Cult Classic: The History of New Balance's Made In USA 997
In the 1970s, as the fledgling athletic goods industry found its feet, sneakers were considered utilitarian equipment for specific sporting purposes. But as the 1980s rolled around, fuelled by the jogging phenomenon and a booming American economy, the idea of athletic footwear as high-tech luxury items with pricing to match began to coalesce. Brands invested heavily in their research and design departments, using razor-sharp marketing hyperbole to enhance their claims of innovation and technical superiority. In response, savvy consumers demanded more from their footwear and were happy to pay the price.
Whether you were a baby-faced Ivy League grad entering the workforce, or a long-distance runner pounding the pavement in solitude, one brand featured prominently in upmarket rotations. New Balance might be a low-key operator with a humble disposition, but their signature combination of straightforward style and peak performance has always appealed to discerning athletes and weekend warriors alike. With a product development strategy based on the ancient art of incremental evolution — and with basic navy and grey as their corporate livery — the brand has always excelled at playing the long game.
At the apex of the New Balance line-up is the 99x series. And standing at the summit of that numerically erratic sneaker monolith — at least in the eyes of hardcore brand loyalists — is the 997. Designed by Steven Smith in 1990, the 997’s crisp midsole, jacked-up heel height and elegantly raked proportions are a sublime combination that has more than stood the test of time. Long considered a modern masterpiece by vintage sneaker aficionados, the 997 also shouldered a mysterious aura of legendary proportions.
In 2019, Steven Smith’s magnum opus is more relevant than ever. The 997’s sharp-toed profile predated today’s Instagram fixation with nose-down ‘wedge’ toeboxes by close to 30 years. On the eve of the model’s third wave, as the classic OG design mutates into a stunning pair of modern iterations, this is the official story of how the 997 arrived in a blaze of glory before disappearing off the face of the earth for two decades.
Throughout the 1980s, New Balance established a reputation as the go-to brand for defiant purists. While the multi-faceted ‘5 series’ of footwear took off-road joggers to ‘a land that pavement forgot’, the 99x range was all about top-shelf urban performance. Flaunting the latest and greatest engineering and cushioning technology available, the 99x promised road runners the best of everything.
In 1982, New Balance released the 990. From the Motion Control Device in the heel to dual-density midsoles, Vibram ‘Superflex’ outsoles and reflective 3M highlights — a world-first in footwear — the 990 design was packed full of cutting-edge components. Pair all that with luxurious pig suede and you had the first running shoe to smash the $100 price point.
Thankfully, runners didn’t trip on the triple-figure ask. Ponying up a ‘Benjamin’ proved no obstacle and the 990 flew off shelves. The fact that they were made in New Balance factories on American soil definitely added to the homegrown mystique — and the sense of value for money! As New Balance’s provocative press advertisements from the era promised, ‘We’ve always found quality control is a lot easier when the factory is in the next room, not the next continent’. Now that’s the kind of ballsy marketing statement you’ll never read in today’s risk-averse corporate climate.
Despite the popularity of the 990, New Balance was in no rush to introduce a successor, waiting until 1986 to release the 995. Note: the 99x numbering system is clearly not based on logic — even Alan Turing couldn’t crack the code! The sophomore design was more of a subtle 2.0 upgrade than another breakthrough bonanza, but the 995 added a few important tweaks to the 990’s winning formula. Replacing the die-cut Superflex sole with a size-specific design, New Balance designers introduced pre-moulded ENCAP cushioning that allowed the dual-density EVA to sit lower in the heel for better flex.
1988 delivered a more drastic ground-up overhaul for the 99x series. Designer Steven Smith was handed the reins and instructed to modernise the 996 at all costs. Slimmer logos gave the branding a more refined edge, while a fresh visual language saw the overlaying suede panels at the rear follow the diagonal line of the redesigned heel cup. Soft rubber pods were inserted into the outsole for enhanced comfort and cushioning. Overall, the suite of changes gave the series a more souped-up vibe. The natural evolution of the 99x series was starting to take shape.
Enter the 997
As the madcap 80s wound down, New Balance kicked off the 90s with their most progressive statement yet. Steven Smith once again steered the project, working alongside a compact development team to bring the clean-sheet design to life. While the 995 and 996 represented small steps, the 997 was a far more ambitious undertaking.
