The Fresh Perspective of New Balance Designer Charlotte Lee
New Balance footwear designer, Charlotte Lee describes her relationship with sneakers growing up as ‘non-existent’, but in a twist of fate has gone on to create some of NB’s most popular modern silhouettes like the 237, 327 and XC-72. To bring these to life, she applies the concept of drawing from the past to design for the future. While dipping into the archive is not a brand new method, it’s clear that her formula is an absolute winner. Sneaker Freaker spoke to Lee on how she kickstarted her shoe design career, the significance of New Balance’s rich history and more. Read on below!
How did your shoe design journey get started? Talk us through.
I grew up in a village in rural Somerset in the UK. When I was 17, I did an internship and got the opportunity to see what went on behind those grand old gates. That experience was where it all started. I met a designer called Sophie Madden (now Edwards) who could see I had no idea how to turn an inherent need to create things into a career. It’s like everything came together in that moment, from then on it was shoes all the way. I studied footwear design at DeMontfort University, Leicester, completed a summer school term at Instituto Modartech in Italy, interned at Grenson shoes and interned at Clarks for a second time. After graduating I came across an internship at New Balance in 2014 and have worked on multiple areas of footwear design in my eight years here.,
What was your relationship with sneakers growing up?
Non-existent. I think I probably owned some sparkly Cica sneakers back in the late 90s and maybe a pair of Roxy skate shoes in the early 2000s. I have never really been into buying branded clothing, to this day it’s unlikely that you’d find me with anything with visible branding in my wardrobe and I make a lot of my own clothes. I’m very aware that wearing and working for NB completely goes against that though, but at least I’m designing what I wear on my feet. I think that lack of knowledge of the sneaker industry can come with its own benefits as it means I look at sneakers in a different way, I don’t have any nostalgia with any particular style/era, however in the early years of my career I’m sure that lack of knowledge just came across like I didn’t know what I was on about.
The concept of drawing from the past to design for the future is a fundamental part of the 327, 237 and XC-72, why is this important for you in your design process?
I think it’s important for all designers at New Balance. You might assume working for a brand with such a wealth of history and an established aesthetic would be limiting but I believe it’s very grounding. It definitely took me a while to see the beauty in the archive. Fast forward seven years I can completely see why I have a cupboard full of designs that just weren’t right for the brand. I’ve grown to love the archive and I see it as a great starting point for inspiration, there’s some weird and wonderful things in there and I’m only just getting started.
Adding on to the above, in an interview last year, you said that ‘The design of the 237 consists of details from retro running models in our archive and twists them.’ What does it mean to ‘twist’ those retro silhouettes?
When I’m looking at models from the archive, I’m identifying what makes each model different to one another and what made it special in its day. I’m particularly drawn to designs that, with an updated look, are relevant in today’s market. I think the term ‘twist’ has multiple definitions, sometimes it can be an exaggerated fashion interpretation of an existing model. Other times it could be a merge of different models or a simple update to the proportions. Manufacturing has come a long way since some of these models were created and we no longer face some of the limitations that the designers in the 70s, 80s and 90s did. Taking design details from the archive and making them with modern manufacturing processes means I can be more playful with the design.
What is it like being a footwear designer in 2022?
Very different to what it would have been like even five years ago. We haven’t travelled anywhere in two years, our worlds have gotten smaller but with the increase in creative platforms it’s gotten bigger at the same time. Footwear designers used to travel out to the factories all the time, draw everything with a pencil and create designs with a single purpose. Now we’re connecting digitally, adopting VR to aid design and layering in multiple intentions on any design we create (sustainability, unisex design, fashion influence to name a few).
How do you think sneaker innovation will change in the future?
Innovation is now about adding new layers onto the already overflowing lasagne, but let’s be honest here a lasagne without layers isn’t very good. When sneakers were purely for sport the focus was on creating a lighter/faster product but today it’s an ever evolving list of requirements. Performance, lifestyle, fashion and sustainability are no longer in isolation to one another and in order to move forwards we must focus our attention to the multi-layered (yet delicious) lasagne.
What are your overarching goals that you would like to achieve as a footwear designer? What excites you?
My primary focus is to offer a different perspective. My need to create means I’m always finding ways to incorporate my projects outside of work into everything I do. When I first visualised the 327 midsole I carved it out of florist foam and the XC-72 midsole was roughly made in clay. I hope to continue to merge the worlds of sport and fashion to create product for people who want to see something different from a brand.
What is your advice for other female designers who are looking to enter the space?
I’d start off by saying you’re not a ‘female designer’, you’re a designer, regardless of whether you work on women’s, men’s, unisex or kid’s product. We’re in the industry at a point where you could have a background in any creative medium but it’s all about how you apply your creative mind to the brand you’re working for. Find a role in a company you believe you can make a positive change in and don’t be afraid if you don’t know a ,574 from a 576, if you’re offering a fresh perspective that’s what is needed to aid the evolution of a brand.
What are some recent positive developments that you’ve noticed in the industry, which have given women a more equal seat at the table?
I vividly remember the first time that someone asked me ‘what’s it like being a female designer at New Balance?’ Up until that point I’d never really thought about the fact that I was a ‘female designer’. I found it odd that I was being asked that question as I am not only involved in conversations when we are talking about product aimed at women, my contribution is requested and valued in any instance. I would say that is the biggest development I have seen in the industry so far is that women are not always automatically assumed to be solely designing for their own gender. I have met many women in the industry who have a very different story to mine and I am thankful that I haven’t encountered the issues that they had. They are the reason I am in the position I am today and I am always proud and feel privileged that this is so.
For a collection of in-depth interviews and features, head over to <Platform> – an inclusive space created by Sneaker Freaker, which aims to champion the women who are breaking barriers and are helping to shape the sneaker and streetwear industry.