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If there’s been a pair of New Balance sneakers designed by retailer DTLR, then June Sanders made that. Sanders, who serves as the product design manager at the chain retail store that’s primarily located in the mid-Atlantic and northeast, is a DMV native who was born in Washington, D.C, and ended up growing up in Maryland.
He’s worked at DTLR in different capacities since 2002. Over the past few years, he’s helped the brand dip its toes into the collaborative space, with his work on New Balance models such as the 990v4 and v5, 992, and 997, which are at the forefront of his design portfolio.
In recent times, New Balance has aligned itself with the sultans of cool for its collaboration partners—Joe Freshgoods, Aimé Leon Dore, Casablanca, Stone Island, Salehe Bembury, and Bodega, to name a few—but Sanders and DTLR offer perhaps the most important lens for purists of the brand. It’s the DMV region that helped transition New Balance from the favorite shoe of dads in every suburb to a label with authentic street credibility. Starting with the original 990 in 1982, selling a sneaker for the bold price of $100 made New Balance a status symbol in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, and slowly carried it up the I-95 to cities such as Philadelphia and eventually New York.
The gray suede sneakers became a mainstay in the region, and it’s only been recently that the brand has openly acknowledged the role the capitol and its surrounding areas played in the brand’s success. What separates Sanders and DTLR from the whole host of New Balance collaborators isn’t just their geography, but also that the retailer is much more accessible to everyday people. It’s not a boutique with one or two locations, or a streetwear brand that specializes in clothing that’s gone as soon as it’s available. You can find DTLRs in your local mall or shopping center. You can buy sneakers there for the whole family. They’re designed to serve the communities they’re placed in, not just the select cool kids on the internet who are in the know.
It’s all this connectedness that makes Sanders’ collaborations resonate with people. Whether it’s his 992s that were inspired by DC, or the 990v4s that took their looks from the Maryland flag, or the latest 992 that took cues from New Balance’s American heritage with a Polo twist.
Before Sanders joined DTLR, he was running a white T-shirt brand called Luxe that was namechecked by Young Jeezy in “My President” and served as the blanks for legendary street fashion brand Miskeen. It’s often cliche to say someone is “of the culture,” but there’s really no more straightforward way to describe Sanders, whether we’re talking about his contributions to streetwear or New Balance.
We had the chance to talk to Sanders to hear about his history, his work, and what he has going on next. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Being from the DMV area, when did you first get hip to New Balance?
When I was in high school. I graduated high school in ‘91. So I would say ‘88, ‘87. Because even back then, I mean, Nike and Reebok were the shit back then. Do you know what I’m saying? They were the leading brands. One of my cousins would always wear New Balance. He would wear all the latest stuff. He had New Balance 574s back then. And then eventually, we got into the 1300s and all the other numbers and only the dope boys from here wear, that’s why this area is synonymous for New Balances.
I remember going to a club in Philly back in the day. This was probably in 2000, and the people in Philly would be like, the girls would be like, “You must be from DC.” And I say, “Why you say that?” They say, “Because you got on New Balance and your socks.” And slouch socks was the thing back then. New Balance is synonymous with this area. And so it was just something that was natural because you wanted to dress like the big boys or the hustlers. It just became that thing that just felt like it was home and just wearing that.
They have the NB1 program. I’m sure you’re familiar with that, right? Apparently, it’s shut down because of COVID and they need to use that line to create the simple shoes that they get out for other people. So it’s kind of messing up because I got a few shoes that was supposed to come out this year. I’m not sure if they are going to make it. So it’s all good. Still got work to do.
Being at DTLR, being into New Balance and obviously New Balance being big in the area where the retailer is, how did the whole you designing New Balance thing happen?
When I was a footwear buyer, I always wanted to do what I’m doing now. So I already foresaw it, but DTLR, at the time they kind of was into it, but it wasn’t their thing. Everybody wants something special, right? I just presented to them and said, “Hey, let’s see if New Balance would make this special shoe.” And the first shoe was the DMV 990. “Let’s do a shoe that’s celebrating our town.” And when I did it, that shit went crazy. And it was like, “OK, this is something.” And through that execution, it became like, “Hey, I need to do more of this and focus on this to make these special products and come up with special things that touch people that people can relate to.” I’ve pitched so many ideas to New Balance that didn’t get made, too.
