Inside New Balance’s Plans to Topple the Global Sneaker Hierarchy

Halfway through the manufacturing process, about 90 seconds before they start looking like shoes, New Balance 990s are just two-dimensional slabs of branded fabric and leather, flat enough to be stacked, rubber–banded together, and passed from one worker to the next. As much as the two gray “N” logos stitched on each sheet of 990 material, it is the pattern of the upper that makes it recognizable, even without the familiar curves of a sneaker. Somehow, the essence of the 990 arrives ahead of those things that actually make it a shoe—sole, laces, tongue—beloved for years by normcore icons Adam Sandler and Steve Jobs, and, more recently, by style mavericks like Chris Pine, Zoë Kravitz, and Timothée Chalamet. 

Understanding the evolution of the 990 is a useful way of appreciating how New Balance, America’s most sensible sneaker brand, has captured the zeitgeist in these decidedly nonsensical times. When the 990 was launched in 1982, its four years of development made it the first running shoe with a $100 retail price; a decade or so later, it found new life as a casual sneaker worn by dressed-down celebrities at red-carpet events; and by the turn of the millennium, the 990 had achieved a bizarre niche ubiquity among subcultures as disparate as straight-edge hardcore kids, underground hip-hop fans, and Upper West Side dads. Puzzling out how all of this came to be, and how New Balance managed to bridge the aesthetic gap between Bernie Sanders and Emily Ratajkowski to become one of the most coveted shoes on the planet—while in the process reordering the global pecking order in the $86 billion sneaker market—reveals one of the more improbable success stories in fashion right now. Getting to the bottom of it was equal parts nostalgia trip and supply-chain-management course, with a whiff of succession drama—and a journey that began in Lawrence, Massachusetts, at a New Balance factory, about 30 miles northwest of Boston.

Among countless shuttered textile mills littering the banks of the Merrimack River, the 114-year-old brick building that houses the New Balance operation is distinguished by its clock tower, a landmark visible from miles away. Walking the halls of the 525,000-square-foot building mostly gives the impression of generic, renovated modernity, but on the factory floor itself, the sheer scale of the room brings to mind its roots in the later years of the industrial revolution. Large LED scoreboards hang from walls and ceilings so that the 250 or so employees can tell, at a glance, whether they are on track to make about 3,000 shoes per day across two shifts. (New Balance is the only major American sneaker brand with such a strong manufacturing presence in the US.)

“We’re doubling capacity in the year to come,” said Jon Bass, the factory manager who served as my tour guide. Doing this, he explained, will mean adding a second shift, so that those scoreboards stay on well into the night. Production at New Balance relies on old technology and techniques like industrial sewing machines and conditioners that use heat and humidity to soften shoes for shaping. Other devices are bigger and more modern, like the immense cabinet filled with robotic arms that execute the precise ballet of trimming, abrasion, and gluing necessary to affix a sole before other machinery heats, presses, and cures it. 

On the afternoon of my visit, the workers who operate these machines were busy making the latest iteration of the 990, called the v6, in a classic all-gray colorway. The scoreboards indicated they were behind schedule by 49 pairs, which I had to verify with Bass, because the deficit hardly seemed to match the speed and quiet intensity of the workforce. Every 22 seconds, someone cut a fresh bit of leather and handed it to the next person on the assembly line, or added some fine stitching to the upper part of the shoe or gave it a sole, or did one of 32 other things that needed doing. The reason the scoreboard listed them as being in arrears, Bass explained, was that they were still getting up to speed on the 990 after wrapping up work on other models a few days earlier. These top-secret shoes included designs by Teddy Santis, the founder of New York’s ultracool Aimé Leon Dore label (or ALD), who is among a roster of New Balance creative partners that now includes Justin Saunders of JJJJound, Salehe Bembury, and Stone Island.

At the New Balance factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts—one of only a few facilities where sneakers are still being made in the United States—skilled workers complete a pair of the famously-unfashionable fashionable 990s every 44 seconds.

An early example in the shoe company’s history of collaboration started with the occasional exclusive for Cambridge, Massachusetts–based streetwear retailer Concepts back in 2007, but until recently such projects were more the exception than the rule. New Balance has since leaned into the broader trend of cross-brand collaboration, though, and Bass said the Lawrence factory is now producing more collabs than ever before. The effect has been to split one brand identity across two or more generations. “My father will only wear New Balance. He’s going to buy the gray ones,” Bass said. “But my friends, they want the Action Bronsons, they want the Teddys.” 

The Teddys debuted in 2019, when Santis designed the first Aimé Leon Dore New Balances as his brand was accruing the kind of once-in-a-decade hype not seen at a Lower Manhattan clothing shop since peak Supreme. These first ALD 997s led to further collaborations, including a mid-top 550, a basketball shoe originally released in 1989. 

