June 14, 2017

DMV to Philly: Exploring the New Balance 990 Obsession

In an age of corporate globalisation, it’s increasingly rare to uncover anything resembling a regional footwear phenomenon. Geographical boundaries that once allowed localised trends to incubate have been eroded as youth culture moves from IRL to URL, while the never-ending digital search for ‘cool’ creates ephemeral micro-trends just as quickly as they evaporate. So when we come across a culturally unique story, it’s intriguing – to say the least. This is what happened when Sneaker Freaker discovered the East Coast’s obsession with the New Balance 990v4. Let’s dust off the time machine as we go all the way back to 1982 and start lacing this story together.

The First $100 Sneaker

When New Balance released the 990 in 1982, it was the first sneaker to carry a hundred dollar ticket price, an astronomical figure that redefined the trajectory of the athletic shoe industry. Cloaked in a nondescript shade of grey and devoid of ostensible gimmicks, the original 990 design was a masterpiece of understated engineering.

Over the next three decades, the 990 would expand into what became known as the 99x series, with each new iteration offering progressive innovation. That singular sense of purpose and design purity conferred an enviable reputation for honesty that continues to this day. Indeed, the 99x series has never been co-signed by big-name collaborators or primed with mega-dollar marketing campaigns. The most prominent ambassador was a tech visionary who tucked his black turtleneck into his high-cut jeans, so it’s fair to say the shoes have always possessed an iconoclast ‘outsider’ charm.

The street-level appeal of the 99x series is a cultural paradox. Designed for the performance needs of affluent runners prepared to pay the ultimate price, the shoe’s high-zoot credentials attracted another kind of clientele – one that paid for expensive New Balance runners with bundles of cold hard cash.

Even the original 1982 ads boasted about the ticket price. 'If you're paying as much for a running shoe as the 990 costs, you have a right to expect it to wear well.'

Even the original 1982 ads boasted about the ticket price. 'If you're paying as much for a running shoe as the 990 costs, you have a right to expect it to wear well.'

“Back in the day, New Balance was the first company to sell running shoes for $100! Coming up in D.C., the 990 was the status symbol. Whether they were dope dealers or just people with a bit of money, we looked up to anyone who had them. It just grew into this huge thing! You just had to have the 990, and it continued with the 995, 996, 997 and 998. As we’ve gotten older, our little brothers and sisters have now adopted that too, because that’s all they saw when they were growing up.”

June Sanders – DTLR product designer, Washington D.C.

Dope Runners

When a crime epidemic hit the US in the 1980s, spiralling north from Miami through to New York and beyond, it created an upwardly mobile urban class powered by fast money, power and status. The Washington metro area was one of the regions most affected. Nicknamed the ‘DMV’ – after Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia – the region has long fostered a unique ecosystem of interconnected realms and rivalries.

As DMV hustlers established their professional presence on each block, their highly visible sartorial preferences infiltrated the surrounding areas. True to type, they enjoyed the trappings of their entrepreneurial success, but they certainly weren’t as flashy as their counterparts in other cities. D-boys from the Big Apple may have defined urban culture as we know it with their Dapper Dan-inspired get-ups, but DMV style was all about flying under the radar. Their uniform emphasised understated luxury over the garish displays of inexplicable wealth seen on the streets of NYC – and humble New Balance 99x sneakers were the perfect accessory.

Map of the DMV area

Map of the DMV area

Curtis ‘Curtbone’ Chambers is a true OG who survived life in the infamous Rayful Edmond gang in the 80s. A native of D.C., he witnessed the evolution of this unique style in his own backyard. ‘Back in our time, we liked the blacks and greys. So with the New Balance being the greys, it went with everything we was doing. 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 also – it was our code. Whenever you’d go out of town, people would say, “Oh, them D.C. dudes. They got the New Balance on!” It meant a lot to us.’

From these gritty roots, New Balance became an undeniable part of the cultural landscape. Despite other sneakers making inroads throughout the 90s, all-grey ‘Newbies’ held a certifiable cachet. The 990, along with the updated 993, 995 and 996 models, were the ultimate status symbols – signifiers that serious dime had been dropped. The love affair also travelled up the I-95 to Philadelphia – halfway to New York – where the shoes garnered another unique following.

Rayful Edmond was sentenced to life in prison in 1989

Rayful Edmond was sentenced to life in prison in 1989

‘The thing you need to understand about Philly is that it’s a city that loves an anti-hero. All the athletes we admire here are deeply flawed, and the city itself is imperfect in a lot of ways too. The 990 is definitely what I call a block captain’s shoe. Historically, the guy wearing it never needed to say, ‘Look what I have on my feet!’ The shoe was always top-of-the-line and obviously official. And since grey was the only colourway available for a long time – until NB started flipping fashion colours – it was never a shoe that had to scream for attention. Ultimately, I think the mystique of the 990 is that…  there is no mystique.’

Adam Leaventon (aka Air Rev) – Philly-based sneaker collector

'12 O'Clock Boys' is a documentary by Lofty Nathan that explores Baltimore's illegal dirt bike scene. A number of NBs are featured in the film including on the main character Pug (above)

'12 O'Clock Boys' is a documentary by Lofty Nathan that explores Baltimore's illegal dirt bike scene. A number of NBs are featured in the film including on the main character Pug (above)

Local Tradition

When the sneaker boom arrived in the early 2000s, instigating a new vision of creativity through limited edition collaborations, interest spiked in retro designs. The birth of the ‘sneakerhead’ would prove to be a globally significant moment, but Philly and the DMV were already well ahead of the curve. Led by different models including the 992 and 993, New Balance’s domestic offerings reached peak popularity during the Americana trend that dominated the 2010s. This set the stage in 2012 for the launch of the 990v3, but no one was ready for the hysteria that followed the arrival of the 990v4 in 2016.

