Its flash was subtle—the reflective silver heel popped in the right light and the white patent piece on the tongue needed close inspection to be appreciated.

The shoe was the first fully American collaboration on the New Balance MT580 (not counting Undefeated’s pairs with Mad Hectic) and a foundational project for Burn Rubber. When it was released on Black Friday in 2010, the store’s phone lines were jammed for hours as callers who couldn’t make the lineup in Detroit tried to get through and buy a pair. Orders came in from Japan, proving that at least some Americans understood the shoe well enough to earn the approval of its original gatekeepers. The sneakers sold out in 45 minutes.

“That was the first time that MT580 really connected here in the US, was that shoe. To me, it hit different than anything else we did,” Gardner says of Burn Rubber’s pair. “That Flight pack was super cool, but nobody noticed it except the true connoisseur.”

From there, New Balance sought to elevate the shoe out of its niche. More collaborations from outside Japan came in 2012—Burn Rubber went back with two more in the “Blue Collar” and “White Collar” versions, West NYC gave the sneaker an alpine spin, and Undefeated used it as part of a four-way project with NB, Colette, and La MJC. Mita stayed busy, reissuing its first three packs of MT580s in 2010 and dropping more colorways into the new decade.

Navarro believed that as the MT580 was heating up, there was still more potential to be served. 

“Eventually we got to a tipping point,” he says, “where we had built just enough momentum out of the collab space that I was then saying, ‘There’s an opportunity here to engage with this consumer year-round.’”

It was time for the sneaker to scale and become truly commercial. In the last decade, New Balance significantly increased the silhouette’s presence at sneaker stores globally.

Stray Rats New Balance MT580

At first this came via the more accessible Elite Edition pairs, like those from the Barber Shop and Propaganda packs in 2013. Then the sneaker evolved as New Balance equipped it with Revlite foam to form the MRT580, which got rid of the Rollbar piece. There was the Deconstructed version from 2016, which cut out some of the original’s heft for a lighter, perforated upper. The New Balance MT580 had transitioned from being a rare shoe for NB heads in the know to something more ordinary. Where does it stand in New Balance’s catalog today?

The MT580 hasn’t benefited from the rising tide of hype that’s elevated New Balance in the past three years. That’s partly due to the model and its variants being largely out of production for the past few years. The energy around the New Balance right now is relatively narrow in its focus, and it feels like those discovering its catalog for the first time haven’t stumbled upon the MT580. Although, they’ve had reasons to recently and can anticipate more in the future. 

New Balance has signaled that it’s aiming to put the MT580 back in the spotlight. In 2022, it worked on pairs with Palace and Stray Rats, the latter paying tribute to the sneakers’ legendary run in Japan in the 2000s. Inline colorways, the kind one doesn’t have to worry about selling out, have supplemented that wave. There’s also a big brand collaboration for the model coming in the summer that New Balance isn’t ready to reveal just yet.

And, decades after making the shoe hot, Mita Sneakers isn’t finished with the MT580. In recounting the store’s nearly 50-deep catalog of SKUs for the model, Kunii does not stop at 2019, when Mita’s last pair released. He extends the timeline to an unseen 2023 MT580 which, he says, is coming soon.

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