Monday, June 17, 2024

How New Balance built a new era of sneaker culture with ‘Made in USA’

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Writer Sagal Mohammed traces the trajectory of the shoewear brand’s quintessentially American trainer line, MADE

Whether you’re a dedicated sneakerhead or take a more laid-back approach to your footwear, the growth of New Balance both culturally and commercially has been hard to miss over the past decade. The Boston-based brand, known for its iconic ‘dad shoe’, has become a multi-generational favourite, worn as a badge of honour by everyone from street style influencers and supermodels, to suburban kids and their parents. Much of this is thanks to the New Balance ‘Made In USA’ collection, the brand’s 75 year-old shoe line dedicated to American craftsmanship with 70 per cent of it created stitch-by-stitch across five domestic factories in Massachusetts and Maine. 

Last year, the brand officially announced Aimé Leon Dore co-founder Teddy Santis as the creative director for the MADE collection after years of collaborating with the designer to create modern takes on classic silhouettes like the 827, 997, 990v2, and 900v5. His influence triggered a newfound, youth-led hype around the brand, which describes itself not as a “heritage brand” but  “a brand with heritage,” in efforts to abandon dated ideals around exclusivity in fashion. This is particularly highlighted through MADE; a project that has been at the core of New Balance since the release of the original 998 (the first sneaker from the collection) in 1993, and continues to centre intentional and sensible home-based craftsmanship.

Every New Balance sneaker created at one of the company’s five New England-based factories moves through a state-of-the-art shoe-making process across five meticulous workstations, stopping at each worker for an average of only 22.5 seconds. Quick and seamless, it looks a lot easier than it is and results in roughly 1400 shoes produced per day at New Balance’s flagship factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

“Even though we have been among the fastest-growing athletics brands in the world over the past three years, we’re no different than we ever were,” says Jeff McAdams, vice president of global marketing at New Balance. “One of the things that is most appealing about the brand is its sense of self-confidence. When you look at what we have done, and how we have talked about ourselves over the past few years, there’s not very much deviation from when we began.” This element of consistent brand value is perhaps what has made the brand so appealing to current youth culture, which centres brand values, transparency and ethical practices over flashy marketing. “We take a very autobiographical approach to marketing, we don’t like to fabricate stories about ourselves and that, more than ever, is what matters, particularly to our younger target,” adds McAdams. “They see us for what we are. When the dad shoe trend came a few years ago, we embraced it instead of running from it by creating the slogan ‘worn by supermodels in London and dads in Ohio’ because it‘s the truth. Our priority is to make sure the brand looks like itself.”

Such values have led New Balance to new heights, rivalling traditional sneaker giants like Nike and Adidas with a slew of cult fashion collaborations that simply hit every single time; from Stüssy to Miu Miu, Salehe Bembury to Joe Freshgoods, and of course, the beloved Aimé Leon Dore x New Balance 550 drop of 2020. “We have a team who live and breathe culture and fashion,” says Brian Lynn, global vice president of lifestyle products of the brand. “When it comes to collaborations, some of the brands we work with may seem different but they all share the same brand values that align with ours too, and that’s how we do things. Right now, we’re saying no to more collaborations than we say yes to – not because we don’t like those brands but because we don’t feel that it necessarily fits with what we stand for.” This approach counts for their ambassadors too. Last month, the brand unveiled the New Balance 1000SL with UK rapper Dave as the new face of the relaunched shoe.

Other brand ambassadors include Coco Gauff (who has been with the brand since she was 14), Jaden Smith and Jack Harlow, who launched his first New Balance 1906R sneaker earlier this month. “Our partners are our voice to our consumer because we don’t cast talent for marketing, we build partnerships with people instead and that requires real commitment from both sides,” McAdams explains. “It’s not just a sponsorship for a campaign, it’s a lasting relationship and requires shared values and equal passion, so we don’t just work with anybody.”

Ultimately, what has worked for New Balance and resonated most with a new generation of conscious shoppers is the brand’s self-awareness and conviction to do this on their own terms – and their own turf, without falling victim to the traps of the trend cycle. “15 plus years ago, the term Made in USA – not just for New Balance but for all domestic manufacturers – was about patriotism, and about creating jobs,” says McAdams. “That still matters, but to the young consumer now, it’s a testament to craft. If you’re making things yourself, that’s significantly different than if you’re having it made for you.”

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