I think it’s interesting, too, because a lot of the time the names who do the collaborations tend to be either streetwear brands or boutique limited editions, like a Bodega or Concepts.
But DTLR is an every-person sort of retailer, and I think it’s interesting that your store has been able to do these projects that you normally don’t associate with collaborative partners and still make an impact, you know?
Yes. That’s the goal. I want to get to the point where I have my name on it, too. But as a brand that would only happen if I had my own establishment. That’s what I’ve been told. And I’m creating product at that level. So it’s like, they’re not doing nothing that I’m not doing. They’ll give them a little bit more, they’ll give them a special box. I’ve asked for boxes for years. It’s little small things that they’ll give them that they want to make sure that they separate the retailer from the “influencer.” But it’ll get to that point. The more that I create products that people enjoy, then hopefully it’ll make sense, one day if I leave and then I start my own business. I already got a portfolio, works that I’ve done. I’m just staying focused on project by project, looking at what I got coming out for the next year and how can we make these things better.
I want to talk to you about the 992, the DC one, how special was that?
When I did the DMV shoe, social media could be a gift and a curse, as we know. There was a lot of requests for a DC version, but the whole plan was to create a trilogy, do a Maryland shoe first because the Maryland flag out of all three flags, the Maryland flag stands out the most. It’s the most recognizable. I said, “Let’s do this one.” And then the next year come out with a DC shoe, when I was told, “No, they said you don’t have enough stores in DC to support this shoe.” And I was like, “You guys are crazy.”
It took four years to say yes, that’s why the shoe just came out this past year. It would’ve came out in 2017. It came out in 2021. When it came out it was really impactful. We saw the love. I went out that day when the shoe came out and went to a couple stores.
Me and this guy Mike Angelo got a sprinter and we went to stores when the shoe came out. I missed the days of standing in line getting shoes. And that’s what I wanted. I wanted people to stand in line and have a better chance of getting their shoe than getting a raffle ticket. It was very positive, no fights.
We were short in inventory. Sold the 3,200 pairs in the day and could have sold more. When it comes to developing any of these exclusives, I don’t come up with the number that we should get. If I put it out right now, I can sell 10,000 pairs today. It has that type of gravitational pull.
Do you think that New Balance shows enough love to the DC area, given how much the region has contributed to the brand?
I think now that they are. The DC area has also got to the point where brand Jordan is calling on my marketing team to make a push like we did with the DC shoe, which is very strange. They got the Cool Grey 11s coming out. And they’re trying to have it be effective in the DC market specifically. Try to create that type of energy. I was really surprised that they would even think to do that here. But it was based off the impact of that New Balance shoe. So New Balance themselves, I think that they see it, and they’ve tried their DC concepts that were cool. It wasn’t as impactful, and we still need an engine to push it.
I think that they know that this is the place that they get the most love from. And then you got somebody like Joe Freshgoods. You got a dope shoe, right? You got Chicago. He did a release party in DC for his shoe. In his campaign, he had a car with DC tags on it. I got to think that I had something to do with that.
Were you happy to see that?
It was bittersweet in a way, because it’s like, Joe knows who I am. I know who he is. We never talked on the phone, but we know each other, right? For me to come up with a DC shoe and for him to do his campaign, it would still be dope if he didn’t add DC to it. He didn’t need to add DC to it to make it sell. But for whatever reason he added the DC car inside the campaign, he did his pop-up shop here at the store called Somewhere. I even bought a pair. But in my mind, because I’m thinking strategy, he could have did that anywhere, and it would’ve been dope. But he wanted to, I guess, show love for DC because, once again, we wear New Balance. So it’s no love lost. It actually surprised me that when I saw it, I was like, “Why is DC a part of that?” But I get that he wanted to show his admiration, his love. And I think one of the girls that worked with him, she’s from Virginia.
I was having a conversation with someone from DC who works in the sneaker industry. And they were telling me that he feels like there’s a divide a little bit between really bright hype New Balance shoes and then OG DC people who only want a shoe in gray or in less bright colors. Do you think that’s a thing?
I think you got the guys that only want traditional, but you can’t stay the same way for forever. It’s like Air Force 1. You have guys that only want white, that’s fine. But it’s a whole world out there. You want the tricked out. They want to give me them the coloring book, give me the one with this, give me all that. For the guys who want OG stuff, then let them do that. But the only way to grow your business is you got to create new. You have to create new.