“The 550 had virtually no presence on StockX until the Teddy Santis–led Aimé Leon Dore collaboration dropped in 2020,” said Drew Haines, who works as the director of sneakers and collectibles for the online marketplace. “That ALD collaboration kicked off what ended up being a 20-times trade increase in New Balance 550s in 2021, and today the 550 ranks as the number one top-traded New Balance silhouette on StockX. It’s even competing with the likes of Jordan 1s and Nike Dunks.” 

In April 2021, New Balance named Santis creative director for its Made in USA line, which, under his guidance, has become “a creative weapon,” according to Yuron White, a Nike veteran who was hired as vice president of global lifestyle at New Balance in January 2020. “It is the most important part of our product line.” Creating demand for its Made in USA sneakers has a lot to do with the alchemy that arises from pairing iconoclastic designers with a brand that has true heritage and real depth in its archives. Meeting that demand, however, is all about the flexibility made possible by its US factories. The first of these was located in Belmont, near Boston, where the New Balance Arch Support Company was founded in 1906. Some seven decades later, after abandoning arch supports and prescription footwear in favor of performance running shoes, the company moved its manufacturing operations to Lawrence, where factory space and labor were abundant enough to meet the consumer demands of a ’70s jogging boom. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, New Balance opened three more US factories, all in Maine, at a time when other major American sneaker brands were cutting costs by offshoring manufacturing to countries like Taiwan, China, and South Korea. 

The definition of “Made in USA” remains hazy—as New Balance assembles more than 4 million pairs of sneakers in the USA, which by its own admission “represents a limited portion of [its] US sales.” This has been a matter of contention since the ’90s, when New Balance faced an enforcement action from the Federal Trade Commission over its claim that its products were made in the US. (According to the FTC, products that denote that they are “Made in USA” need to be made “all or virtually all” in the US.) Because some components are still imported, the company is careful to note that footwear from its Made in USA line “contains a domestic value of 70 percent or greater.” The benefits of keeping some of its production in the US are far less complicated and especially evident in recent years: Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, the brand was relatively unfazed by supply-chain bottlenecks that left competitors with unfilled orders and it even opened a new factory in Methuen, Massachusetts; recently, its five New England factories have helped New Balance avoid the whiplash suffered by other major sneaker companies, which are now sitting on bloated inventories after ordering too much stock from factories in Asia. 

“We are making a big push to onshore as much as we can,” Bass told me, including, he believes, a plan to start making soles stateside. Meanwhile, in Skowhegan, Maine, New Balance is investing $65 million to expand an existing facility so it can hire over 200 new employees to double the factory’s output. In the midst of this expansion, the company passed an important milestone in 2022, when it brought in more than $5 billion in revenue for the first time. Getting there took more than a few hot designers and a willingness to experiment with classic silhouettes, like the 574 and the 990, which have stuck around long enough to become lifestyle favorites signaling style and taste rather than cutting-edge performance. Some five decades after Jim Davis bought New Balance and began naming its shoes after numbers, his son, Chris Davis, has taken a more active role as the company’s chief marketing officer and vice president for merchandising. About seven years ago, Chris Davis told me, he began laying the groundwork for a “brand transformation” that has arguably broken some of his father’s most cherished rules, and inarguably improved the company’s bottom line, even if its ambitions remain as aggressively sensible as the shoes that have carried them this far. 

“Simply put,” Davis told me, “Our goal is to be the undisputed third-largest athletic brand in the world.”

Like most people in the sneaker business, Davis never mentions his competitors by name, but when he alluded to some “key partnership breakups from competition” it seemed to me that he meant the collapse of the partnership between Adidas and Yeezy—what was less clear, and also unspoken, was any acknowledgment of the tremendous risk inherent to that end of the sneaker market, where one person can go off the deep end and potentially take hundreds of millions in revenue with them. 

In the ’90s, when scandals over the use of sweatshop labor in Asia were all over the news, New Balance was being reinvented in the States by its new legion of fans. That meant Jim Davis had to figure out what to make of the fact that Gen X slackers, rather than athletes, had become some of the most visible fans of his company’s best-selling running shoe models.

“I think what happened was that people in their 20s and 30s didn’t want to wear the same sneakers that a 12-year-old was wearing,” said Ed Haddad, who worked at New Balance for more than three decades, including a stint as an operations manager in the ’80s. “The very young generation, the 12- to 18-year-olds, they were embracing Reebok and Nike and all the marketing and hype surrounding them, and we became a good alternative to that.” 

