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Youth Of Today at The Anthrax, 1989; Photo by Chris Fortin
Photo by Chris Fontin, courtesy of Green Room Radio

A look at the subcultural legacy of New Balance

The unpredictable shoe choice that became a badge of honour

The renowned Jumpman silhouette, of Michael Jordan stretching for the rim of the basket, suspended in mid-air, is arguably the most iconic sneaker motif of all time. It's one which Nike and the former Chicago Bulls basketball star have built an empire off the back of. But the image that provided inspiration for that motif, first captured by photographer Jacobus Rentmeester in 1984 – which Nike subsequently recreated and slapped onto millions of pairs of sneakers – is as much ironic as it is iconic. Unsigned by Nike at the time of the Rentmeester shoot, it was a pair of New Balance that adorned the feet of then-21-year-old future legend.

There are perhaps few better ways to sum-up New Balance’s place in the sneaker world – one which has traditionally been dominated by the swoosh of Nike and the three stripes of adidas. New Balance has always played a more low-key, unassuming role, with its pared-back silhouettes helping it to adapt to the styles of different subcultures.

The hardcore music scene of the late 80s and early 90s in the US was one subculture which adopted the brand. “At the time of the Youth Crew Era (1986-1991) hip hop had been taken on as a new component and influence for hardcore bands. This led to the Country Club Casual look that was pretty similar to the updated hooligan look that Oasis would be sporting a few years later,” recalled Chris Bratton of Californian hardcore band Chain of Strength in a 2012 interview. New Balance, along with deck shoes and preppy Polo jackets were common attire, he said. Within hardcore circles at that moment, many adhered to a straight-edge lifestyle, and New Balance were one of the few brands that made sneakers that contained no animal products. In Buffalo, New York – a hotbed of nascent Hardcore bands in 1987 – one band even performed under the moniker ‘New Balance.’

The UK-based football casuals, who helped inspire the ‘country club casual’ look Bratton described, are another style-tribe who have had a longstanding affinity with New Balance. The brand was an alternative to the hegemony of adidas footwear on football terraces in the 90s, often worn by those who prided themselves in sartorial one-upmanship a little more than bashing skulls. (Football casual firms often had solid dressers and solid fighters, but rarely were they the same people). This has continued pretty much up until present day, and in the mid-to-late aughts, New Balance found a further niche within this niche, as men’s fashion shifted towards what many dubbed ‘heritage’. Suddenly, people began to care about the provenance of their clothes, how they were made, and New Balance – which still produces large quantities of its sneakers in the UK – found itself perfectly positioned. Many semi-retired casuals – in search of a slightly more demure choice of footwear to lairy suede reissues – once again turned to the brand. The 2010 release of New Balance’s ‘Pub Pack’, (complete with its own beer mat) was perhaps a nod to this.

Like many brands or items of clothing that eventually become tethered to certain subcultures, it’s often the simplicity which is the key factor. Like the robust, wheat-coloured Timberlands favoured by corner boys in New York for their aesthetic toughness, or the utilitarian Carhartt Chore Coats worn by graffiti kids in Milan and Paris during the 90s due to a multitude of pockets for storing spray cans – these pieces come about because they allow enough space for the wearer to impart their own identity on them. New Balance’s decidedly non-flash approach chimes with that. Its willingness to operate on the periphery, rather than trying to topple the Nike-adidas stranglehold, has allowed the brand to crop up in unexpected – and often more interesting – niches.

“Suddenly, people began to care about the provenance of their clothes, how they were made, and New Balance – which still produces large quantities of its sneakers in the UK – found itself perfectly positioned”

It was this same idea that allowed it to become the choice of hustlers on the streets of the DMV – Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia – during the 80s and 90s. Unlike their counterparts in other states, like those in custom-made Dapper Dan Louis Vuitton pieces in New York, success was not worn ostentatiously. Instead, blacks and greys made up the color palette for most, as Curtis ‘Curtbone’ Chambers, a former gang member from Washington D.C., told SneakerFreaker last year: “We’ve always been into designers, but we weren’t into the loud colours. We were more about black Versace shirts, or black Hugo Boss or Giorgio Armani. And New Balance fit that... Whenever you’d go out of town, people would say, ‘Oh, them D.C. dudes. They got the New Balance on!’” It probably helped that when the New Balance of choice (and everyone’s subsequent favourite dad shoe), the 990, was released in 1982, it was one of the first sneakers to cost $100 dollars, cementing it as a status symbol.

The influence of that era remains today. Last year, a fledgling D.C. rapper NAPPYNAPPA released an E.P. titled ‘New Balance’, while a little further north in Philadelphia, rapper Meek Mill commented in an episode of Complex’s Sneaker Shopping recalled that 990s were worn by the “guys in my neighborhood who had money. They were trap sneakers.”

Indeed, throughout hip hop’s history, there has also been a sprinkling of references to the brand. In 1997, KRS One rapped “I warm up any room like a heater/ Bringin’ a New Balance to the speaker like a sneaker and, on his 2004 mixtape Osirus, Ol’ Dirty Bastard delivered the line: “Cop the Eagle, started jackin’ with the green New Balance shit.” More recently, another Philadelphia-native, Lil Uzi Vert, has been pictured regularly wearing the brand’s 990 style.

Beyond rap, this particular sneaker model has become somewhat of a staple within fashion circles in recent seasons, seemingly managing to be on-trend by accident. Typically, this style comes in grey, accented by two other shades of grey, and a little touch of white. It looks sensible and comfortable, like something your dad might (or probably would) wear. And consequently, chimes perfectly with fashion’s current obsession with all things mundane, from Ikea tote bags to sensible cagoules, in what feels like something of a post-normcore hangover. But also; the 990 is kind of ugly. That too feels decidedly current, since we’ve become accustomed to seeing bulbous, visually-jarring sneakers clomping down Paris runways over the past few seasons.

Much like the Hardcore kids of Boston and New York, or football casuals of the north of England the intent behind these choices were largely the same – to not only set oneself apart from predictable sneakers choices of their peers, but to wear that difference like a badge of honour.

Learn more about the newly reissued New Balance 608 here.