June 2, 2017
Engineering Evolution: The Making of the New Balance 990v4
When it was released in 1982, the 990 represented the pinnacle of New Balance performance running, as well as a physical distillation of the brand’s homegrown heritage. With a lofty hundred dollar price tag, the 990 was also one of the first sneakers classified as a legit status symbol – ironic given the humble grey colour scheme shunned the trappings of 80s-era yuppy ostentation. However, those famously understated looks belied the shoe’s tech-laden capabilities. Championing the use of premium materials and astute craftsmanship, the 990 would evolve over the next three decades into what is now known as the 99x series. Each successive iteration planted evolutionary steps, combining the best of everything with an unwavering respect for NB history.
The most recent manifestation of this ideological vision is the 990v4. Developed by a team headed up by Scot Hull – a leading footwear designer specialising in American manufacturing – the v4 has once again refined the formula without compromising the integrity established by the original concept. We spoke to Scot, along with Eric Vassall, a New Balance senior product manager, to document the latest chapter in the ever-evolving 990 story.
Scot Hull's 990v4 concept sketches
To that point, the 99x series sits in a unique category that’s both performance and lifestyle. Is the newest version, the 990v4, subjected to the same R&D that other performance silhouettes go through?
Scot: Absolutely. If you look at the 990v4, you’ll notice it’s got a little bit of asymmetry towards the medial side. That is directly related to some of the feedback athletes gave us regarding where the overlays rubbed on their feet, so we opened up that area to make it more comfortable.
Eric: One of the things that we also learnt from wear-testing was that some previous models got a little bit hot, so we needed to address the breathability.
Scot: The 990v4 is way more breathable than the 990v3 for sure. One of the big changes was switching to polyether foam between the top mesh and the lining fabric. It’s naturally way more breathable than what we previously used. We also perforated the foam so that more air comes through without sacrificing the integrity of the material. It still retains its shape and looks just as good. Overall, this update added an extra 30 percent breathability, which is a pretty significant improvement considering suede isn’t breathable at all.
What other innovations separate the 990v4 from the last update?
Eric: I think the biggest improvement is the underfoot comfort. Scot redesigned the sole unit, in particular refining what we knew about ENCAP cushioning. ENCAP is a combination of EVA ‘encapsulated’ by polyurethane, and he was able to use it as the foundation to sculpt a sole unit that has support, but also offers this great feel underfoot.
ENCAP and ABZORB are synonymous with the 990 range across the decades. How has New Balance continued to innovate using them?
Eric: We’re always looking at new technology. ENCAP and ABZORB is tried and true for New Balance, but we continue to look at any opportunity to improve the way they work. I just feel that ENCAP is the perfect blend of support and comfort.
Scot: We constantly look at modern formulas and different rubber compounds. We may not announce the news, give it a new name or make a big deal about it – but we’re continuously improving the product. Rather than calling something a ‘2.0 update’ or whatever, I’d prefer to be able to make something better and just have it show in the results.
Debut 990v4 colourways
The 990v4 sole unit is a refined version of the previous iteration
Aesthetically, the 990v4 seems like a reduction of the v3 design. Do you think that’s a fair statement? Some of the more flashy details, like the exposed carbon fibre midfoot shank, have been taken away.
Scot: The goal was to give the shoe a more contemporary feel and keep it really clean by getting rid of any unnecessary details. The shoe didn’t really need an exposed carbon fibre shank, and if you look at the 990v3 close-up, you’ll see glue marks when they don’t line it up perfectly every time. In the new design, we still have the integrity of the arch – we kept the shank in there – but you’ll never see glue creeping out over the plastic like you did on the old design.
Eric: When we were looking at the evolution of the v3 to the v4, we went to the factory here in Lawrence where they make the shoe. We wanted to understand some of the challenges the factory was having and overcome them without compromising the final product.
Scot: I think that’s an example of real industrial design. I mean, anybody can draw a pretty picture and say, ‘Go build this!’ But when you’re directly interacting with the factory and it’s obvious some things are very difficult to make, then you know you have to modify your design. We still make a beautiful product, but it has to be totally manufacturable with minimal potential for errors. That’s what we did really well on the v4, we solved a lot of small problems with the build process.
Is that one of the benefits of working with your own manufacturing team right here in Lawrence?
Scot: When we work directly with the pattern engineers, developers, and the factory, we see the things that are really difficult to do. It also makes everything a little more close-knit because we’re all working together to build a great product. With manufacturing overseas, you just send the designs off and they do most of the problem solving. I love being part of that process as problem solving is my favourite part of the job.
The M990v4 is part of New Balance's 'Made in USA' program
The 990 series is a cult hit in the DMV (Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia) and Philly. Do you involve the local stores and NB heads from those areas during the design process?
Eric: I’m down in the DMV all the time. I was there three weeks ago showing the guys new colourways, getting their opinion, and speaking to kids that work the shop floor. They’re heavily involved during the design process, and I think they need to be in order to maintain that loyalty.
Scot: I think we can consider that crew to be our trusted advisors. If we send down some sketches and they’re wincing, then we know we need to go back to the drawing board. Luckily, that generally doesn’t happen! But they’ll throw little ideas out that help evolve the product. You can definitely say that they’re part of the 990 team.
Is there a particular detail on the 990v4 you like the most?
Eric: What Scot has done on the tongue with the ‘Made in USA’ symbol – that’s a really nice touch. I think we all did an amazing job on the shoe in general, but that tag is my favourite piece – it’s like the jewel in the crown.
DTLR exclusive 990v4 'DMV' colourway
Finally, what does the future hold for the New Balance 990 series?
Scot: I’ll tell you one thing – I’ve never done as many colourways in my career as I have for the 990v4! The kids are going crazy for the ‘shocker’ colourways right now, so you can expect more wild variants. We’ve also begun working on the 990v5, trying to figure out how we can improve the comfort and bring some newness to the update.
Eric: A sneaky prelude to the future is that we have 990 boots coming out at the end of this year. Scot and I toyed around with the idea and we actually did a hightop execution for the 990 diehard that doesn’t want to switch to boots during the wet season!
As for the 990 series as a whole, what we’re trying to do is connect that whole lineage between the different models over the years. A Ford Mustang is a Ford Mustang – regardless of what the year is – and we want people to think about the 990 the same way. I think some people don’t connect the 998s and 997s to the modern versions such as the 990v4, so we want to go back and make sure we celebrate the entire history of the 990 moving forward.