Steve Jobs needed an upgrade. Sure, in his hand at the January 2007 Macworld expo in San Francisco was the most technologically advanced mobile communication device Silicon Valley could imagine. But, as he unveiled the iPhone to the public for the first time there, his toes at the tip of the cutting edge, his footwear was slightly outmoded. The enrapt audience, a congregation of tech media types and Apple acolytes, did not seem to notice. Headlines from the historic event did not focus on his New Balance 991s, a "dad shoe" of relative vintage from 2001.
"People that are not into footwear like you and I, they may not know the difference," says sneaker designer Jonathan Bacon.
The "difference," for the uninitiated, is the shift in shape and technology from the 991 of 2001 to the New Balance 992 of 2006, the latter a Bacon design that's enjoying a first-ever retro this season. This difference has dissolved in the memory of Jobs zealots, many of whom could conjure up an image of the "Steve Jobs New Balances" in their head, but couldn't necessarily pick them out on a shelf next to similar models. One would have expected that Apple's chief officer would have upgraded to the 992 by the iPhone's unveiling in 2007, but that wasn't the case. It wasn't until later that year that he began getting regular use out of the sleek silvery grey New Balance 992, the shoe most associated with him today.
"He probably had them in his closet; he didn't want to switch," Bacon, who started working at New Balance in 1999 in between stints with Puma and Reebok, jokes about the delay.
New Balance bet big on the 992, very big. It needed a special product to mark the brand's 100th anniversary. It needed a worthy addition to the 99X line, which informally began in 1982 with the introduction of the boldly priced New Balance 990, the first-ever $100 sneaker (that's $273 in 2020 money).
"Every person in the company had their eyes on it," Bacon recalls of the lead-up period to the 992. "It was such a big shoe."
There's a myth that someone outside the company had their eyes on it as well. Lore goes that New Balance chairman Jim Davis tapped Jobs, a friend and longtime fan of the brand, for design insight on the 992. The company's current employees won't comment on this connection. Bacon says he definitely didn't collaborate with the late CEO in any way, but that it's possible Jobs approved the final silhouette.
That final silhouette landed in the middle ground between bulky tech runner and fashion shoe for college kids. The thick rolling shapes of its upper, rendered in a subtle silver, are at once familiar and forward, swooping down only to whip back up in sharp curls. New Balance made over a million pairs, beginning with an initial launch phase in late 2005 that led to a full rollout in February 2006. The sneaker was discontinued around 2010 and hasn't been back until its 2020 retro. Casual fans may be unable to disentangle the similar 991 and 992, but there are important differences.
Part of the 992's appeal comes from its total accessibility. New Balance made the shoes in a huge variety of widths and sizes—78 in total, compared to an industry standard of around 30—so anybody who wanted them could fit in. There were slim 2As all the way up to extra-wide 4Es. For cushioning, the 992 used a new ABZORB SBS shock absorption material in the heel and forefoot, which manifests in the form of the gummy bear-feeling pieces on the shoe's sole. New Balance also slid an ABZORB insole inside the sneaker. According to NB creative design manager Samuel Pearce, who helped bring the 992 back this year, it was the most expensive 99X model to make when it debuted.
Pearce has worked for New Balance since 2011 and was a fan of the brand long before that. He still has the original pairs of 992s he acquired in 2006, which he had to import from the U.S to his home in the U.K. The product was proudly American made, and acquiring it outside of the States sometimes meant paying extra or making a cross-continental connection.
Like many of the sneakers from New Balance's made-in-America line, the 992 wears that association via a flag on its upper. That connection almost went awry, though, according to the original designer. Bacon, who left New Balance in 2005 before the model enjoyed a full release, says that he originally planted the flag on the shank on the bottom of the shoe, only to realize potential offense that stepping on that emblem could incur. By the time the sneaker came out, he'd moved the American flag up to the tongue.
Pearce, who was 20 years old when the silhouette debuted, was one of the New Balance employees who lobbied for the retro return of the 992. The campaign required some persuasion. It had sold well enough in its original run, but it was something of a middle child in the 99X series. Until the 2020 revamp, it was the only model in the range that wasn't still in production or had never been retroed.
"It was unsuccessful in comparison to other 990s that we'd done historically," he says. "It was the one that sort of got away. They were expecting big things—just the timing of running shoes and that chunky look wasn't exactly right for that time."
The 992 did count fans in serious New Balance circles, though. There were coveted versions, like the "Associates Pack" special editions box sets created for people who worked for the company. Those pairs, which marked the 100th anniversary of New Balance on the heel, occasionally pop up on eBay, where collectors swiftly purchase them. Pearce still hunts down old stock and has seen an uptick in interest for those archival pairs, despite no real marketing push from the brand around the 992 relaunch.
The return of the New Balance 992 couldn't have been more perfectly timed. While it may have been slightly off-trend when it released in 2006, when people were frothing over Air Force 1s and Bapes, it feels of the moment in 2020, when every brand is cranking out similar "dad shoe" runners. The resurrection coincides with a crescendo for New Balance, which has recently tapped collaborators like Aimé Leon Dore and Casablanca to create fresh energy around the brand. They even had Joe "Freshgoods" Robinson do a special pair of 992s, the first collaboration on the model, for February's NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago. Fans there braved cruel temperatures to secure the shoes.
"That was a silhouette that nobody did before, and I know that New Balance is going to push the 992 out this year," Robinson, who discovered the Jobs connection while researching the shoe, told Complex in February. "It was kind of a no-brainer."
How else does the Jobs co-sign linger over the model? The visionary co-founder of Apple became a fashion icon in the wake of his 2011 passing, a frequent focal point of moodboard Instagram pages. The posthumous celebration of his reliable uniform, a consistent normcore look that could be produced by a contemporary label like Paa, makes frequent reference to his shoes, which are often New Balance 992s.
"Well, for me, anything Steve loved is the ultimate stamp of approval," says Alan Galloway, a master of the sort of Instagram accounts mentioned above who runs handles like @SeeReverseForCare, @FILM.WAVE, and his personal page, @oldmanalan. "He ultimately has formed and changed our world in so many ways with technology. It's pretty wild when you dive even deeper into his history as a whole, how wide his influence really was and still is."
New Balance tracks the proliferation of the 992 in that corner of the internet, which helped inform the model's reintroduction. Fittingly, the messiah of that scene, JJJJound designer Justin Saunders, posted a teaser of what appears to be a 992 collaboration from his Montreal-based firm this month.
Those more interested in the pure, inline takes on the shoe should be advised that the New Balance 992 of 2020 is not exactly the same as the New Balance 992 of old. Developers of the revamped 992 made small changes to it. Where the original had an ABZORB insole, the new one has an Ortholite sockliner. The underfoot feel is slightly softer, too, with a polyurethane that is not so stiff this time around. The lowermost lace placket piece is also altered—the 2020 New Balance 992 has one less hole there. If these alterations have alienated the longtime collectors, as is sometimes the case, it hasn't reflected in sales.
Despite no real push from New Balance, the first-ever retro of the 992 has flown off shelves. Its return came as something of a surprise, Joe Freshgoods version aside. Bacon, the shoe's original designer, didn't even know it was coming back until he stumbled upon a pair in Europe. Quick sellouts suggest that others have been waiting for this moment. Kith blew through the pairs listed on its website. Road Runner Sports is out of stock. It seems that, 14 years after its debut, the New Balance 992 is right on schedule.
"It's about time that people know," says Pearce.