Like a sleek racecar tested in a wind tunnel, the slippery 997 looked fast even while standing still. The elevated heel pad was the 997’s defining visual motif, but Smith’s design was more significant for what it didn’t include. The 99x family had previously exploited exposed die-cut EVA midsoles, but the 997 ditched the traditional foam cushioning in favour of a radical Polyurethane shell that housed dual-density ENCAP inserts. A chunk of pliable C-CAP ran from the toe through to the medial midfoot, with removeable arch supports completing the cushioning quartet.
The detailing was also richly nuanced. Resplendent in grey-on-grey suede, the dimpled ‘basketball-style’ leather juxtaposed with the minimalist signature scheme added texture to the 997’s smooth composition. Experimental tri-density outsoles, including an XAR-1000 carbon rubber heel pad, increased long-range durability and added grip. The Hytrel thermoplastic ‘collar lockdown strap’ was another innovation that added a dose of vis-tech to the mix. The strap was designed to work like a sway bar that connected the top eyelets to the heel counter for added stability. As Steven Smith recalls, ‘Sometimes the features designed for performance end up becoming the iconic part people remember the most!’
The 997 was also the first 99x runner produced by New Balance specifically for female runners. Easily spotted thanks to the application of unique ‘mini NB’ logos, these Newbies for ladies are highly coveted by collectors. Hopefully we’ll see this quirky design feature restored to the New Balance roster in the near future.
Highly technical and supremely versatile, the 997 may have been a top performer on the running track, but one of its key selling points was the sheer variety of sizes offered by New Balance. Available in widths 2A through 4E, New Balance produced a 997 for every pair of feet, something the brand trumpeted loudly in running magazines. In a Runner’s World advertisement from 1991, New Balance issued an ominous warning: ‘All the technology in the world won’t help if your shoes don’t fit!’
Killer looks and unparalleled comfort made the 997 a prime target for a renewed focus on American-made quality, and there was no better spokesman than the POTUS himself. Google that juicy titbit for an insight into 997 history that we simply can’t reprint here for legal reasons!
The 997’s original trio of releases — light grey, white with royal blue, and a dark charcoal edition — remained in New Balance’s pro-rotation for three or four years. Like many of the finer things in life, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone and by 1994, the 997 was officially retired from active duty. According to sneakerhead conjecture, New Balance’s 997 factory was relocated at some point and the all-important templates and moulds required to reproduce the shoe disappeared in the transition. Since the cost of refabricating the tooling would have been prohibitive, the 997 was quietly pensioned off. Or so the urban myth goes.
Steven Smith moved on from his job at New Balance shortly after the release of the 997. Aside from a few obscure Korean-made models released in the mid- to late-90s, the 997 was AWOL from New Balance catalogues for more than two decades.
The Modern Millennium
With so few OG pairs left in the wild — most of which are bedevilled by decomposing midsoles due to long-term exposure to oxygen and humidity — the 997 was an exceedingly rare specimen by the time the new millennium arrived. Vintage pairs were jealously hoarded by hardcore collectors and dusted off for ultimate bragging rights in online forums. While other celebrated New Balance models, such as the 1500, hogged the limelight with global collaborations and Made in UK hype, the 997 was strictly an underground delicacy.
As noted by collector Matt Kyte, a notorious Crooked Tongues thread circa 2008 contained a claim that the 997 had once been made in New Balance’s UK factory. For many New Balance nerds, discovery of a one-off that rewrites the history books is a joyous occasion, but the inconclusive photos tendered as evidence meant the news was rightly greeted with scepticism. Since there are many legit examples of New Balance shoes that shouldn’t ‘technically’ exist, the safest motto in this instance is ‘never say never’, but after enquiring with the folks at the Flimby factory, we can safely confirm that this myth is well and truly busted.
While the ‘Made in UK 997’ will go down in history as a false flag, internet chatter continued to bubble away. Fans demanded to know why the 997 had never been retroed and what New Balance was going to do about it. The pressure was starting to build.
Two Birds, One Stone
In late 2008, the 997 nameplate was unexpectedly refreshed, albeit in circumstances that would add another ambiguous chapter to the narrative. Japan’s United Arrows & Sons approached New Balance with a request to bring the 997 back from hibernation as a collaborative project. After some robust discussions around the cost of recreating sole units and the definition of amortisation, New Balance agreed to an unconventional compromise. They would take the 997 upper and Frankenstein it to the ABZORB-enhanced 998 sole unit, creating an all-new model known as the 997.5.
