2020 has been the strangest year of our generation, so maybe it’s only fitting that a back-to-basics brand, such as New Balance, has gained steam.
New Balance has long been an outlier among the major footwear companies. It’s the only brand that still manufactures a percentage of its products in the U.S. (and the U.K.), and for most of its existence, it didn’t sponsor athletes, with its slogan being, “Endorsed by no one” (the brand reversed this strategy in the 2000s). This made it impossible for the company to compete with behemoths such as Nike and Adidas on scale, but what it did was engage a niche market of die-hard enthusiasts that can’t get enough of the brand’s grey suede running sneakers.
This year has seen the first re-release of the 992, a “dad” shoe that became popular for its chunky sole, grey suede design, and co-sign by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. The sneaker was reimagined by Joe “Freshgoods” Robinson, a designer from Chicago, who admits that he was never a big New Balance guy growing up, but has been learning the brand’s history since releasing his version of the shoe at All-Star Weekend in his hometown to much fanfare.
“It was me taking an opportunity to put New Balance on a platform to win at All-Star Weekend. I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done in Chicago,” Robinson said on The Complex Sneakers Podcast. “Everything I did was a challenge; can I have people line up for New Balance in -5 [Fahrenheit]? And I did. I had a lot of local support.”
Even though the sneaker was one of the brand’s most hyped releases, it still had its detractors, myself included, in the beginning. The sneaker was produced through New Balance’s custom program, which the brand later tweaked so the sneaker couldn’t be recreated online. “True New Balance fans were like, 'That wasn’t a real collab!'” Robinson said.
But it also did a lot of good for both Robinson and New Balance. It cracked Complex’s list of the best sneakers of 2020 (so far), it’s resold for over $1,000, helped bring hype to the 992 model, and, as Robinson recalled, brought people to New Balance that have never worn the company’s sneakers before.
He said that there’s another project with New Balance coming in the fall.
The 992 also saw success this year through an exclusive release with Kith that used New Balance’s defining grey and blue scheme, known as the “CL” colorway.
“The CL colorway needs to be celebrated as much as possible,” Ronie Fieg, co-founder of Kith, said on The Complex Sneakers Podcast. “In 1995, 1996, 1997, those three years, before [Mayor Rudolph] Guliani cleaned up, the drug dealers needed something comfortable to stand on the corner. They’d come in wearing Air Force 1s, Air Maxes. Back then, New Balance was an orthopedic brand. Back then, the 1300 [in the CL colorway] was the most expensive New Balance you could buy. That’s how New Balance became a thing.”
Fieg’s version of the 992 sold out immediately and now fetches over $800 on the secondary market. He also reworked the 1700 model in two colorways, as part of his “The Colorist” project, a nod to how he refers to his footwear talents, rather than calling himself a designer.
The 992 also released in a military-themed pair from Japanese streetwear brand WTAPS that was impossibly hard to get, as it was only sold at retailers that stocked the brand’s clothing. It surprised many when the sneaker passed the $1,000 threshold on StockX a few days after it dropped.
High price tags on New Balance sneakers are nothing new. It’s not uncommon to see its sneakers retail between $200 and $300, due to domestic production and premium materials. But the brand hasn’t achieved soaring prices on the secondary market in some time, and it can be off-putting to core collectors who are used to paying a fair value for shoes.
“I’m not the biggest fan of [the resale values] on a [Kith 992]. You put those shoes out in a classic CL colorway as a GR, and that’s all it needs,” says Thomas Lindie, who is a partner in New Balance Gallery, the internet’s largest fan-run Instagram account and community for the brand, and works in marketing at Aberdeen sneaker boutique Hanon, a frequent New Balance collaborator. “I don’t think it needs the Kith attachment. But it’s good. I don’t think New Balance needs it, but it adds fuel to the successes of recent shoes like Joe Freshgoods and Casablanca .”
