New Balance, it seems fair to say, is rather like the ugly duckling of sneaker brands. It’s a footwear company that has, over the course of its hundred-some-year history, found global success by sticking to its founding principles of quality and comfort — they’ve embraced who they truly are, you might say. Plus, there’s the matter of looks. While once considered the ungainly epitome of the ‘dad shoe’, New Balance has in recent times grown into a sneaker swan of sorts, widely celebrated as one of the coolest brands around.
Long before all of the high profile collaborations, the celebrity wearers, and the cult fanbase — before the pithy name, even — there was the New Balance Arch Support Company. It was founded in 1906 by William J. Riley, an Irish immigrant resident in Boston, Massachusetts. The idea that sparked Mr Riley’s business ambitions came from watching chickens strutting about his backyard. He was so taken by the perfect balance of their feet that he created three-pronged arch supports in imitation, intended to help people like police officers and firefighters who spent long hours every day on their feet.
Comfort and reliability have been there from the start, then. What wasn’t there, however, were any shoes. Those didn’t arrive until around 30 years later, in the form of a specialist running shoe made from crepe rubber and kangaroo leather. And it was only in the 1960s that the company’s focus fully shifted from orthopaedic footwear to athletic shoes, thanks to new owners Eleanor and Paul Kidd. The Kidds may have been rooted in the history of the company (they were the daughter and son-in-law of Arthur Hall, a former salesman-turned-partner), but they brought with them a revolutionary new product. It was called the Trackster and it was the world’s first running shoe to offer rippled soles and a variety of width fittings.
Despite these innovations — not unlike some backyard chickens inspiring Willian Riley’s arch supports — there was still something charmingly down-home about New Balance’s approach even fifty-some years on from its founder’s heyday. The Kidds manufactured the Trackster at home and, despite its growing popularity among athletes in Boston and beyond, the company refused to engage in athletic sponsorships of any kind since they wanted people to buy their shoes purely on merit (The brand’s ‘Endorsed By No One’ ethos was held up all the way until 2009).
It was only in the 1970s that New Balance really began to expand its horizons thanks to an acquisition by its current owner, Jim Davis. It was perfect timing on Davis’ part. Running as a hobby had started taking off in a big way across the U.S., and Boston — along with its celebrated running shoe manufacturer — was right at the heart of the boom. As though this were somehow written in the stars, Davis bought the company on the day of the 1972 Boston Marathon. At the time, the business had just six full-time employees.
From here, the story begins to resemble the New Balance of today much more closely. In 1976 the iconic italicised ‘N’ graced its first pair of shoes, with the launch of the 320. It’s also here that the brand’s somewhat cryptic naming convention kicks in, with each model number meant to indicate a specific type of shoe as well as the activity it was designed for (although please don’t ask me to explain it any further than that).
The 320 sold like hotcakes and was voted the number one running shoe in Runner’s World magazine. This led to a proliferation of other New Balance models in years to come, including the 620 in 1980, which was the first sneaker to sell for $50. Then came the 990, which doubled down to break the $100 retail barrier a mere two years later in 1982.
From here the hits just kept coming: the 420, 670, 1300, 574 — the list goes on and it either sparks a joy like no other if you’re a New Balance nerd or looks about as meaningful as someone else’s lottery numbers if you aren’t. Although, these days, there seem to be precious few people about who don’t love New Balance. Their shoes have been worn by devotees as varied as Kanye West, Wes Anderson, Bill Clinton, Justin Bieber, and Barack Obama, who even got his own custom shoe back in 2012. Then, of course, there’s Steve Jobs, who is at this point nearly as famous for wearing 991s as he is for making your iPhone.
There are also the many and varied subcultures to consider. You’ve got hip hop fans, punks, skaters, and all those ‘90s straight-edge dudes who wore 574s, as well as Ivy guys, workwear guys, and Americana guys. New Balances of various descriptions appear with remarkable consistency on the soles of everyone from normcore dressers and minimalist wardrobe enthusiasts through to flashy streetwear models and trendsetters. Plus, I’d be remiss not to credit all the OG stans out there: the dads.
It’s a wonderfully motley array of fans and one in which New Balance rejoices. In fact, maybe the best summation of the brand’s mysterious following comes straight from one of their own ads. It features an unassuming pair of grey 990s on a plain grey background. Printed above them, it reads, simply:
‘Worn by supermodels in London and dads in Ohio’.
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