A TimelineWhy Grey New Balance Will Always Be the GOAT
For hardcore New Balance fans, the world will always appear in shades of grey. From the circuit-breaking 990 to brand new models like the 327, the overcast palette has become synonymous with the Boston label. But to truly understand the significance of Grey Day, an annual celebration of all the silver foxes in the vast New Balance canon, we need to travel back to the 1980s, when the running phenomenon was beginning to hit its stride.
Let's Get Physical!
In the 1980s, a new wave of consumerism was booming in America. It was the era of gaudy neon advertisements, shoulder pads and power suits. Not only was the aesthetic eye-watering, but many US brands were also looking to cut manufacturing costs in order to drive retail prices down. The bolder (and preferably cheaper), the better.
In typical fashion, New Balance treaded against the grain. Favouring neutral grey tones and unapologetic price points, the Boston imprint bet on their superior manufacturing processes and materials, a move that was reflected in their advertisements of the era. In an early magazine spread for the 410, New Balance emphasised their unflinching pathway forward: ‘Not in the habit of wilfully changing their shoe models each year to match the fashion colours of the Paris collection,’ the text trumpeted.
Put simply, New Balance were willing to let their product do the talking. If you really wanted a superior product, NB had the answer. Their starry-eyed technological agenda fuelled the running mania sweeping the globe. It was a battle for sole supremacy – who could offer the best traction, cushioning and comfort?
The flurry of classic grey models helped New Balance to carve out a loyal niche in an epoch marked by short-lived fads and garish palettes. The sneakers were unmistakable, and they were causing a swelling storm for runners the world over.
Profundity in the Pigpen
It’s impossible to chart the legacy of grey New Balance sneakers without putting pigskin suede under the microscope.
Being the strongest leather for its weight, it allowed NB models like the 990 to flex – not crease! – unlike many other sneakers on the market. Producing buttery soft short-nep suede (thanks largely to its dense fibrous structure), the pigskin suede was utilised for its unique combination of softness and pliability, a superior quality not seen in cowhide.
While the Boston brand experimented with both the synthetic leather Ceracom 574 and the nubuck 1300, nothing quite lived up to the superlative characteristics of pigskin. More expensive than its cowhide counterparts, they were happy to cut the checks and communicate the price to its consumers – a transparent marketing strategy that became emblematic of the imprint.
One advertisement proclaimed: 'Our award-winning models are only replaced when better materials and new techniques make a new shoe worthwhile for the runner.'
And let’s not beat around the pigpen: pigskin suede and grey go together like Silicon Valley and the 992. The smoky hues allowed the subtle characteristics of the material to shine through, and bestowed the 1980s models with a longevity proudly self-exiled from the fickle vagaries of fashion.
‘On a Scale of 1000, This Shoe is a 990’
It was time to walk the walk. Between 1978 and 1982, New Balance threw the kitchen sink at their brain trust, removing all time and money constraints. The first model to use premium grey pigskin leather, 3M reflective transfer film on the back tab, and moulded M.C.D (Motion Control Device), the 990 now occupied the vanguard of New Balance R&D.
Hitting stores at $100, the 990 was the most expensive running shoe of its time. Originally projected to sell 5000 pairs in its first year, the 990 went nuclear, selling much more than originally expected. Word of mouth quickly spread of its superlative running DNA, and the silhouette was hailed as much for its performance characteristics as its viability as a status symbol – especially considering its historic three-digit ticket price.
‘No one ever thought we’d be able to sell a $100 shoe,’ NB chairman Jim Davis recalled in 2013. ‘But it really surprised and it took off right away. It was a great shoe.’
‘Great’ may be an understatement.
The 990 is still one of the most coveted lines in New Balance’s vast catalogue. A grey-haired progenitor of the modern normcore style, the chameleonic qualities of the 990 and its various guises throughout its five-volume career has seen the 990 repeatedly rear its head as a cultural powerhouse.
Collaborators clamour over one another for a chance at remixing the sneaker, while the dad shoe phenomenon sweeping the globe in 2017, of course, owes much to the successes of the 99X series more broadly.
Famously ‘worn by supermodels in London and dads in Ohio’, the 990’s grey on grey is still the undisputed king for OG enthusiasts.
'Mortgage the House'
Another technological tour de force, the 1300 arrived in 1984. Upping the ante yet again, the silhouette hit shelves in its classic grey and icy blue palette for $130, and was advertised alongside the tongue-in-cheek slogan, ‘Mortgage the house’.
