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DMV to Philly: Exploring the New Balance 990 Obsession

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In an age of corporate globalisation, it’s increasingly rare to uncover anything resembling a regional footwear phenomenon. Geographical boundaries that once allowed localised trends to incubate have been eroded as youth culture moves from IRL to URL, while the never-ending digital search for ‘cool’ creates ephemeral micro-trends just as quickly as they evaporate. So when we come across a culturally unique story, it’s intriguing – to say the least. This is what happened when Sneaker Freaker discovered the East Coast’s obsession with the New Balance 990v4. Let’s dust off the time machine as we go all the way back to 1982 and start lacing this story together.

“Back in the day, New Balance was the first company to sell running shoes for $100! Coming up in D.C., the 990 was the status symbol. Whether they were dope dealers or just people with a bit of money, we looked up to anyone who had them. It just grew into this huge thing! You just had to have the 990, and it continued with the 995, 996, 997 and 998. As we’ve gotten older, our little brothers and sisters have now adopted that too, because that’s all they saw when they were growing up.”

June Sanders – DTLR product designer, Washington D.C.

‘The thing you need to understand about Philly is that it’s a city that loves an anti-hero. All the athletes we admire here are deeply flawed, and the city itself is imperfect in a lot of ways too. The 990 is definitely what I call a block captain’s shoe. Historically, the guy wearing it never needed to say, ‘Look what I have on my feet!’ The shoe was always top-of-the-line and obviously official. And since grey was the only colourway available for a long time – until NB started flipping fashion colours – it was never a shoe that had to scream for attention. Ultimately, I think the mystique of the 990 is that…  there is no mystique.’

Adam Leaventon (aka Air Rev) – Philly-based sneaker collector

‘One story I heard is that cats in North Philly, which is a very rough hood, started wearing 990s because the ‘N’ on the side was supposed to mean ‘North’. My theory is that street kids simply saw a shoe with a $165 tag, so they were a status symbol. But the shoes look fresh and they were super comfortable. And they’re good for running – especially away from cops and opposing gangs! Across the DMV, the 990 simply caught on like wildfire amongst school kids, teens, veteran hustlers, white guy runners and even old people.’

Richie Roxas – Philly-based NB collector

‘When I first bought Sports Express, we were selling so many pairs of NB it was crazy. I asked the local kids why they liked New Balance 990s so much and they told me it was because they were comfortable and they also made it easy to run away from cops! With some of my regulars, once their 990s get scuffed up, they just throw them away. I’ll be like, “Hey, you just got that pair two weeks ago, why do you need another one?” and they’ll be like “Yeah I messed ‘em up, I need a fresh pair!” The New Balance 990 is just part of the culture here in Baltimore.’

Wei Zeng  – owner of Sports Express, Baltimore

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