One of New Balance's most popular sneakers of 2020 wasn't something brand-new, but it also wasn't a simple re-release of years past. The 2002R, the R added for the 2020 version, was based off the brand's 2002 sneaker. The original version was a $250, "Made in USA" lifestyle shoe from 2010. Last year’s update saw the shoe's original upper paired with the sole unit from the 860v2. The 2002R gained popularity this past year thanks in part to a collaboration with former Versace designer Salehe Bembury, as well as projects with Thisisneverthat and Invincible, but the origins of the shoe are murky, even to die-hard footwear connoisseurs.
The original 2002 was billed as a luxury running sneaker, a piece of footwear designed for those who fancied themselves as bosses. It fell in the line of the brand's lineage of gray suede running shoes, but it was an updated version of the typical dad shoe. The 2002 was designed to be a top-of-the-market sneaker, and borrowed its sole from the brand's premier running shoe at the time, the 1906. The price tag made it aspirational. At $250, it retailed for $100 more than the retro Air Jordans that released the same year.
In 2010, the 2002 had a full-length gel cushioning system on the sole, as opposed to only having gel on the heel for the re-release in 2020.
"The 2000 series, it was a super expensive price point, nothing really rivaled that within our brand at the time," says Andrew Nyssen, who designed the upper of the original New Balance 2002. "Back then, I was not making as much as I do now, so I was like, 'Man, who would spend that much money on this shoe?' Could not even fathom paying full price for that thing. But there is so much technology and so forth that goes into it that you can see just how there is all that value."
The sneaker caught the eye of some of the brand's biggest fans. Ronnie Fieg, who would go on to open Kith a year later in 2011, received a pair from the brand and raved about them in a 2010 blog post: "New Balance sent me these crazy Made In The USA 2002′s and they are a perfect 10. The color is RF grey so you already know I put them on my feet today. The midsole is stacked with a better suspension system than most of your cars. For $250 these are one of the most comfortable shoes I have ever rocked with."
The sneaker remained obscure to some degree, which Nyssen believes could be because of its price tag.
"If that retailed for $250, I cannot imagine what that sold for wholesale," he says. "And if you had a full size run of that in your backroom, that is thousands of dollars potentially, just on that one model."
Working at Foot Locker at the time, I never saw the 2002 in-store. We sold the 992 in 2008, but I only remember seeing the 2002 available from the brand's mail-order catalogs.
Richie Roxas, who works as an assistant manager at New Balance's flagship store in Philadelphia and has the largest collection of the vintage New Balance sneakers in the world, doesn't remember people wearing that shoe in Philadelphia at the time, although the city was a hotbed for the company.
"You could only find it online, or at an outlet a year after it released. We didn't have flagship stores at the time," he says.
Washington, DC, and the DMV area, which includes Maryland and parts of Northern Virginia, has long been regarded as the cultural capital of New Balance. While the brand was born in New England, it was the streets and hustlers of this mid-Atlantic region that gave the brand its credibility outside of runners and dads with lawnmowers. While sneakers in the 900 series have been the favored models of the DMV, the 2002 also received some shine a decade ago.
"990, 991, and 996 have always been our staples," says Adrian Carter, a DMV native who now does marketing for Undefeated. "If anything, it was impactful because of the tech and higher price point, which for many was intriguing. The dude with a bit more to spend would cop. If you had them, it sort of solidified your status."
Carter says the 2002 wasn't selling out to the point where it wasn't available in stores.
Luxury and the CEO lifestyle are what inspired the design of the 2002. Nyssen shared an early image in the design process of the shoe, where he Photoshopped it on the feet of New Balance's then-CEO, Rob DeMartini.
"I wanted to design a sneaker for our CEO at the time and asked myself, 'What would that look like?'" says Nyssen.
The original moodboard for the shoe also included Bentleys and Hublot watches.
