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Road Less Travelled: The New Balance Mt580

Date: August 12 2016

By: Adam Jane

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These days, the MT580 is a well respected member of the sneaker hall of fame, but the shoe didn’t experience the immediate success that many of New Balance’s well known OG styles did. As the brand gears up to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 580 this year, it’s worth examining how the model has evolved, outlasting many of its competitors and maintaining cult status. The ultimate off-road runner, rather fittingly, has always blazed its own trail.

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Japan has long fostered a fascination with American style and attitude. In the wake of the Second World War, brash GIs shocked the conservative Japanese establishment, encouraging new forms of sartorial expression amongst the nation’s impressionable youth. Since that early cross-pollination, Japanese subcultures have committed themselves fanatically to specific genres of Americana. Brands like Red Wing and Levis were warmly embraced by ‘Ame-kei’, a form of fanboy culture devoted to US heritage, as subtle details became the source of intense inspiration. Respect for the authenticity of the ‘Made in the USA’ range meant that New Balance also grew in popularity.

By the early-90s, New Balance was having mixed success in the Japanese market. Whilst the 1400 and the 574 were hugely popular, other models were struggling to find loyal followings. As NB gradually shifted elements of their manufacturing business to Asia, specific models were developed to satisfy local tastes, resulting in products that would only be sold in Japan. Crucially, these models were priced significantly lower, putting them well within reach of aspirational consumers who loved the brand but baulked at premium price tags.

One such model was the 580. Released in 1996, the 580 was an adaptation of the ‘Made in USA’ 585. The super technical and brawny physique of the 580 was a striking vision, especially compared to slimline running models from the era. The thumping carbon fibre midsole known as ‘Rollbar’ may have given the shoe unparalleled traction on rough surfaces, but the jacked-up height polarised many style conscious shoppers. Faced with indifference, the 580’s mainstream fortunes flickered briefly and it appeared destined to quickly fade from the scene.

This wasn’t the end of the story however. Harajuku youth did appreciate Rollbar tech and admire the 580’s staunch stance, but that serious price-point was still a major hurdle. However, once sale racks became stocked with unsold 580s, it was quickly seen as an excellent compromise by budget conscious streetwear fans and outdoor enthusiasts. Support for the shoe continued to bubble away in pockets of Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan, but the 580 was still far from being considered a roaring success.

“Released in 1996, the 580 was an adaptation of the ‘Made in USA’ 585. The super technical and brawny physique of the 580 was a striking vision, especially compared to slimline running models from the era.”

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New Balance 580 20th anniversary Singapore

A unique partnership

As hard as it is to imagine today, sneaker collaborations didn’t exist in the mid-90s. Chain stores would occasionally produce an SMU (Special Make Up) exclusively for their own doors, but this concept was well beyond the means of boutique retailers. And even if they could have secured an SMU, it was unlikely they would have control over the materials and colours. There was simply no precedent for this level of bespoke creativity in the industry.

All that changed in 1999 when New Balance Japan developed a unique partnership with Mita Sneakers, a retailer based in Ueno, and Real MadHECTIC, a Tokyo streetwear label.

Boasting such a modest profile, the 580 was not an obvious candidate for such a groundbreaking concept, but the crew from Mita and MadHECTIC had been repping the tech-laden trail runner personally. When they suggested the 580 to New Balance – much to their surprise – the idea was positively received. Little did they know, but they were also about to create a significant legacy for all three brands.

‘New Balance Japan gave us the freedom to create and promote as we liked. Although common now, it was truly groundbreaking at the time to work with such a high degree of freedom.’ SHIGEYUKI KUNI, MITA SNEAKERS

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Shigeyuki Kunii, Creative Director of Mita Sneakers

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The collaboration was a break-out hit. The 580 model was instantly legitimised and demand exploded in Japan. Corporate collaboration culture has since become ubiquitous within the sneaker game, but this is arguably where the concept was born.

Mita and MadHECTIC would go on to colab with New Balance many times over the next decade, including a series of 10-year anniversary releases. Stussy also played a significant role as well, working directly with NB and also with MadHECTIC on several JP-only 580 releases during this period.

For many years the 580 remained exclusive to Japan. In pre-internet times, the only way to source a pair was to personally travel and hit up Japanese stores. Eventually, one of the strange quirks of the fashion world kicked in. Just as Japanese subcultures had distilled American style down to its essence, American sneakerheads became fascinated by these Japanese reinterpretations. The community in the US and Europe began to seriously covet New Balance’s JP-exclusives.

In 2007, New Balance finally gave fiends what they wanted, completing the loop by introducing the 580 to the US market. Collaborations with Packer Shoes, Shoe Gallery, Burn Rubber, Bait, Capsule and West NYC cemented the shoe’s rep as a go-to model for co-branded retail projects.

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Evolution

The 580 received its first major update in 2013, with the release of the MRT580. The addition of the ‘R’ to the style code signified the introduction of New Balance’s REVLITE midsole foam. Slimmed down for a new generation, the MRT580 nevertheless maintained its towering wedge proportions. In sync with the midsole makeover, the shoe was also released in sizes for ladies for the first time, with brands like X-Girl developing their own female-focused collaborations.

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In 2016, as the shoe celebrates its 20th anniversary, the 580 has just been reimagined with its biggest makeover to date. The ‘Re-engineered’ and ‘Deconstructed’ hybrid 580s use knitted construction and seamless uppers to reinvigorate the model, delivering a streamlined version of a 90s mesh- and-suede staple. Recent collaborations with Hypebeast, Colette and Wings + Horns have cemented the 580’s legacy of bold innovation.

From a low-key debut to cult status, the New Balance 580 is a true OG of sneaker collaboration culture. So next time you think about camping out and fiending over a limited release only available in Japan, take a second to say thanks to the New Balance 580.

Head to the New Balance website to view the entire 580 range. 

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