The Best New Balance Releases of 2021
Having a banner year is hard enough, but having two banner years in a row is damn near impossible. That's why New Balance's 2021 was so impressive – not only did it follow a stunning 2020 campaign, it was arguably even better. Classic silhouettes like the 990v3 and 991 surged back onto the market, collaborative partners both fresh and familiar enhanced the brand's scope of influence by re-working beloved models and New Balance's overall storytelling was second to none.
Hashing so many good releases down to 10 from an initial list of 30 was akin to deciding which of our teeth we'd like pulled, but after plenty of pain and hand-wringing, we were able to get it done. Below, we present to you the 10 best New Balance sneakers of 2021.
Salehe Bembury x New Balance 574 'Yurt'Salehe Bembury x New Balance 574 'Yurt'
Though the size, scope and prestige of New Balance's collaborative roster have all grown exponentially over the past two years, Salehe Bembury is still the top dog. He knows how to make noise, infuse fun into his projects and give the consumer something that feels personal to them. 'Anything that I create, I try to maintain that honesty', he told us in Sneaker Freaker #44. In 2021, the best example of this design ethos was his 574 'Yurt' collection. Revamping NB's classic 574 with super-sized midsole tooling, Bembury breathed new life into a humble running shoe – and also gave us the sneaker world's most meme-able embellishment of the year by placing a functional whistle on its heel. That wasn't his only noteworthy moment in 2021 either. His 2002R 'Water Be the Guide' and ultra-rare Test Run Project 3.0 'Finders Keepers' barely missed the cut for this list!
New Balance 2002R 'Protection Pack'New Balance 2002R 'Protection Pack'
After the 2002R's hype-fueled tank was gassed up by the above-mentioned Salehe Bembury plus other A-list collaborators like BAPE, AURALEE and thisisneverthat over the last two years, it's not a surprise that the revamped retro runner has risen from obscurity to become one of New Balance's most-loved lifestyle models. However, what is a surprise is the 2002R 'Protection Pack'. Though the aged detailing and 'torn' overlays give the impression that these sneakers might be a colab pack, the 'Rain Cloud', 'Phantom' and 'Sea Salt' colourways are simply in-line releases that boast a colab-quality level of detail. Not only that, they're well outside the scope of what you'd expect from a GR New Balance release as the brand has been known to stick to a formula of simple colour schemes and high-quality materials for drops. On the 'Protection Pack', however, New Balance leaned into the success of its more visceral collaborative designs and came away with some of the year's best kicks in the process.
Paperboy Paris x New Balance 992Paperboy Paris x New Balance 992
2021's egg had barely cracked when the Paperboy Paris x New Balance 992 was announced in January. Shortly thereafter, the perfectly cooked sneaker was released exclusively at the Parisian cafe. Paperboy's 992 went on to receive a global drop in June, but its initial release was the special one. Why? Because it had the same effect that the Joe Freshgoods x New Balance 992 did back in February 2020, serving as a tone-setter for the rest of the year and hyping up New Balance's fanbase for what was in store over the next 11 months. Paperboy nailed their inspiration as well, artfully communicating the importance of fried eggs to their food without spilling any yolk in the process! Those insole and heel details are mighty tasty, aren't they?
JJJJound x New Balance 990v4JJJJound x New Balance 990v4
Though they're not the type to tout it, the Montreal-based masters of minimalism at ,JJJJound have a knack for being ahead of the curve. That's the case when it comes to their New Balance colabs too – they were down with NB before it was 'cool', crafting cult favourite 990v3s in 2018 and a duo of well-received 992s in 2020. Because of this track record, all eyes were on the Justin Saunders-helmed outfit when they announced their third project with New Balance in 2021. It doesn't seem like JJJJound's team felt any pressure though, as they delivered another bang-up colab. The JJJJound x New Balance 990v4 offered a murky two-tone colour scheme, ultra-luxe materials and just enough cheekiness with an alternate set of toggle-equipped laces. JJJJust like the last two colabs, it blew off the shelves in short order.
