Making New Balance History
The modern image of the New Balance product line is one of quiet quality and fairly loud price tags. Sure, in the era of resold Yeezy’s and Air Jordans, that isn’t saying a ton.
But, New Balance history shows us that it has, somehow, legitimized their pricing without half the hype and heat that some other brands enjoy. One has to wonder how that is even possible.
Well, the history of New Balance, Inc. is one of business savvy and stubbornness. As it turns out, betting on your roots – and betting big – isn’t always a bad idea. Consider this a digestible New Balance wiki of sorts.
Now, the models in the NB catalog are quite numerous (to say the very least) but three major releases symbolize what the brand goes through in its history as well what we can expect in the future.
We start from the very beginning and work our way into understanding how a man in Boston takes inspiration from farm animals and starts a company that becomes a cultural fixation. This is the story of New Balance and of (almost) all New Balance sneakers.
The Trackster: Origins
The history of sneaker brands is always a fascinating topic. In some ways, it’s a lot like observing the background of any other business. But, in even more ways, it’s fairly unique.
Sneakers represent an ideal of the design process: taking a vision from conception to realization. In fact, many designers and product managers marvel at the sense of satisfaction that comes with it.
Creatives from all over the world are given some new energy by simply holding in their hands something that was once a drawing. The eclectic minds behind footwear design make for some really interesting background stories. Behind the making of New Balance history is the unique mind of one William J. Riley.
To get an understanding of the odd origins of this brand, it’s important to take note of American footwear design. Specifically, it helps to understand what the most prevalent design philosophy is at this time.
From the skateboard culture of California to the manual labor glory of Detroit, there are some old similarities.
New Balance: All American
Most sneaker companies focused on being able to last through the wear and tear of their customer base. After all, hoarding a massive sneaker collection isn’t quite popular at this time. When one buys a shoe, they expect it to last them a year at minimum.
This approach is not different when it comes to runners. Boasting high tech features and brand new materials, running shoes are among the earlier proponents of eye-popping prices. So, one pair was to last you for a while.
As such, brands focus their original designs on aesthetics and tech that was a bit gimmicky. Air, compression units, robust midsoles, fancy materials, it’s all part of the package. Fortunately, the New Balance tagline would direct its focus elsewhere.
In fact, Riley’s original inspiration couldn’t be more down-home American. The process starts with a man who wants to design shoes with better balance and fit than the current market provides.
Looking at the backyard of his Boston home, littered with chickens, he notices something. The feet of chickens are, seemingly, perfectly balanced. Riley notices that the key to this is the three-point anatomy of a chicken’s foot that makes for the ideal balance.
In an industry that focused on footwear design as of vertical means – top to bottom – this is truly unique. Riley’s inspiration leads him to start with what is underfoot and work his way up.
The earliest result of this is the Trackster model. This shoe was the first to feature the ripple sole design that is more popular today. In fact, a ripple sole is one of the looks that helps us recognize retro runners.
Additionally, the Trackster comes with a focus on another Riley fascination: customizable fit. The company’s first piece of footwear also allows customers to order different widths, another first in the running sneaker market.
And thus, the New Balance Arch Support Company is effectively born. Due to this being the footwear business, there are plenty of complications. But, Riley’s brand would overcome plenty of them, innovating the industry’s design approaches along the way.
Image Credit: New Balance
THE 990 SERIES – Rethinking and Challenging
The New Balance history timeline essentially breaks down into attempts at innovation. It feels like every effort from the brand is about doing something that becomes a standard-bearer. Furthermore, it’s worth considering that New Balance is never afraid of making a sometimes uncomfortable splash.
This brings to mind the 99X series, highlighted perhaps most notably by favorites such as the 997 and 998. Before the hype, the special releases, the glorious colorways, the 99X series starts as an experiment in business risk.
As the 1970s flies past and into the early 80s, New Balance is in an odd state. Models such as the Trackster and others cement themselves in the industry’s list of competent models.
The running sneaker game is about to enter a time of inspiration thanks to groundbreaking releases. Coming off the early years that saw a small company take on industry norms, a new challenge arises. In that particular climate, when one of the golden ages of runners was about to take hold, it was ambitious to the point of naivety.
Jim Davis, the Chairman, was addressing his team of designers when he asked for “the most innovative running shoe in the industry.” Now, in general, that isn’t an unusual request to make of a sneaker design team.
But, the context and timing of it make this an especially daunting challenge. While bigger names, such as adidas and Nike start to pick up on the tricks of modern runners design (and amplify them) New Balance had to step it up even further.
Effectively, the designers need to, once again, make New Balance history. The ultimate question would be: where do we go from here?