It seemed to concern Davis that these shoes were becoming vaguely cool—a dad shoe for record-store clerks rather than bank clerks, with an air of geek chic and enough understatement to prevent the post-grunge culture shock of trading a pair of Doc Martens for Air Jordans. New Balance, perhaps more than any other sneaker company, reflected the character of its owner, who had no shareholders to answer to and no interest in straying from the principles that had made the company a success. It was Davis, for example, who refused to move all of the company’s manufacturing overseas. Davis, too, was behind the brand’s commitment to bare-bones marketing budgets and a decades-long policy against sponsoring big-name athletes. (After signing LA Lakers star James Worthy for an estimated $1 million in the ’80s, it decided not to renew Worthy and other athletes, choosing instead to embrace the “endorsed by no one” philosophy and investing in product innovation. Despite these efforts, they still lost ground to Reebok and Nike in the market for basketball shoes.) And in the ’90s, when there was pressure to begin marketing the 990 as a retro lifestyle sneaker, Davis appeared not to accept what popular culture seemed to want from his brand. 

Haddad told me Jim Davis, who declined to be interviewed, was wary of this creeping fashion nostalgia because of his long-held belief that New Balance should only ever be associated with its technical performance, in the US market. Its biggest successes, after all, had come from focusing on quality, performance, and innovation: breakthroughs like the 574, the 990, and the W320, which was one of the first running shoes developed especially for women. Then there was the fact that so many New Balance adherents had fallen in love with the brand simply because its sneakers actually fit them well. 

“Every shoe we made at that time came in multiple widths,” Haddad told me. “That was our reason for being. It was the thing that kept us in business. Nobody competed with us in that space for a lot of years.” As the ’90s wore on, Davis stuck to his policy of promoting New Balance sneakers as performance footwear for athletes. 

In December, I visited Boston’s Brighton neighborhood for a look at the New Balance headquarters, which includes an adjacent indoor-track facility and looks like it cost more than the reported $500 million. At the company’s “smash lab,” samples of experimental foam sat piled on a countertop waiting to be prodded, crushed, and evaluated by sophisticated machinery. These neat little squares of squishy white foam had been sourced by Sean Murphy and his innovation and engineering team, or, in some cases, invented by them. Some would end up on prototypes, I was told, and eventually on new sneakers like the one being bent repeatedly by a robotic machine nearby, so that the tip of the toe touched the top of the heel before it was released and then bent back again. What really interested me, though, was the fact that classic silhouettes like the 990 periodically pass through the smash lab for an upgraded foam sole—an example of New Balance’s commitment to innovation and technology rather than indulging in retro artifacts and time capsule nostalgia. 

Murphy gave me a tour of the rest of the sports research lab, where some rooms were dedicated to measuring otherwise imperceptible aspects of extraordinary athletes doing extraordinary things while wearing extraordinary gear. Others had more highly specialized purposes, like studying how well various fabrics performed when stretched over a mannequin that had been purpose-built to perspire. At the end of the line was a room where various visions for New Balance’s future had been scribbled on a large whiteboard. 

On our way out of the lab, we passed a room that signaled a more profound revision of the New Balance rulebook. Inside, jerseys and other sportswear hung on the wall to honor the sort of big-name sponsorship deals New Balance had once shunned. One of them belonged to NBA star Kawhi Leonard, whose deal with New Balance is allegedly worth around $5 million per year. Others belonged to soccer star Bukayo Saka and tennis prodigy Coco Gauff. Then there was the Olympic track star Sydney McLaughlin, who had recently appeared alongside rapper Action Bronson in an ad campaign for the 990v6, 40 years after the original 990 debuted with the dad-joke tagline now synonymous with the brand and its down-to-earth ambitions: “On a scale of 1,000, this shoe is a 990.”

A few months after my visit, when New Balance signed a sponsorship deal with Major League Baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani, I found myself wondering whether they might need to build a whole new room.

The New Balance extended universe (clockwise from top left): Rising tennis star Coco Gauff wearing her signature shoes; Jack Harlow and his personal 550s; sprinter Trayvon Bromell, and Timothée Chalamet in the iconic gray 990s; plus legendary pro skater Andrew Reynolds, brand ambassador Aminé, and normcore-fashion queen Hailey Bieber, all wearing the brand.

When I met Yuron White at the gleaming 250,000 square feet of glass and steel that houses New Balance’s global headquarters in Boston, he was in the midst of a chaotic, weeklong visit from his home in Oregon. He moved there for a job with Nike, where he worked for more than two decades, most recently as the vice president and general manager for its Jordan brand footwear. In January 2020, White was hired as the vice president of global lifestyle at New Balance, putting him in charge of all those shoes that aged so gracefully out of the cutting-edge performance category and into the vanguard of high-fashion streetwear. 

Dressed in camouflage Off-White pants and a black hoodie, he was rushing from one corner of the sprawling campus to another as I arrived. When he finally had time to talk, one of the first things he told me was how pleased he was to be working for a brand that is “not good because it’s old, but old because it’s good.” What really impressed him, though, was how eager his colleagues were to change what wasn’t working to help grow the brand. “They were unapologetic about, you know, the things they didn’t know,” White told me. “But they were also laser-focused on where they wanted to be.” 