Apparently inspired by a heritage colour scheme seen on the NBX M900 runner from 1991, United Arrows & Sons licked the 997.5 in a coat of light grey suede with hot pink and purple pops. Sold exclusively at their own retail outlets in Japan, the hybrid model’s dynamite looks and extreme exclusivity ensured it sold out and disappeared in a nanosecond.
While production numbers have never been officially revealed, it seems likely that just a few hundred pairs of this iconic Chimera exist. Adding an extra layer of bananas hype, paparazzi images of rap royalty rocking the 997.5 added an unlikely seal of approval. As Ronnie Fieg details, even he was forced to dig seriously deep to add a deadstock pair of the ‘Beauty&Youth’ 997.5 to his own rotation.
Despite the global frothability, the 997 trail went cold once again. In 2011, Japanese brand Nonnative released the ‘Dune’ 997.5. With cool sandy tones and fresh blue pops, this was another successful addition to the growing family, but the OG 997 was still nowhere to be seen.
The Triumphant Return
Despite an impressive reaction to the 997.5, it seemed the 997 story would not have a happy ending. However, thanks to a public lobbying campaign from diehards and sneaker boutique owners, and an infamous ‘Bring it back!’ petition started on Crooked Tongues, the pressure continued to mount. The rumour mill went into overdrive.
In January 2014, New Balance finally announced the 997 would make its long-awaited and triumphant return. After being a no-show for a total of 20 years straight, the OG ‘Made in USA’ 997 was back in the game.
In addition to the inaugural grey-on-grey OG editions, New Balance put their long-lost classic to work. In Boston, Deon Point from Concepts was pivotal in the revival, releasing a trio of elegant 997s that brought a sense of class to the occasion. The beautiful blushing ‘Rosé’ edition arrived in 2014, followed by the orange-swathed ‘Luxury Goods’ in 2015, and the minty-fresh ‘City Rivalry’ concept in 2016. As Deon notes, the timing was impeccable. Released from ‘Unicorn’ status, the 997’s mainstream profile soared.
In 2016, the 997.5 made a surprise return, with a select group of collaborators invited to work on the in-betweener design. Kith contributed the Greek-themed ‘Mykonos’ and ‘Archipelago’ make-ups, while Concepts hit back with an ‘Esplanade’ edition. Taiwanese store PHANTACi released a pink-white-black version as an Asia-exclusive. As a follow-up to the ‘Tassie Devil’ 998, Sneaker Freaker’s antipodean-flavoured ‘Tassie Tiger’ 997.5 was a suitably aggressive beast.
The following year, New Balance delivered the 997 Re-Engineered. Capitalising on the popularity of sock-style sneaker design, the contemporary spin deconstructed 997 heritage by adding a neoprene bootie and lightweight REVlite soles to the ensemble. A series of well-considered general releases, including the ‘Duck Camo’, ‘Coral Snake’, ‘Home Plate’ and ‘Coumarin’ kept the 997 high-vis in hype circles. Highly regarded collaborations with Stance, J.Crew and Horween added a further layer of premium pizzazz.
Zero to Hero
With a stack of fresh releases set to drop in 2018/19, including the ultra premium MADE 997 ‘Bison’ triple pack, Steven Smith’s classic design will definitely entertain its biggest audience yet. Modern-day makeovers in the form of the new-gen 997S and the 997H have expanded the line-up to four variations, qualifying the 997 for the first time as a franchise player.
Inspired by his beloved pair of the ‘Beauty&Youth’ 997.5, Ronnie Fieg tapped Poggy, creative director at United Arrows & Sons, for his approval to remix the world famous pink-n-purp gem. The timing was once again perfect. As part of a six-strong sneaker range that also includes apparel and nods to the Nonnative ‘Dune’ release, Kith’s capsule collaboration set the bar to record heights for cultural relevance and desirability.
As we polish our crystal ball until it shines like a diamond, it’s time to ponder the past, present and future of this reluctant sneaker legend.
This feature was originally published in Sneaker Freaker's New Balance 997 book. For more about the 997's history check our interview with designer Steven Smith; revisit United Arrows' 997.5 with Poggy; get a look at Ronnie Fieg's re-imagined 997s; or delve into the 997 back catalogue with Matt Kyte.