"We were looking at Bentleys [when working on the shoe]. It is the combination of high-end luxury with high-end performance and that you can have both," says Nyssen. "The same with watches as well that perform, but also just are the utmost in luxury and stature. That is what we were thinking about, looking at when we were designing the shoe and building it out."
To create a $250 sneaker for New Balance, there better be legitimate performance and quality behind the model, as that's what the brand's focused on since its inception in 1906. Fittingly enough, the 1906 sneaker is what lended many of these qualities to the 2002.
"We went to the performance running team and it was like, 'What is the highest end in a sole unit you guys are working on right now?'" says Nyssen. "Let's color it up in a way that does not scream performance, but it has the attributes that we want. It seemed to work out pretty good."
Continuing the car analogy with the 2002, which is a performance model built for lifestyle, Nyssen says, "You are probably not taking it to the race track, but if you want to show off at the stoplight, you could."
Runner's World wrote about the 1906 sneaker, giving its sole unit an unfavorable review, saying, "This concept shoe is built on a series of durable elastomer columns designed to cushion the foot by acting as independent shock absorbers. Unfortunately, the resulting cushioning is a bit heavy and hard, particularly in the forefoot, according to our lab tests and wear-tester comments."
The 2002 was reworked into the 2002R in 2020 thanks to longtime New Balance Japan employee and product line manager Tetsuya Shono.
"He used to be a designer before he was a product manager. So he knows every detail about every main US shoe that has been released. Especially on the most pinnacle versions, shoes like a 2002 and like 2040, had quite a run in Japan," says New Balance's current director of collaborations, Joe Grondin, about Shono. "And they were one of those shoes that crossed over in that fashion lifestyle world where it did not always cross over in the rest of the world.”
As previously mentioned, the sneaker ditched its out-of-production sole unit for the current tooling from the 860v2, a sneaker New Balance brought back in 2019. The 2002R has a much sleeker shape and more functional sole unit on it now. It also costs much less, retailing at $130, as the sneaker is manufactured in Asia instead of the US.
"This sole is probably even lighter, which I think only improves performance too, when you cut some weight," says Nyssen. "Visually speaking, it is easier on the eyes. Kind of flows better, heel to toe. Not breaking up the flow of the shoe as much."
Bembury, who previously served as the head of men's footwear at Versace, got his own crack at work on the 2002R last year. In a year that was dominated by the 992, it was refreshing to see him interpret the new-ish sneaker. He replaced the gray suede with a bright orange, had John Mayer debut it, and caught the eye of the sneaker Internet in the process.
"I wanted to work on a classic New Balance model, because I had some opportunities to work on newer silhouettes. And I was kind of wanting to work on something that spoke to my connection and nostalgia with the brand," said Bembury in a 2020 interview with Complex's Riley Jones. "Then kind of once I saw the lineup of what was to release this year, I noticed that there was a lot of 992s, which is obviously like a classic shoe, probably one of the fan favorites of New Balance. But for me, it's kind of just important to stand out, this being my first collaboration. So I just knew that I didn't want to do a 992 and that if I went with the 2002R, it would sit a little bit more alone."
Another collaboration that made noise with the 2002R was the pair from Taiwan's Invincible, which had a much more subtle take on the shoe. It kept the gray motif for the shoe, but mismatched the branding on the tongues, leaving one blank. There was also text added to the toecap.
"You can never really predict if something is going to be big. But the updated 2002 just felt right with anti-hype/dad look going on," says Invincible co-founder Michael Vincent. "It felt like it belongs to the moment and could be a possible classic in the future."
Invincible’s collaboration on the 2002R was very limited and only released in Asia, which has resulted in the shoe retaining a solid resale value.
The 2002 was a sneaker birthed in an upcoming designer's imagination in 2008, released in 2010, forgot about by everyone for close to a decade, and then re-released in 2020 to fanfare. Quite a life for a shoe that was intended for the upper crust of society, only to return as a Democratic model that's won over the hearts and wallets of consumers around the globe.