Nobody expected a shut-down sports bar to be the setting to produce the first signature sneaker for 18-year-old tennis star Coco Gauff. But in 2020, as coronavirus quarantine upended traditional workspaces, the expected became increasingly uncommon.
New Balance, the sneaker brand partner Gauff has worked with since she was 14, took over Paradise Sports Lounge, a bar owned by her father in Delray Beach, Florida, using it as an impromptu design space for a day while it was closed for business. It was a necessity—virtual gatherings lack the candor needed to make good product. Behind the lounge’s tinted windows, employees from the brand traded ideas with Gauff in a first effort to distill her personality into a sneaker.
“They literally built out boards that I was able to print out and pin up,” says Evan Zeder, head of global tennis sports marketing at New Balance. “And it was: Who are you? What’s your vision? And we got her mom, her, her aunt, her best friend, we threw some music on.”
The long session would be followed by more rounds of feedback, and proper sneaker design with more traditional tools back at New Balance’s headquarters outside of Boston, but Gauff cites that vision meeting as the genesis of her signature shoe.
“We spent about five hours creating mood boards and talking with various designers on the New Balance team about what I liked, didn’t like, what I hoped for the design,” says Gauff, who is currently ranked no. 12 in the world at singles and no. 1 in the world at doubles, “and performance of the shoe and various other things to make sure they had a great starting point to be able to start to design the shoe.”
That shoe, the Coco CG1, is making its commercial debut two years later, arriving on Friday in a neon-accented launch colorway at $170. She will wear her sneaker at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time next week, lacing up a pair at the US Open.
The model is dressed in touches personal to Gauff, from her name scrawled on its tongue to a mantra from her father (“You can change the world with a racket”) inscribed at the tip of the toe. It’s an unconventional tennis sneaker, cut higher than the average with a silhouette that resembles something you’re more likely to see on a basketball court.
“I took inspiration from basketball shoes and a mid cut isn’t really done in tennis so I wanted it to be unique in that way,” says Gauff. “I also wanted the shoe to be looked at like something you could wear on or off the court and I really like the street-style feel to a mid cut.”
Like Gauff, New Balance is keen on making the shoe viable for performance and lifestyle wear. One gets the sense there are likely collaboration pairs coming—although the New Balance team that worked on her shoe won’t give up any info in this regard other than cracking a smile and displaying some visible restraint.
The colors of the Coco CG1, a bold and bright couple of combos so far, are part of this effort. The shoe in this way evokes the flashy ‘90s models from Nike’s Air Tech Challenge line of tennis shoes that Andre Agassi played in.
The ‘90s and its pastel shades were an important design reference point for Gauff, despite her being born in 2004. The group who worked on her shoe ascribes her cultural awareness of a decade that preceded her time on this planet to her being an old soul. It shows in her interviews, where she displays a poise beyond her age. It shows, too, in the culture she consumes, according to New Balance designer Cordell Jordan.
“I’m a ‘90s baby and she almost knew more about the ‘90s than I did,” Jordan says. “She had certain inspirations from music—Aaliyah, TLC—certain graphics. Even one thing she talked about was the way the shoe should be paneled.”
Instead of hot melts and no-sew sections, the panels on the Coco CG1 are held together with more traditional stitching, as was more commonplace in shoe making decades ago. The neons of the launch colorway double as a connection back to the sizzling colors of her home state.
“I just love vibrant colors and in the ‘90s the fashion was so much fun,” says Gauff. “Also being from Florida it was a little nod to the Miami Vice, Art Deco, sunset vibe of Miami Beach.”
The second colorway of the sneaker, also releasing on Friday, is the one Gauff will wear next week in Queens. There, at the US Open, the model will have its proper on-court debut at the highest level of professional play.
Her sneaker was actually ready in time for Wimbledon earlier this summer, and originally planned as a March launch before that, but New Balance didn’t want Gauff to rush into playing in the Coco CG1 by switching up her footwear for that tournament at the last minute. Right after Wimbledon (where she advanced in singles play to the third round before losing to Amanda Anisimova) she made the change, putting her shoes on for exhibitions and matches leading up to the latest Grand Slam.
Her CG1 “DigiCoco” designed for the US Open is darker than the first colorway, with a rich red and blue upper that features a yellow outsole. This version of the sneaker is inspired by video games in reference to how Gauff’s talents are “almost video game-like,” per New Balance. Its colors are arranged with attention to the tones of the courts she’ll be playing on.
“You don’t want to have too much blue in the actual shoe itself—at least touching the ground,” Jordan says. “For certain colors you want to add more pop, more pizzazz, to give it a higher contrast.”
More important than colorways used are the actual tech aspects of the Coco CG1. New Balance says the sneaker uses the best materials the brand has available for performance shoes, which in this case means FuelCell cushioning and a Fit Weave Lite upper. Its sole uses Energy Arc, New Balance’s version of the foam-embedded carbon plate system that’s been popular in footwear for years now.
“It’s always been used in running, but to switch over into tennis obviously is a bit of a different challenge,” says Josh Wilder, a tennis footwear product manager at New Balance who worked on Gauff’s shoe. “Running is very straightforward, whether it’s on a track or whether it’s on long-distance running. When you’re playing tennis, you’re making lateral cuts all around the court.”
The carbon plate is designed to propel the wearer forward. Wilder says this has resulted in Gauff feeling like she’s better equipped to hit overhands and jump with a real feeling of bounce. The carbon fiber is embedded in a soft foam and then wrapped in rubber and a harder foam to add the kind of lateral stability needed for an athlete who’s moving horizontally so much.
The length of the plate changed while the shoe was being developed—at first, New Balance gave Gauff a sneaker with a full-length plate. They shortened it to cut down on stiffness, but the tech inside the Coco CG1 didn’t change drastically during the design otherwise. The upper didn’t shift much. For Gauff, the main goal was cutting precious ounces from her signature silhouette.
“One of the biggest things that changed over the course of the two years was the weight of the shoe,” she says. “When it comes to performance on court you want a light shoe, and the New Balance team was able to use different materials and a carbon fiber plate to make it as light as possible while still making it ideal for wearing and optimizing my performance.”
The brand tweaked the sneaker up through fall 2021 before settling on its design. Now that it’s out in the world, it’s a somewhat nerve-wracking period for the designers, who are finally seeing her live in the product after all their work.
And now that Gauff is actually wearing it in real competition, New Balance is already soliciting feedback from her. In all likelihood, Gauff’s first signature sneaker with New Balance won’t be her last.
“With the footwear industry being on such long lead times, we’re already even asking questions about what would she want to be improved, or what does she want to be changed,” says Wilder. “We’re going to give it a little bit of a buffer, a couple months I would say, but then, of course, you’re already starting to look ahead to the future and say, ‘What’s next?’”