Foremost among these change agents was Chris Davis, who joined New Balance in 2008 and began taking on more responsibility for its direction around 2010. Ostensibly the head of marketing and vice president of merchandising, it seems likely to me that Davis is also poised to inherit the company, so it was not surprising to hear his name come up in every conversation about what New Balance has accomplished in the past decade, when its revenues more than doubled, from $2.39 billion in 2012 to over $5 billion in 2022.

When I spoke to Davis in mid-December, he told me this “brand transformation began about six-and-a-half, seven years ago,” but was vague about what inspired it. One possibility occurred to me after our conversation, when I remembered how a New Balance spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal, in November 2016, that “the Obama administration turned a deaf ear” to the company’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “Frankly,” the spokesperson added, “with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction.” It was also reported that Jim Davis had contributed $396,500 toward Trump’s campaign. During that time, New Balance remained in the news with The Washington Post reporting that “opponents of Trump” were “accusing the company of formally endorsing not just his stance on TPP, but [his] entire platform.” When an alt-right blogger started speaking out in support of the company, New Balance issued a pointed statement on social media in response, stating: “New Balance does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form.” It was a reminder of how easily brand identity can be shaped by consumers in lieu of messaging from the brand itself. What followed appears to be an acceleration of a succession plan that has focused on marketing as much as growth.

These changes seem to have had a positive impact on the future of New Balance’s positioning in the streetwear and fashion worlds as well. “Respect and empathy are fundamental to me, as well as the sense of family and of being part of a special company,” says Stone Island creative director Carlo Rivetti, who launched a buzzy collab with New Balance earlier this month. “I felt the same values when I met Chris Davis and his team.”

At the end of 2018, Joe Preston succeeded Rob DeMartini as CEO, and immediately prioritized advertising and sponsorships. Marketing budgets soared. Partnerships with designers like Santis and Saunders became a priority. So, too, did partnerships with athletes like Kawhi Leonard, whom New Balance targeted in 2018, after he turned down the contract extension offered by Nike. Next came White, who had previously worked with Leonard. Preston’s overwhelming success as CEO may have something to do with his roots at the company: In 1995, he began his career with New Balance as a senior product manager for lifestyle and running, and throughout the years worked on shoes like the 574, the 990, and the 801, as they took over college campuses. 

“From 1994 through the end of that decade we literally grew from $125 million to over $1 billion in revenue,” Preston told me recently. Between 2001 and 2015, he said, the company was focused on building its international presence, culminating with its entry into the soccer market in 2015. Since then, it has focused on previously neglected domestic categories like skateboarding, where Nike and Adidas have been making inroads for years. In December, New Balance announced a sponsorship deal with skateboarding legend Andrew Reynolds, who, at 44, straddles the demographic divide described by Bass during my factory tour in Lawrence—a middle-aged athlete whose dad shoe cred is as real as his need for a more supportive sole. 

Its most ambitious move, though, has been to reenter the basketball-sneaker business, which was overshadowed in the days when the Reebok Pump was challenging the Air Jordan. Since 2019, New Balance has increased its marketing investment by 37 percent. What this investment in basketball amounts to, on the heels of a decade of heavy investment in rebranding performance classics as lifestyle favorites, is a complete reversal of the ’90s New Balance playbook. Whether this gets them to number three in the sneaker business is anyone’s guess, but it’s worth considering how unlikely it would have seemed, even a few years ago, that New Balance would rival peak Yeezy hype. With its plans of expanding manufacturing output in New England, it appears that the company has no intention of slowing down its momentum.

The bigger question is what it may cost New Balance to play by the same rules as its competitors, whose market caps get peeled back whenever some collaborator makes antisemitic remarks or gets accused of unseemly behavior. Moderating these risks, and protecting that essence that emerges before the sole, laces, and tongue are stitched onto a pair of New Balance sneakers, might have less to do with any playbook or sponsorship deal than with something Chris Davis said when I asked why the brand needed transforming. It was a comment I flagged as meaningless marketing talk, which, in retrospect, might have been the all too earnest truth: “We’re focused on being the best version of ourselves.” 

Joshua Hunt is a writer in Portland, Oregon, and a former Tokyo-based correspondent for Reuters.

A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of GQ with the title “Welcome to the Sensible-Sneaker Revolution”

Collage Credits: Gauff: Tim Clayton/Corbis. Harlow: Prince Williams/Wireimage. Bromell: Jim McIsaac. Chalamet: Neil Mockford/GC Images. Aminé: Morgan Hancock. BiEber: Rachpoot/Bauer-Griffin/GC. All: Getty Images. Reynolds: Jake Darwen. Sneakers: Alex Hodor-Lee; prop stylist, Sharon Ryan at Halley Resources. 

Related Posts