It’s no secret that Adidas and Nike have ruled the modern sneaker market for a number of years now, but New Balance has kept itself firmly in the game by producing exceptional sneakers that are hailed for their comfort and quality. As one of the largest sporting manufacturers in the world, New Balance has been in business for over 100 years, producing iconic sneakers and clothing some of the world’s most ambitious athletes along the way.
New Balance is a household name that is only growing in popularity as the years go by. But how did New Balance earn its global success? And why do some Balance shoeboxes have a chicken printed inside the lid? We’ll be answering those questions and more as we delve into the history of New Balance.
New Balance History & Philosophy
New Balance was founded as New Balance Arch Support Company in 1906 by William J. Riley. An Irish immigrant, Riley resided in Boston, Massachusetts. It is believed that Riley was inspired to produce his first product after watching chickens strut around his backyard. Fascinated by how the chickens balanced so perfectly on their three-pronged feet, Riley designed a flexible arch support with three support points.
In 1927, Riley hired a salesman named Arthur Hall, who eventually became a partner in New Balance Arch Support Company in 1934. At this point, New Balance was yet to produce a sneaker, and Hall focused his business on selling arch supports to workers whose jobs required them to stand up for long periods of time. Hall eventually sold New Balance Arch Support Company to his daughter, Eleanor, and her husband, Paul Kidd in 1956.
By 1960, New Balance arch supports had become very popular among budding athletes, some of whom even approached the brand asking for tailored sneakers. This inspired Eleanor and Paul Kidd to design the first New Balance sneaker, the Trackster. Released in 1961 and initially manufactured at home by the Kidds, the Trackster was the world’s first running shoe with a rippled sole for traction. New Balance also offered this revolutionary sneaker in a variety of widths to accommodate all athletes. The Trackster was soon adopted as a track and cross-country shoe by schools and colleges around Massachusetts.
The Trackster was a success, but New Balance was yet to hit the mainstream sneaker market. The company remained a small operation, run by six people who manufactured, packed, and posted New Balance sneakers to mail-order customers. Sales were slow, but on the day of the 1972 Boston Marathon, New Balance was purchased by the brand’s current chairman, Jim Davis, who steered the brand to become one of the largest sneaker brands in the world.
Jim acquired New Balance at the perfect time. The Boston area had become the center of the running boom that struck the U.S. in the 1970s and New Balance was in right in the thick of it. Many Americans wrote this off as a phase, but running as a hobby continued growing in popularity right through to the late 80s, providing a platform for New Balance to release more and more runners each year. Jim Davis upheld the company’s traditional commitment to individual preferences by continuing to offer New Balance sneakers in a variety of widths. New Balance started to use unique model numbers rather than names for their sneakers. The number defined the type of shoe, the activity it was designed for and whether the sneaker was built for stability, or speed. Arch support
In 1976, New Balance launched the 320, the first New Balance sneaker to feature the now-famous ‘N‘ logo. An archetypal runner made up in nylon and suede, sales of the 320 rocketed when the sneaker was voted as the number one running shoe on the market by Runner’s World magazine. The success of the 320 marked New Balance’s global breakthrough.
By the 80s, New Balance had a globally successful range of products that now included walking shoes and clothing such as Gore-Tex running jackets. In 1988, New Balance released perhaps their most famous sneaker, the 574. Initially designed as a technical running shoe to offer a high level of comfort and stability, the 574 became a popular sneaker off of the running track. In A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Buggin’ out’, the late Phife Dawg can be quoted rapping “You wanna diss the Phifer but you still don’t know the half, I sport New Balance sneakers to avoid a narrow path”.
New Balance continued to cement itself into sportswear and popular culture through numerous successful sneaker releases. In 2001, New Balance released the now-popular 991 sneaker, which was famously sported by the late Steve Jobs at public events for a number of years.
New Balance Today
Today, New Balance is a multinational corporation headquartered in Boston, MA. The company is still headed by Jim Davis, New Balance now makes a plethora of sneakers and apparel, including specialized products for sports such as football, cricket, basketball, and cycling. New Balance launched a skateboarding shoe brand dubbed “New Balance Numeric” that is distributed by Black Box Distribution, a company founded by professional skateboarder Jamie Thomas. The numeric line has allowed New Balance to tap into the lifestyle market and resonate with younger customers.
New Balance has collaborated with a host of significant fashion labels, including Norse Projects, Stussy, United Arrows, Junya Watanabe eYe, and Beams Plus. New Balance sneakers have a strong presence in both menswear and womenswear markets, including high fashion sects. A recent adverting campaign saw New Balance embrace the term ‘dad shoe’ often used to describe their more functional models. the advertisement read “Worn by supermodels in London and Dads in Ohio”.
However, despite its massive popularity, New Balance is not without its controversies. Just days after the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, New Balance found itself in hot water following a statement made by the company’s Vice President of Public Affairs, Matt Lebretton, in which he stated “The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us, and frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction.” The perceived pro-Trump statement was met with a wave of backlash with customers throwing away and destroying their NB sneakers. In a time rife with political tension, New Balance’s position was seen as ill-timed and against the grain of most fashion brands who openly supported Hillary Clinton during the election.
New Balance was quick to clarify, however, that the statement was made in the context of the topic of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama-era policy which the sneaker giant has openly opposed citing that it would hurt their US-manufacturing. To further their argument, New Balance went on to say that they had been openly in support of the trade policies of left-wing candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, both of whom also came out against the TPP. Most recently, they joined a handful of other fashion brands in opposing Trump’s trade tariffs, a different tune than the statement following the 2016 election.
New Balance sneakers are known for their use of high-quality materials and robust building techniques. As well as outsourcing manufacturing to countries like China and Vietnam, New Balance produces ranges of sneakers made in England and America. Many New Balance sneakers are still available in a range of widths, especially the brand’s more advanced sporting models. Arch support is a key selling point of New Balance footwear. Some New Balance shoeboxes have a chicken printed inside as a nod to the brand’s founder, William J. Riley, who formulated his first arch supports based on chicken’s feet.
Available for $49.95 from Stag Provisions
Available for $209 from End Clothing
Available for $230CAD (~$175 USD) from Lost & Found
Available for $299.99 from New Balance