When New Balance resurrected their sensual 990 runner last year, they answered the silent prayers of aficionados all over the world. Welcoming the 990 back in our lives was a glorious moment, but there was still one holy grail lingering in the vault – the 997. Over the years, various rumours have circulated, all claiming that a retro of the 997 would never happen in a million years.
The nail in the coffin seemed to be the release of an Asian-made 997 complete with a sole unit from the 998. With that, word got around that the original sole molds had been damaged, or possibly lost, and that the cost of retooling was astronomical. But all of that gossipmongering has been proven false, as these exclusive SF pictures prove. After countless petitions and hours of turkeyslapping forum talk, I can confirm that New Balance has finally taken mercy on us all. The 997 is back!
The 997 was a headfirst leap into the 90s. In an era where footwear was defined by the technology it boasted, New Balance upped the ante, delivering a radical new aesthetic for the 99X range. Whereas the 996 had seen out the 80s by refining the 995, the 997 brought saw-tooth insteps and a thermoplastic Hytrel Strap system for midfoot lock. More importantly, the 997 fused C-Cap within the ENCAP sole unit, making a clear progression from the ‘sandwich’ construction used previously in the 996. Comfort was ramped up with a triple density innersole, while the outsole copped a coating of XAR-1000 rubber to enhance grip. As usual New Balance preferred not to shout, so the whole thing was decked out in grey-on-grey pigskin suede which became the shoe’s signature scheme.
As the new decade dawned, brands were quickly moving production to factories in the Far East, where more efficient processes and cheaper labour had obvious appeal. Forever stubborn and loyal to their workforce, New Balance remained committed to local manufacturing and the 997 was produced in both the USA and UK, which made the shoe unique in the company’s history. A women’s version was also offered, which was coded ‘W997’, the first time ladies were laced with a version of the 99X series built specifically for their needs. Aside from its tweaked panels and differing widths, the easiest way to pick the women’s version was the embroidered ‘NB’ logo, which replaced the oversize reflective ‘N’ on the men’s version.
There’s a long and well-documented history of American Presidents jogging for exercise. Reagan liked the Three Stripes, George Bush Sr. liked a bit of Reebok LX8500 action (until he took office) and Bill Clinton was an ASICS fanatic. When he moved into Washington, ol’ Bill was rather fond of the GT-II in particular, but quickly came under scrutiny for not supporting the local economy. Things were fixed quick smart when New Balance knocked up a custom pair of 997s embroidered with ‘Mr. President’, creating what is probably the coolest PE (Presidential Edition) of all time, rivaled only by George Bush Sr’s custom ‘Air Pres’ Air Max 90. Bill later moved on to the 1500 in 2E width (seems Bill preferred a wide-fit, like his intern’s asses) but his VP Al Gore continued to show love for the 997, putting it on heavy rotation when he donned the short shorts. This started an ongoing tradition of the New Balance 99X series being the footwear of choice for POTUS, with Obama also rocking his own set of grey-on-grey 990s.
As the 997 was left to fade into mid-90s obscurity, the only country that recognized the shoe’s brilliance was (of course) Japan. Over the years, photos emerged of a few muted colourways and the odd brightly hued example, but the shoe essentially exists in a grey-on-grey timewarp. The only place I’ve seen pairs for sale was on a Japanese auction site, where prices were in the high hundreds. Even if you had the wallet for it, the midsole’s foamy makeup meant they weren’t wearable anyway. But all this time, NB heads were out there scheming and dreaming about bringing the 997 back from enforced hibernation. Sneaker forums were awash with cries for help, with Crooked Tongues in particular hosting a popular petition created in the knowledge (and hope) that New Balance staff regularly frequented the boards.
WELCOME BACK 997
Some 23 years after its inception, the 997 is finally back. True to form, New Balance has utilised all the correct materials and they’re still constructed in the US of A, just like the old days. Damn, these things look good enough to eat! But there’s one glaringly obvious aspect of this retro which does not keep things true to the OG. The midsole is now dark grey, instead of a deep ivory colour. To most this won’t even be an issue, as the 997 is an obscure model that few remember, but to 997 loyalists, this alteration is puzzling. Since the rest of the shoe is bang-on, it makes me wonder – is this retro based on an archival sample that has never been seen before? Who knows, but to the avid New Balance fanatic, it’s a bitter-sweet gripe. Welcome back 997, but I’m afraid it’s time to get the paint stripper ready!
STORY BY MATT KYTE
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For anyone local looking to cop the NB997s, head to HAL (Perth), Laced (Brizzy), Up There (Melbourne) and Espionage (Sydney).