One of the biggest elements of New Balance’s current success has been picking the right partners to work with. The brand’s quality, consistently strong design, and being on trend with the chunky, dad shoe phenomenon helps, but partnering with brands such as Joe Freshgoods, Kith, Casablanca, and WTAPS has amplified its relevance in the streetwear and sneaker conversation.
“We completely changed our [collaboration] strategy over the past couple of years,” says Joe Grondin, New Balance’s senior global collaboration manager. “We've gone from very regional, retailer-based projects to more of these like longterm brand partnerships, which I think has just brought us a ton of new energy and new audiences.”
One of the brands that has helped reignite New Balance is Aimé Leon Dore, the grown-up streetwear brand from Teddy Santis, which had a major collaboration with the company on the 997 sneaker in 2018. The label has worked on the 990v2 and 990v5, which saw the police shut down the in-store release of the product at ALD’s New York City flagship store, and had a collaboration to help re-release the 827.
“With ALD, we got them on board right before their blow up,” says Grondin. “We try to get those untapped brands that haven't had the collaborations and elevate their presence. All Teddy needed was a platform like New Balance to get his aesthetic and voice across in a bigger way.”
Grondin also credits Santis with bringing back New Balance advertisement slogans from the 1980s, such as “Intelligence Choice,” and using them to help promote his product and clue in the consumer to the history of the brand.
For 2021, Grondin says that there will be more from the previous partnerships, but that there will be “two big additions” to the roster.
A 992 collaboration with Montreal designer JJJJound has been teased, as well as a project on the 2002 model with Versace designer Salehe Bembury.
Another piece of New Balance’s success over the past few years has been tied to the brand stepping back into basketball and signing Kawhi Leonard, who, as a member of the Toronto Raptors, won the 2019 NBA Finals. This heightened the interest New Balance, which would sell T-shirts with his slogans, such as “Board Man Gets Paid” and “Fun Guy.” The brand would also go on to launch his signature shoe, the OMN15, and release it in collaboration with Joe Freshgoods.
“Nobody could have predicted what happened with Kawhi. People didn't see him as a marketable guy, and they didn’t necessarily know his personality,” says Sean Sweeney, the global marketing manager for New Balance Basketball. “He was a good player, but he wasn’t necessarily thought of as the best player.”
That all changed with the Raptors’ championship win and his Finals MVP award, which he followed with a high-profile move (for such a previously low-profile player) to Los Angeles to play for the Clippers. All of a sudden, New Balance’s plan to relaunch its basketball division and make Leonard the face of it didn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.
Leonard, who left Jordan Brand for New Balance in 2018, looked more comfortable wearing grey running sneakers and was able to mix in memorable collaborations from Bodega and Kith into his rotation, giving a spotlight to the new and exciting things that New Balance was already doing.
“Kawhi and New Balance makes perfect sense. Some people looked at it as a joke. But, authentically, we made a lot of sense for each other,” Sweeney says. “He’s super focused on what he wants to get done and doesn’t veer off that path. That’s something we tried to key in on with him and tried to position him as a guy who doesn’t care about the extra stuff.”
Sweeney says that Leonard is “opinionated and involved” when it comes to his product and marketing. “He’s more likely to speak up and voice his opinion,” he says. “With his signature shoe, he was pretty tuned in during that process. There were a number of things on that shoe that he was adamant about that he wanted on it that were specific to his journey and where he is in the game right now, and what he wanted the shoe to represent.”
New Balance has also partnered with Jaden Smith on his own signature sneaker, which was recently announced, and allows the young multi-hyphenate to interpret the brand through his own lens while staying true to its DNA.
This is by no means a short run for New Balance—something that’s going to pop and fade away within the next six months. The brand has remained true to itself throughout the course of its existence, and this is just its most recent evolution, not a rethinking of the essence of the company.
As Lindie puts it, “I don’t think it’s them selling out at all. If anything, I think it’s smart. It’s the right thing to do.”
In a sea of cool sneakers, it’s hard to differentiate yourself. Sometimes it takes picking up obscure models or going with a different brand all together. For many, New Balance is the intelligent choice right now.