New Balance 991 '20th Anniversary'New Balance 991 '20th Anniversary'
The modern world of sneakers is suffering from an 'anniversary overload'. Every year, every major brand has a glut of silhouettes that are celebrating another decade or half-decade on the market. You'd be hard-pressed to forget these anniversaries too, as relentless marketing insures they're jammed down your throat at every turn! New Balance's 991, however, is a prime example of how to do an anniversary right. You don't need a huge ad push. You don't need a ton of celebrity co-signs or colabs (though we did enjoy the heck out of the Patta pair, a strong contender for a spot on this list). You just need a simple, true-to-the-original colourway with high-quality materials and maybe, just maybe, a slight nod to the anniversary itself tucked away on the shoe somewhere. The New Balance 991 '20th Anniversary' ticked all those boxes flawlessly, and that's how it earned its place on this list.
New Balance 99X 'Version Series'New Balance 99X 'Version Series'
Where the above-mentioned 991 was celebrating 20 years in 2021, New Balance's 99X series was gearing up for its 40th anniversary in 2022. Why not get the party started a little early? From June to October, NB rolled out its 99X 'Version Series' pack, classic grey takes on the 990, 990v2, 990v3 and 990v4, all with a small-yet-special ruby red tag that acknowledged the line's 40th anniversary. It was a 'Ruby' anniversary celebration in simple form, showing the classic colourways and familiar design lines that have made the 99X series great since 1982 without adding too many bells and whistles.
Aimé Leon Dore x New Balance 993Aimé Leon Dore x New Balance 993
The synergy between Aimé Leon Dore and New Balance reached a new level in 2021 when it was announced that ALD founder Teddy Santis would begin serving as the creative director of New Balance's MADE in USA line come 2022. And while ALD aficionados and NB nerds alike anxiously awaited Santis' 2022 batch of in-line products, he kept the wheels churning with a wealth of appealing styles in 2021. The second batch of Aimé Leon Dore x New Balance 550s were noteworthy, sure, but the Aimé Leon Dore x New Balance 993s were even more so. Each was a loving homage to Santis' New York City home, with one taking on the colors of 1990s MTA subway cars while the other, a pair inspired by 'beef & broc' workboots became an archive page darling and a strong contender for the very best New Balance sneaker of the year.
Dover Street Market x MTA x New Balance 920Dover Street Market x MTA x New Balance 920
Speaking of MTA subway cars, how about an official MTA x New Balance colab with Dover Street Market thrown into the mix for good measure? Probably 2021's most unexpected New Balance release, the Dover Street Market x MTA x New Balance 920 was a delightful juxtaposition. It was a new lifestyle model dressed in a seminal New Balance colourway – and, even more than that, it was a shoe made in England, sold exclusively at a luxury outpost and inspired by New York City's beloved (and often beleaguered) transit system. There's next to no crossover between DSM and the MTA, but the mere thought of high-end global retail meeting the grit of NYC subways was grin-inducing. Even the flag-adorned lace deubres got into the fun on this cross-ocean colab!
Joe Freshgoods x New Balance 990v3Joe Freshgoods x New Balance 990v3
The Joe Freshgoods x New Balance 990v3 isn't just a great shoe – it's a great shoe that tells a deeply personal story. Freshgoods (born Joseph Robinson) has vivid memories of growing up on Chicago's East Side, especially the joy of Windy City summers, and those memories are communicated on this shoe. Nicknamed the 'Outside Clothes', Freshgoods' 990v3 encapsulates summer sun, earth and skies in an undeniably joyful fashion. '[The shoe's inspiration] is super deep for certain people', Freshgoods said in Sneaker Freaker #45, which featured the 'Outside Clothes' on its cover. 'My mom used to tell me "You smell like outside"! or "Don't get on the bed with your outside clothes"! That was a thing growing up ... [The shoe] is all about Black culture and everything is like a timestamp. It's summertime in 1997 and 1998'.
Stone Island x New Balance Tokyo Design Studio FuelCell RC Elite V2Stone Island x New Balance Tokyo Design Studio FuelCell RC Elite V2
Stone Island and New Balance Tokyo Design Studio actually have a lot in common. Though one is based in Italy and the other in (you guessed it) Tokyo, they're both obsessive over materials, builds and details, three things that were front and centre on their FuelCell RC Elite V2 colab. New Balance's speediest performance running shoe, the FuelCell RC Elite V2 is known for its featherweight build and snappy carbon fibre plate. Stone Island left both of those pieces intact, but gave the upper a ripped and torn 'shell' that showed off both brand's logos in giant red form! It's a performance shoe that's more than steezy enough for casual wear, a hybrid product that's right in both brands' wheelhouse and served as one of the most startling (in a good way) colabs of the year for each as well.