Jaden Smith doesn't see the world quite like the rest of us. From his unique vista, piles of discarded CD cases transform into tubular chunks of reshaped plastic and then become planar, forming the long conference table at his Calabasas office. What used to be 15,000 yogurt cups now make up his desk. Squint close at the chairs in the same facility and maybe you'll recognize a shimmer from their past lives as Coke cans.

"I have art in my house that's made out of trash," Smith says.

Even the shoes he wears, his just-unveiled Vision Racer signature model with New Balance, are defined by the way he looks at the world. Like his furniture, his footwear seeks to turn trash into treasure.

The sneakers, officially called the NB for Jaden Smith Vision Racer, incorporate recycled materials from top to bottom. This was a prerequisite for the 22-year-old artist, who signed a deal with New Balance in 2017. The partnership includes commerce and community—they want to sell sneakers, but Smith is just as focused on the brand supporting his philanthropic efforts.

Their first design together is almost cartoonishly chunky on bottom, the exclamation mark of a sole reminiscent of the beefy tooling trending in athletic footwear for the past three years. The heft comes from Smith's tendency to put two inserts into his shoes to lift himself higher off the ground. The upper is borrowed from the New Balance X-Racer, a modern lifestyle offering that launched in 2019. The Vision Racer releases globally in the "wavy baby blue" colorway on July 24 for $150. While it's Smith's first New Balance to release to the public, it is not the first shoe he's made with the brand.

Leading up to this release, Smith spent time in "sneaker school," a two-day tutorial at a New Balance factory in Maine where he learned how to build a shoe with his hands. 

"It's extremely difficult; it's very hard to do," he says of the process, noting that it changed how he looks at footwear. "I was not expecting how hard it is just to stitch a shoe together."

He also concocted one of the most unlikely hybrid sneakers ever, brokering a project with Louis Vuitton and New Balance for a one-off that paired the French house's wavy ArchLight sole with the NB 1700 upper. Smith had become enamored of the 1700 after discovering it on a trip to Japan, where the model is most prevalent. After that, New Balance started regularly sending him pairs, which he would routinely beat into the ground.

"Those were my two favorite shoes at the time," he says. "We just found a way to mix them together."

It's not the kind of mixture one would expect from New Balance, a brand that has historically been somewhat conservative when it comes to partnerships. It's been in the business of releasing limited sneakers for decades, but its collaborators on those projects have typically been sneaker boutiques. It has no business unit or ongoing line run by a multihyphenate artist, like Kanye West's at Adidas or Virgil Abloh's at Nike.

"We were pretty reticent to move forward with ambassadors representing our brand outside the athletic space," says Chris Davis, New Balance's chief marketing officer and senior vice president of merchandising.

Because of that, they proceeded slowly with Smith, an unconventional partner. His first contract from 2017 evolved into a second one that included plans for footwear and apparel. Throughout, he's challenged the brand in how it makes product and how it gives back to people.

"All of those things really pushed us to think differently and enable a unique process that we normally wouldn't have assumed under traditional New Balance guidelines," Davis says.

How did Smith help them think differently? His emphasis on creating a sustainable model actually enabled the brand to adapt its supply chain to better leverage recycled and vegan-friendly materials. On a nonprofit level, it meant getting New Balance involved with his efforts to bring water filtration systems to Flint, Michigan, and donating food and shoes to homeless people in Los Angeles.

Smith's passion for that kind of work, through his projects like Just Water and the I Love You Restaurant, is apparent in conversation. He was immediately inquisitive about how many toxic chemicals were going into his shoes. He's adamant that any company he's partnering with be prepared to fight alongside him in the causes he's dedicated his life to. He even wants to upend the usual standard promo rollout plan.

"It needs to give back to the culture," Smith says. "We need to give away the shoe free to, not influencers, but people that are real people. People that actually need shoes. People that are going to wear the shoes every day, into the ground, how I wear my New Balance shoes into the ground."

Those involved in the Vision Racer corroborate that Smith is a man willing to use his shoes until they are absolutely depleted. Even in this way he's distinct, far from the model of a fussy sneakerhead who sees a shoe as exhausted after a few wears. His scope on the scene is also shorter and informed by different moments. He does not feign a nostalgia beyond his years.

"I was paying attention to New Balance when Steve Jobs was giving speeches about the iPhone and iPad," Smith says. 

Nor does he feel consciously burdened by the weighty sneaker legacy of his father, Will Smith, who gave Air Jordans a richer pop cultural significance by wearing them regularly on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in the 1990s. The younger Smith also isn't soliciting design input from friend Tyler, the Creator, who has his own Converse line, because it's hard for him to ask advice on such a personal thing. The New Balance team sees his overall lack of guardrails as a plus.

"It's great to have that innocent, naive approach to the creation process with someone who isn't necessarily indoctrinated and put in a box," Davis says.

Strip those kind of guidelines away and you can create a shoe as bold as the Vision Racer. There was actually some trepidation in making it so striking, according to Joe Grondin, who manages collaboration product at New Balance and worked with Smith on the shoe. He remembers a worry that the chunky sole needed to be tempered. Should it be lowered and more palatable?

"We did that. We lowered the sole, got new samples. And then we all got them back, and then no one was feeling [it]," Grondin says. "It was kind of in this weird middle ground where it wasn't polarizing enough and it wasn't safe enough."

Instead, they cast off what was safe by creating something not too indebted to New Balance's DNA. The result is a sneaker that likely won't appeal to many of the brand's purists, but looks past that crowd and sets its sights on an entirely new and wider audience. It will still be limited at the first offering, but New Balance will look to increase production as it builds demand. The artist is hoping he can fulfill that trajectory.

"I want this shoe to be a shoe of the people," Smith says.

In addition to that, he wants to leverage his deal with New Balance to continue pushing for positive change in marginalized communities. Davis is committed to this, explaining that they have a purpose-driven mission of giving back that spans from environmental issues to social justice issues. They've given away free sneakers alongside him and pulled him for work with the New Balance Foundation. Smith is voluble on this topic—how he wants to show other Black kids how they can change the world, what he wants to do in Flint, how he aims to keep fighting.

"I'm honored to be a part of it," Smith says. "I'm honored to have a platform and to have a broader voice to even be here right now."

If this voice resonates with sneaker consumers, it has the potential to help reshape the image of New Balance. It's not quite a recycling but more a refresh, a path that could make the ultimate dad shoe brand more relatable for Gen Z. Will people see it the same way as Jaden does, though? Does the allure of a sustainable shoe require a widening of the consumer aperture to better accommodate his vision? Can he convince people that caring about the planet is cool?

"You don't have to convince people that it's cool," Smith says. "You just have to make it cool."

 

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