Wrapped in cosy nubuck and premium pigskin, the 1300 shared some of the hallmarks of the 990 (including the Vibram sole and plastic heel stabiliser), but introduced a new innovation to the tech arsenal: ENCAP – the combination of an EVA foam core and a polyurethane sole.
Manufactured in Maine, the 1300 also became a flagship product for NB’s ‘Made in USA’ marketing push, and quickly earned its reputation as one of the most luxurious runners ever.
A defining moment for the brand, the 1300 was the cream of the crop for many years, recruiting hordes of fans across the globe, most notably in Japan, where their love of New Balance and all things Americana was expanding.
Yes, you may have lost the house, but you could live a lifetime in the 1300.
The Strong, Silent Type
Where would NB’s greyscale ascendance be without the 574?
Branching out from the 990 and 1300, the 574 was manufactured as the unofficial baseline model for New Balance. Rather than acting as a platform for vaulting technological innovation, the silver stalwart found a perfect place in the market.
Emphasising its ‘everyman’ credentials, the humble grey 574 was conspicuously absent from big budget advertising campaigns, celebrity endorsements, and even New Balance catalogues of the late 1980s. The 574 was ‘the strong, silent type’ – it simply showed up on the shelves without prior warning, and savvy sneakerheads couldn’t get enough.
Lifting the hood on the 575 and 576, the 574 was born from relentless tinkering and its ‘Worn By Anyone’ ethos. Boldly combining characteristics from trail and track running, it adopted a wider shape than previous narrower racing silhouettes.
Permeating New York City’s burgeoning hardcore scene of then, the clean-living ‘straight-edge’ artists finding linguistic resonance in the ‘New Balance’ creed and unpretentious 574. A movement born from the perceived excesses of punk during the 1970s, the New Balance brand and their 574 model came to symbolise a deliberate ideological shift. At the time, New Balance were one of the only brands experimenting with 100 per cent animal free product – another philosophical lynchpin from within the hardcore scene.
Later, the grey 574 was jet-setting across the globe, most notably in Harajuku’s legendary fashion scene, where the model was extolled for its heritage, American-made DNA.
Suffice to say, the New Balance 574 is as strong – although perhaps not as silent – as ever.
An American Masterpiece
The 997 was at the forefront of New Balance R&D in the early 1990s. Carving a careful path between casual weekend runners and diehard pavement pounders, the 997’s unassuming silver and grey liveries were packing real heat in the engine room.
While previous iterations of the 99X series adopted the die-cut EVA midsoles, the 997 ditched them all together in favour of a Polyurethane shell loaded with dual-density ENCAP inserts. Featuring jacked-up heels and prescient narrow toes, the sleek, modern aesthetic still represents the apex of New Balance design for its horde of fans.
Exalted in its infallible slate suede and dimpled leather, the 997 was key for the brand’s greyscale coup d'état throughout the early 1990s, becoming central to a proud, Made in USA manufacturing ethos – despite lingering rumours of pairs being made in Flimby, UK!
But good luck finding a vintage grey pair – these are still one of the ultimate grails for New Balance fanatics.
In the mid-1990s, New Balance launched the 1400, which would become one of their most reliable sellers.
Born amidst the budding tech-boom of the 1990s, the 1400 was impressive in its own right. Built with an ENCAP and C-CAP under the hood, the 1400 was originally scheduled to launch in 1985 as a sequel to the 1300, but landed nearly a decade later in 1994. Somewhat anachronistic to the small ‘N’ logos populating NB’s line in the 1990s, the 1400 was no shrinking violet, the heritage grey on grey colourway again adopting the gargantuan ‘N’ alongside cooler, more neutral tones.
While the design is a success in the United States, diligent fans of the 1400 will also proudly recite the impact the 1400 had on the Japanese market. A silhouette treasured thanks to its coveted Made in USA manufacturing, its superior running tech, and Japan’s passionate embrace of Americana more broadly, the Land of the Rising Sun was crucial in spreading the success of the 1400 globally.
Forever tied to one particular CEO and his black turtleneck and denim jeans, the New Balance 992 arrived with the dot-com boom in the early 2000s. Marking NB’s 100th anniversary, the sneaker launched alongside generation-defining product from Silicon Valley, helping to build a cult following among its numerous tech incubators and beyond.
Donning a classic grey colourway reminiscent of high-end hardware, the 992 was rendered in supple suede, breathable athletic mesh and the signature ABZORB innovation underfoot – the very first time the insock tech was used!
Hitting shelves in a mountain of width and sizes (78 in total), the extensive rollout was a far cry from the industry standard of approximately 30. This was especially relevant considering the 992 had the highest manufacturing costs of any other model in the 99X series.
