Oi Polloi

The New Balance Running Shoe - an Oi Polloi Champion

Published: Wed Mar 25 2020

The New Balance running shoe (in all it’s mildly confusing numbered guises) is a true left-field classic. Whilst the sportswear industry has often relied on naff gimmicks and fluro-hued fabrics to make a quick quid, straight forward, no nonsense designs like the 1500, the 991 and the 574 have somehow managed to carve a niche far beyond their original purpose. Here’s a quick potted history of the brand behind them…

Things kicked off for New Balance in Boston back in 1906. The story goes that a man named William J. Riley was spending the afternoon sat in his back yard, casually watching his chickens cluck about, when something dawned on him. Although his feathered friends had round, stocky torsos and spindly legs, they seemed to be able to get around with zero fuss thanks to their three-clawed feet. Due to this slightly bizarre observation, Riley deduced that weight distribution was the key to comfortable walking. He quickly set about designing a flexible arch support with three support areas, and the New Balance Arch Support Company was born.

Writing about the arch support industry is admittedly pretty dull so we’ll now skip forward a bit to 1961. New Balance had changed hands a few times by this point, and was now owned by a couple named Eleanor and Paul Kidd. These two were constantly being approached by local athletes and running teams to make custom footwear, and realising the need for comfortable, well-fitting running shoes, decided to work on their own off-the-shelf design.

The result was the Trackster — a narrow shoe made of red and white leather which looked more like something you’d find at your nearest bowling alley than the trainers you’d associate with New Balance today. These featured two pivotal design points… firstly, they had a rippled sole, which distributed weight more evenly than traditional spikes, whilst still offering plenty of grip, and secondly, they could be bought in different widths to suit different feet.

The Trackster did well with the running groups of Massachusetts, but New Balance was still a tiny cottage industry, with only six employees doing everything from making the shoes to posting them out. It wasn’t until 1972, when a marketing and sales mastermind called Jim Davis (not be confused with the Garfield creator of the same name) bought the company, that things hit the proverbial big leagues. With Jim at the helm, the brand came up with three main ideas which they’ve stuck to to this day.

Firstly, they whacked a big ’N’ on the side of the trainers, making them instantly recognisable. The work of a man named Terry Heckler, the simple New Balance logo was considerably more stripped back than the more complicated graphical flourishes of the Nike ’swoosh’ or the adidas stripes, meaning people instantly knew what they were looking at.

They also did away with fancy names in favour of a number system. There’s various articles on the internet which explain this system in pretty tedious detail, so I won’t write too much about this. Basically, each number defines what the trainers are made for and what its main strengths are, and generally speaking, the higher the number, the swankier the trainers. Perhaps a strange move in the age of bold and aggressive advertising, but Jim and Terry felt that ’New Balance’ was the name people needed to remember, not whatever daft name their individual trainers would be called.

The first glimpse of the new logo (and those numbers) was the 320, a suede running shoe which helped raise the profile of the brand after bagging a Runner’s World award in 1972.

The third ingenious brain-wave was to hoik the prices through the roof. Rather than push to make cheaper and cheaper trainers and sacrifice the quality, New Balance went the other way—investing in better materials and technology, and adding a price tag to match. In 1980 the 620 was the first running shoe to break the $50 mark, and just two years later they smashed past the $100 barrier (which would equate to about $270 in today’s dosh) with the ultimate in wallet-punishing luxury… the 990.

Rather than put customers off, the 990’s hefty price tag only added to its mystique, with running shops across America echoing with the cries of “What makes those grey things so expensive?” The answer was a relatively complex construction technique known as ‘slip lasting’ (which made them fit nice and snug), and a mysterious chunk on the back of the sole known as the ’Motion Control Device’ which reportedly added a bit of ankle support.

Launched only a few months after Time Magazine ran a cover article on ‘The Fitness Craze’ that was working the United States into a sweat-soaked frenzy, the timing for the launch of this high-performance slab of pigskin suede couldn’t have been better. Rich yanks were suddenly bothered about jogging, and whilst a recession had hit America hard in 1982, those who had money had a lot of it. The 990 flew out, and along with German performance automobiles and Japanese hi-fi systems, it soon became a status symbol for the well-heeled elite.

More classics followed. In ’84 there was the 1300, in ’88 there was the 574 and in ’89 there was the 1500. Subtle… comfortable… well-made… their appeal extended far beyond the running track, and by the early 90s the humble New Balance ‘sneaker’ wasn’t just the shoe of choice for President Clinton’s morning jogs, but also a common sight on the heavily-Kärchered patios of American suburbia. Just as madras shirts and khaki slacks symbolised comfortable leisure in the Kennedy era, relaxed conventions meant that the new wave of minted family men spent their Sundays grilling assorted meats in washed-out jeans and a pair of well-worn running shoes.

This was by no means a fixed uniform (and many suburban dads no doubt opted for snide no-name trainers often left out of the history books), but one man who took this comfort-based outfit to the extreme was Apple mastermind Steve Jobs.

Some footwear/cultural figure associations are a little weak—and just because someone happened to be photographed once wearing a certain brand of trainers doesn’t mean they were lifelong fans. That said, the link with Jobs and New Balance is a little different. Like Einstein (and Homer Simpson), Jobs often wore the same outfit every day—in his case, a black Issey Miyake turtle-neck, some Levi’s 501s and a pair of grey 991s (and later, 992s). Not only did this casual uniform save invaluable time, but it helped Steve and Apple stand out in a world of suited-up CEOs.

Strong, simple design lends itself to a thousand different customers, and beyond suburban dads and California tech maestros, the New Balance name was cropping up in hip hop tracks by Biz Markie, A Tribe Called Quest and KRS One.

This fairly safe running shoe brand might not be the first thing you’d expect ODB to mention in the same sentence as a Desert Eagle handgun, but hip hop style has a long history of appropriation. Along with Polo sailing jackets and Timberland boots, New Balance trainers were aspirational items which hinted at a life of comfortable leisure far beyond the mean streets of New York.

These days a simple pair of New Balance trainers still exudes that air of quiet splendour. Often made in America (or the west coast of Cumbria), they’re a well-crafted side-step from the current era of hyped-up trainer madness, built to be worn and not just hidden away in a shoebox (or listed on eBay). They’re pretty comfortable too.