What the J.Crew x New Balance 998 Sell Out Means for Sneaker Culture

J.Crew has figured out the limited-edition sneaker market. But what's going on?

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Complex Original

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Before I started working at Complex, I was a part-time sales associate at a J.Crew store in central New Jersey. I hated my job. The discount was nice, but the women and men who would only shop the sale section would wreak havoc on my patience. 

From my experience, people shop at J.Crew for one of four things:
1. They got a new job or have to attend a function and don't want to look like a schlub.
2. Their girlfriend dragged them there to dress them like the men they fantasize about dating. 
3. They want to get into the ye old Americana trend.
4. They want items that are an extra 40-percent off.

And the majority of the aforementioned people are all a little bit of number four on that list.

When New Balance released its second true collaboration with J.Crew, the "Independence Day" 998, online this morning, I expected them to sit around for a bit. Not because the sneakers weren't great, but J.Crew shoppers tend to lack a sense of urgency. And on top of everything, this release was priced at $175, $15 more expensive than the other exclusive 998s available at J.Crew.

But to my surprise, the sneakers were virtually sold out. And this was at 7 a.m. as I viewed the brand's e-commerce site from the comfort of my bed. This seemed impossible. It's not like sneakerheads are designing online bots to instantly pillage J.Crew's digital stock.

The sneaker had previously released at select J.Crew locations this past weekend, and the brand, which overshadows independent sneaker stores in size, made its collaboration feel like something small and special. A national brand had captured the excitement and feel of a boutique working on a silhouette and theme that meant something to their respective story.

Maybe J.Crew had put together the holy trinity of sneaker collaborations: The "Independence Day" 998 was tied to the 4th of July, it was Made in USA, and it came in a colorway that appeals to nearly everyone.

Or it could be something completely different. J.Crew has worked with New Balance on expressly made products since 2011, but this year has signaled the first time that the two have put their heads together and formulated cohesive collaborations—giving them nicknames, a calculated release strategy, and all. (The first was the "Inferno" 998 that released earlier this year.) The previous sneakers hadn't sold out right away. The sat on shelves and were available for multiple seasons.

But, there was something different about the "Independence Day." The "Inferno" felt like a flash in the pan, and it caught me by surprise. I wasn't sure if J.Crew and New Balance would continue working on real collaborations. But when the "Independence Day" press release hit my inbox, I immediately knew that J.Crew wasn't just stocking suede New Balances that complemented its selection of oxford shirts, slim-cut chinos, and unstructured blazers. The retailer had made the sneakers the sole focus of the email. They were really trying to sell a product that wouldn't be available anywhere else.

The "Independence Day" 998 was made in Skowhegan, Maine. It also tied back to both New Balance's heritage in the U.S., and what we would expect from late-'80s and early-'90s runners. But this sneaker wasn't a desperate cry to bring back sneakers of yesteryear—much like how J.Crew's "traditional" clothing doesn't feel trapped in the pages of Take Ivy.

The sneaker collaboration had legitimately crossed over to mall brands—not that Converse and Undefeated hadn't tried before. It felt like our niche sneaker culture—that thrived on overseas sneaker boutiques and websites that would need translation—had made its way to mainstream fashion.

But J.Crew wasn't just slanging these New Balance sneakers to guys looking for chambray shirts they picked up with an extra 30-percent off coupon. It had now targeted sneakerheads directly. The sneakers had been posted on almost every sneaker blog. And if anyone needed evidence that limited sneaker releases had crossed over to the national conscious, this release was it.

J.Crew put its sights on roping in its #menswear crowd which had a newfound interest in sneakers. It also attracted the average sneaker consumer who might not even pay attention to how their pants fit. And if J.Crew can make sneaker collaborations a surefire win, there's a bigger opportunity for retailers, if done the right way, to get in on the fun.

We have an insatiable hunger for products with stories and that are limited. J.Crew exploited this, and I'm not mad at all. There isn't much difference between a J.Crew collaboration and one from the list of boutiques that we continually champion. It just feels that way right now.