From the moment it dropped, the DMV and Philly embraced the new kid on the block. The 990v4 is a bulky suede behemoth that simply refuses to conform to contemporary trends. It’s a paid-up member of the 99x family, looks perfect in grey, and is still laden with the latest and greatest NB tech. In the eyes of aficionados, it’s a sophisticated alternative to the slimline, sock-like silhouettes that have become ubiquitous in recent years. It’s the polar opposite of every cool-hunting trend, but ironically it’s that defiance of trend that bestows the sneaker with such a desirable aura. The 990v4 is for those in the know – a subtle signifier of refined taste that isn’t predicated on industry influence.

Acknowledging this unique regional loyalty, New Balance has deftly embraced the local scene, tapping stores for inspiration when designing 99x updates and new colourways. Eric Vassell is a senior product manager at New Balance who has been involved with the 990 program for over a decade. As part of the development process, Vassell consults contacts in the area to deliver insights on what locals want to see in the 99x lineup. ‘I’m down in the DMV all the time. I was there probably three weeks ago, showing new colourways, getting their opinion, and speaking to kids that work on the shop floor. They’re heavily involved during the design process and I think they need to be in order to maintain that loyalty and make sure that our shoes continue to resonate with the consumer down there.’

DC's Glizzy Gang match 990v3s with their crew chains

DC's Glizzy Gang match 990v3s with their crew chains

Philly's Lil Uzi Vert is regularly seen wearing a number of different 990 models

Philly's Lil Uzi Vert is regularly seen wearing a number of different 990 models

‘One story I heard is that cats in North Philly, which is a very rough hood, started wearing 990s because the ‘N’ on the side was supposed to mean ‘North’. My theory is that street kids simply saw a shoe with a $165 tag, so they were a status symbol. But the shoes look fresh and they were super comfortable. And they’re good for running – especially away from cops and opposing gangs! Across the DMV, the 990 simply caught on like wildfire amongst school kids, teens, veteran hustlers, white guy runners and even old people.’

Richie Roxas – Philly-based NB collector

Young’s Sneaker City has been repping New Balance for decades, selling hundreds of pairs each week. Thanks to a long-term relationship, the store manages to source early releases and plenty of extra stock from New Balance, with locals even crowning owner Young Lee as the ‘King of 990s’. Demand for the v4 is so strong, Lee had to hire extra staff and find more storage space just to keep local customers happy. Down in Baltimore, Sports Express has experienced a similar boom in v4 demand.

While subdued combinations of grey and navy will always be go-to staples, wilder schemes have been warmly embraced by the new generation. With a loud peachy upper, the 990SR4 ‘Sunrise’ is a far cry from the austere OG vibe, but it has been one of the biggest hits of the year.

New Balance has also celebrated D.C.’s love affair with the 990v4, producing a DMV-exclusive collaboration with sneaker retailer DTLR. Inspired by the colours of the Maryland flag, the concept was designed by June Sanders and the DTLR team. The shoe sold out instantly on launch day and DTLR is set to follow the success with a Fourth of July themed 990v4 in June, with a second DMV colourway dropping later this year. Moving thousands of pairs might be the norm for some retail giants, but rarely is sneaker-mania so concentrated in an area outside of New York, London and Tokyo.

‘Despite its shady beginnings, the whole 990 thing in the DMV has evolved into something else altogether,’ Vassell explains while considering the obsession that originated in his hometown. ‘I think right now, everybody there is using the 990v4 as a platform to celebrate local pride. If you look at what DTLR, YSC and all the NB accounts from there are doing, they’re really talking about the community down there and building a positive energy. That’s what the shoe is kind of morphing into – a positive influence for these kids in the future.’

DC rapper Fat Trel holding the DTLR x New Balance 990v4 'DMV'

DC rapper Fat Trel holding the DTLR x New Balance 990v4 'DMV'

YCMC x New Balance 990v4 DMV exclusive

YCMC x New Balance 990v4 DMV exclusive

The upcoming DTLR x New Balance 990v4 'Stars and Stripes'

The upcoming DTLR x New Balance 990v4 'Stars and Stripes'

‘When I first bought Sports Express, we were selling so many pairs of NB it was crazy. I asked the local kids why they liked New Balance 990s so much and they told me it was because they were comfortable and they also made it easy to run away from cops! With some of my regulars, once their 990s get scuffed up, they just throw them away. I’ll be like, “Hey, you just got that pair two weeks ago, why do you need another one?” and they’ll be like “Yeah I messed ‘em up, I need a fresh pair!” The New Balance 990 is just part of the culture here in Baltimore.’

Wei Zeng  – owner of Sports Express, Baltimore

History is peppered with unlikely combinations that coalesce to become truly significant movements. Originally created for the most discerning running geeks, the hood’s embrace of the 990 is unique to the DMV. Indeed, the local communities that claimed the shoe as their own have worn them for long enough to see the model waltz into wider favour globally. Myriad cultural factors, such as the birth of ‘normcore’ style that celebrates no-frills sameness, rappers like Lil Uzi Vert name-checking the silhouette, and the simple fact that New Balance stone-cold nailed the revised design, have all contributed to the global groundswell behind the most understated sneaker franchise of them all.

So next time you spot the flash of reflective ‘Newbies’ on the feet of a young fashionista, spare a thought for the pioneers – the fitness freaks and the finessers – who helped to establish the narrowest path of influence.

Wei's Sports Express stockroom is filled with 990s

Wei's Sports Express stockroom is filled with 990s

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