Discontinued for over a decade in 2010, the New Balance 992 surged back into the zeitgeist in 2020 thanks in part to its chunky dad shoe credentials and Y2K nostalgia, the 2020 retro in April selling out almost instantly in its inimitable grey composition.
Talk about a hard reset!
The Dad Shoe Bust-Up
In 2017, dad shoe mania was in full swing, and sneakerheads were desperate for some extra calories below the heels.
Despite the fridge full of models cashing in on big-bodied profiles, for NB-heads, there’s still only one true biological father to the dad shoe phenom: The 990 series. Recent updates like the 990v4 and 990v5 have also helped pump new blood into those veteran bones.
This will come as no surprise to some. The 990 still inspires some of the fiercest loyalty we’ve seen in the sneakersphere. Having left its mark all over the plus-size sneakers lining the shelves in recent years, the staunch, grey-haired runner waving away colourful new hides in an industry notorious for ham-fisted facelifts.
We may be nearing the dusk of the dad shoe, rest assured, New Balance 990s will keep cooking in case anyone gets hungry.
The New Balance 'History Class' Pack
Paying tribute to the archival models that paved the way for the 574 in the 1980s, the ‘History Class’ pack served up six throwback colourways headlined by the patented grey.
Taking fastidious notes on everything from the OG 1300JP, 565, 670, 700, 770 and 850, the ‘History Class’ showed us all that the 574 is still a flawless, straight-A student!
Flexin' the Flairs
The 327 is making its first appearance for Grey Day in 2022, the silhouette adopting ashen hues to bring the brand’s reign into a new era. Utilising a sleek gunmetal grey on the 'N' logo and two-toned charcoal uppers, the 327 is the darkest release in the trio of Grey Day 2022 releases.
Celebrating the New Balance styles from the 1970s, the 327 took design cues from the 320 (1976), 355 (1977) and SuperComp (1977). The brainchild of footwear designer Charlotte Lee, the flared midsoles and oversized branding cranked plenty of necks when they arrived in 2021.
Hybridity Takes Hold
How do you update one of the most successful sneakers of all time? New Balance had their hands full when it came to modernising the 574, the famously amorphous model repeatedly finding new homes in the ever-changing sneaker ecosystem. In early 2021, New Balance unveiled the 57/40, a brand new hybrid interpretation of their legacy shoe. Making an appearance in NB’s Grey Day pack in 2021 shortly after it was first introduced, the 57/40 will again join the festivities this year, the silhouette adopting a super sleek silver shade accented by brown and beige.
Retro-Futurism Revs Its Engine
The New Balance XC-72 did not arrive quietly. Fuelled by the starry-eyed, speculative tech of 1970s concept cars, the XC-72 started its engine in 2021, boasting vertically split outsoles complete with two hard ground traction designs (the XC15’s ‘gripper’ and the 375’s studded pattern).
While earlier models in this Grey Day timeline are defined by minimalist design principles, the NB XC-72 loads the engine with all kinds of boisterous ‘bells and whistles’ emblematic of NB's retro-futurist modus operandi.
Turning a New, Green Leaf
Most importantly, all of New Balance’s 2022 Grey Day releases will subscribe to the green leaf standard. To meet the strict criteria, the Grey Day 327, 57/40 and XC-72 are all manufactured with at least 50 per cent environmentally preferred materials on the uppers, including recycled and organic content.
'The XC-72, 57/40 and 327 are our most progressive lifestyle silhouettes to date. They're inspired by the past but not bound by its limitations,' says Paul Kaseumsouk, senior project manager, New Balance. ‘Our goal was to evolve Grey Day heading into 2022 with a sustainability expression and the idea was to represent the full spectrum of warm and cool greys combined with sustainable materials. Using our iconic colour, we created a collection that celebrates the progressive essence of NB.’
The green leaf standard also reduces the harmful chemicals used in the tanning process by utilising chrome-free suedes and leathers (thanks to a partnership with the Leather Working Group). Alongside the reworked uppers, each of the midsoles will feature three per cent bio-based foam or five per cent recycled content to help minimise waste. Moving forward, you can look for the green leaf hangtag across NB’s catalogue!
In the words of James Lee, a senior footwear designer at New Balance, ‘Grey shoes are definitely their own animal.’ Indeed, New Balance have never been interested in imitating the spots and stripes of competitors in the sneaker industry. Under the canopy of the new green leaf initiative, the beasts of New Balance’s sanctuary will no doubt continue to grow, evolve, and bear plenty of offspring for sneakerheads to lace in the coming years.