The footwear business is a competitive one. Along with the perpetually evolving fashion landscape and the mercurial nature of the trends it breeds, there are constant technological developments, industry politics and many other hazards littering the ever-winding path to success.
So, with this in mind, it stands to reason that establishing a strong presence within such an environment is no easy feat. Previously deemed a two-horse race between a certain American behemoth and its European adversary, New Balance's steady rise to prominence within the footwear industry is impressive, to say the least.
Here, we take a look at the brand's journey, as well as the legacy its built along the way...
To gain an appreciation for exactly how New Balance has played to its strengths in its conquest of the zeitgeist, some insight into the brand's background is required.
In 1906, William J. Riley founded the New Balance Arch Support Company in Boston, Massachusetts, specialising in orthopaedic footwear inserts to provide comfort and stability. After a period of gradual development, the brand produced its first in-house silhouette in 1938, soon after designing a range of more sports-specific models for boxers and baseball players.
The following decades allowed the brand to experiment with expanding its scope, shortening its name and adopting the classic ‘N’ logo, as well as opening a UK factory and releasing a string of seminal silhouettes. Chief among these was 1982’s New Balance 990, an advanced, running-orientated model utilising innovative cushioning technology. While the 990 series was - and continues to be - the brand’s flagship line, being iterated upon multiple times since its debut, it was soon accompanied by a range of other classic silhouettes, such as the New Balance 574, 670 and 1300 silhouettes.
The line originating from the 990, however, has remained at the apex of the brand’s offerings, with silhouettes such as the Steven Smith-designed 997 and the Steve Jobs-endorsed 991 following in its stead. Though well-regarded amongst runners and footwear fanatics, the brand remained relegated to outsider status, yet to find mass appeal and tap into a truly mainstream audience.
As time passed following the landmark releases of models, such as 2006’s New Balance 992, the brand was by no means unsuccessful - though by no mean en-vogue. Focussing on its pedigree as a sports-centric label, New Balance largely concentrated its efforts on maintaining this aspect of its business, penning several notable athlete endorsements. Meanwhile, the brand’s less athletically driven output had found itself becoming ubiquitous on the feet of the archetypal ‘Dad’. Comfortable, easy to wear and retro-tinged, models such as the 624 were more likely to be found at cookouts than on the catwalk.
Though, an eventual shift in perception would soon allow New Balance’s long-awaited transition into the spotlight...
Well-planned collaborations with respected labels and retailers helped to enforce the brand's relevancy to the fashion landscape. Models, such as the New Balance x Concepts 998 “C-Note” and the New Balance x Bodega 997 “HYPRCAT”, served as early forays into this arena, establishing the brand's presence in the consciousness of a more style-orientated audience.
This recontextualization of New Balance’s legacy silhouettes has proved fruitful, with a growing appreciation of retro-styled runners and the ‘Dad shoe’ aesthetic seemingly providing the perfect platform for the brand to propel itself to the forefront. Recognizing the longevity of its back-catalogue, models such as the 990 and its subsequent variations found a new lease of life, being re-released under the guise of more fashion-forward lifestyle shoes.
A plethora of other collaborations also came about as a result of this newfound appreciation for the brand’s past offerings, with joint projects surfacing in conjunction with the likes of WTAPS, Salehe Bembury, Aime Leon Dore and Snow Peak to name but a few. With such esteemed names among its ever-expanding list of collaborators, it’s clear to see the admiration New Balance has fostered within today’s fashion space.
In addition to these collaborative efforts, archival models such as the 2002R have been reintroduced as mainline offerings to great success, receiving various makeovers and updates such as the 2002R ‘Protection Pack’. The brand’s offering has also been rounded out with expansions into more outdoor-ready silhouettes, as well as an entire skateboarding-focused line from its New Balance Numeric sub-label. Additionally, factories in both New England and Cumbria continue to produce premium product under the brand's New Balance ‘Made in UK’ and ‘Made in US’ lines.
Ultimately, a keen understanding of the modern market has allowed New Balance to flourish, despite its former outsider status. Resonating with seasoned sneakerheads and casual consumers alike, the brand has successfully acknowledged its niche within the industry and found strength through simultaneously embracing the past and present. Though still invested in the world of sports and performance-based footwear, it is predominantly through its newfound place in the wardrobes of the fashion-forward and style-conscious that New Balance has become the unlikely third contender for the footwear throne.
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