Image Credit: New Balance
Enter one of the loudest releases in the history of running sneaker, the 990. Releasing in 1982, the 990 meets a mix of responses. On one hand, the combination of materials and technology was innovative and notable. On the other, it also is notable for another reason.
The New Balance 990 makes its 1982 debut as the first athletic sneaker to hit the $100 mark. As a result, more than a few voices express some concern.
To be sure, there was concern about being able to actually market a sneaker at that price point. How in the world could you sell to the masses a trainer that wasn’t far away from the price of a TV set?!
Because of this conundrum, early sales projections are at 5,000 units. The 990, to say the least, would do much better than this. New Balance decides to market their latest release as a high-end choice for the most discerning sneakerhead.
The extravagant price point actually added to the appeal of the shoe to some degree. Sure, the product team at NB went with that $100 figure partly because of technical reasons – features of the sneaker, for example – but it eventually goes beyond that.
The 990 quickly became a status symbol. As a result, that initial sales projection was crushed, with 50,000 orders for the 990 being placed in the first six months alone.
The models to follow make up the 99X series we know today. Collectively, they make up a huge part of the brand’s history with experimentation. From ENCAP cushioning to mixing up base materials and silhouettes, New Balance had their flagship for an innovative trial-and-error.
Image Credit: New Balance
574: A splash of color
Fast forward to the 1980s and things in New Balance history are officially interesting. A handful of major brands have cemented their place atop the runners game. If Nike and adidas weren’t bad enough, ASICS was looking at its own age of innovation.
In short, brands in the late 80s are focusing on just how far this wave of tech can take them, with profitability always a key issue. As a result, several companies, now dealing with the matter of scale, decide to do some outsourcing.
The end of the 80s is a time when seemingly every major footwear provider is moving operations away from the U.S. and over to lands where labor was cheaper. Across the board, profits began to sore. Noticing this, the New Balance board instructed the aforementioned Davis to follow suit.
Davis’s response? Absolutely not. The company starts itself as an American enterprise with “Made in USA” quality stamps. That isn’t about to change, not under Davis.
Though New Balance has deep roots in the U.K. as well, the outsourcing of production away from the United States was just too unpalatable. The Chairman’s decision was to pour even more money back into New Balance’s main production facilities.
Doubling down on his dedication to those facilities – one in Maine and one in Massachusets – Davis’s risk-taking eventually sees a reward. New Balance can look back at the end of the 80s with smiles as it was a chapter of growing profits.
A huge part of that is the introduction of a new, more reasonable runner: the 574.
Image Credit: END. Clothing
In 1988, a critical decision is made in New Balance history to close the decade. Having established a reputation for innovation and serious price tags, it was time for something different.
But, no straying away from the philosophy of comfort and performance. The 574 was a competent combination of both ideals.
At this point, New Balance’s stock of technology includes ENCAP cushioning as an option. It presents an impressive shock absorption quality and was durable over longer runs.
Keeping the soft, flexible uppers as well, there is one more important quality. The brand opts to focus a bit more on the visuals.
Previous models weren’t exactly hideous, but there was very little aesthetic imagination to speak of. The colors were solid, but nothing worthy of a “wow!” Enter the 574, which comes with an array of color choices.
This sneaker signals the shift in New Balance’s approach to the footwear industry. The thought process makes complete sense as well. The brand had already nailed the technical aspect.
It would be foolish not to attempt to compete in aesthetics as well. The 574 brought on the emphasis on colors that would show itself in models before and after it.
Image Credit: Adage
New Balance history is one that does not seem to stop in the face of new challenges. Major brands continue to evolve, in many ways. From Nike and adidas to Puma and Reebok, everyone is stepping up their game by sponsoring celebrities or athletes.
The advent of materials such as knits and engineered mesh are pushing the boundaries of innovative design. Cushioning too, an area of strength of NB in the past is rapidly improving and changing. The footwear industry is no longer victim to the high-brow tech and designs of New Balance.
So, is this it? After a remarkable run in the sneaker game – where so many try and fail – is the rising tide of hype and heat signaling the end? Not quite.
New Balance continues to do great numbers all over the world. With locally produced pieces of footwear in both the United Kingdom and the USA, the brand still represents a sense of loyalty to its roots.
If that isn’t enough, premium materials and a tech philosophy that obsesses over comfort still reign in NB company culture.
Collaborations are keeping New Balance on the larger sneakerhead community’s radar. Recent partnerships with the likes of Norse Projects are sparing the brand some serious relevance.
As they continue to unload new colorways of their most popular models, it’s reasonable to expect nothing but a bright future. We can anticipate even more innovation and home runs to add to New Balance history.
Image Credit (Vintage Ad): Sole Collector