How do you feel about the uptick in New Balance in the hype circles, whether it be a Joe Freshgoods 993 or Salehe 2002, or just even a lot of the inline 992s were pretty popular last year. What’s your take on that?
I think that’s great. I think New Balance has the most tastemakers out of any brand that’s creating. I love the energy that you see oozing out of it, because it’s so many different vibes and it feels so natural, where it’s not forced. The only other brand that’s really killing them is Jordan with Travis Scott. New Balance, I feel like it’s like we are super friends. We all have all different vibes, whether it is Casablanca, whether it’s JJJJound, everybody’s doing a thing and they all look really good. And it feels natural. It doesn’t feel forced. And that’s the side of the table I’m trying to stay on.
Do you wish New Balance put a little more energy toward the stuff that you guys are doing to kind of lump you guys in with that string of collaborators?
Absolutely. I think me as an individual should be lumped into that. It’s like when Ronnie, when he was with David Z, he made a name for himself there and eventually he became the super huge icon in footwear right now. That’s where I’m headed. It’s just who’s going to help push that along. When you look at the history of the stuff that I put out, it’s been pretty good. I think if New Balance, if they get behind it a little bit more, even things that I bring up like, “Hey, maybe we can get a box for these next releases. Maybe we can get something extra because it’s extra going to the customer.”
I want to make the customers feel a certain way. It’s all about emotion, right? I mean not just selling a product and selling them an emotional product, because people connect with shit, it’s like we can go back and think about what was your favorite shoe as a kid and how it made you feel at that time. I want to create that now.
Can you talk a bit about the Varsity 992 and what went into that?
Yeah, so, the Varsity shoe. I always have certain timeframes that I agree on with New Balance to drop, so this was scheduled for Labor Day and it came out on time. I was thinking about sporting, thinking about the Olympics, and thinking about the US, and it was like, you know what? I definitely want to keep a grey base in mind for this. And I still always liked the red, white, and blue thing, but I wanted something that felt natural. And one day I was just like, wearing my Polo Ralph Lauren stuff, and I was like, “I can really make a shoe out of this vibe.” And so the vibe was thinking about the Olympics and thinking about the US.
I kept trying to put it together from that perspective. I know New Balance didn’t want me to mention anything Olympic because of trademark issues. I mean, hell, you probably got a million shoes in your closet, right? But it’s certain shoes you probably go to that you could wear a lot more than others. And I want to make sure I keep people wearing the shoes. The goal was to wear, right? So that’s how that came about. But this is the one that actually stood out the most and we created this over a year ago. What’s your thought on the shoe?
I like it. I wore it over the weekend, and I’d seem to get a pretty good reaction on it. I like the colors on it. The only complaint I have about it is that the laces are too long.
You know what? I agree with you. You know what? Matt, that wasn’t my thing. I didn’t say make the lace extra long. This is the first time that’s happened. So it was a factory thing.
New Balance in the DMV area is synonymous with a hustler’s type of shoe. But a lot of the time New Balance, as a whole, the perception is an old white dad, Adam Sandler brand. So how do you balance, literally balance, the brand being for street cats in DC and also 50-year-old dads in Ohio?
When you think about it, we’ve been in a dad’s shoe era for the last two to three years, although they’re designer brands. New Balance, they’re the original cool dad shoes. They’re also the first shoe company that has a $100 price tag. Back in the day, we wanted expensive shoes. That became the attraction. “Hey, I got on a $100 New Balance and you have on the $50 Reeboks.” It became a separation, it became a status. It’s just more elevated today, but it’s always been like this. I think its even more the time to say, “Hey, this is the brand you should be looking at.” And it’s not just about, “I see that little shoe, it’s comfortable.” They’re one of the most comfortable out of all sneaker brands, they had some of the most comfortable shoes.
And best quality, too.
That’s because they create different lasts and things like that. Nobody else is going there.
You said that this was supposed to be a three-part shoe. You said that you did a Maryland shoe, a DC shoe. Does that mean there is a Virginia shoe in the works?
I mean, eventually. I had it as one of the things I want to do. But right now, I’m already supposed to be finishing off projects for 2022. I definitely want to do up a Virginia vibe. Next year I got a Miami shoe coming out. That’s going to be big. So I don’t want every shoe that I will produce to be based on a city.