The Best of New Balance 2021
The introduction is a challenge, but the follow-up is even harder. Many music artists have a great debut album – few have an equally as impressive sophomore effort. Lots of sports teams win championships in convincing fashion – and few repeat. New Balance started a bold new chapter last year, filled with esteemed collaborative partners, enhanced mainstream attention and a more free-flowing brand ethos, and somehow managed to enhance all of that this year, making for a whale of a 12-month stretch that even outdid the one before that.
In a year that was not lacking for noteworthy NB news seven moments stood out from the rest, and they can all be seen below.
ALD To In-Line
The rise of New Balance over the past two years seemed to coincide with the rise of Aimé Leon Dore, Teddy Santis' streetwise, New York City-based brand that's heavily inspired by the '90s. Aimé Leon Dore has been around since 2014, but after moving into a swank new location on Mulberry Street in 2019, they've taken off like a rocket ship. Their New Balance collaborations have played a large part in that growth.
It's not just NB helping ALD grow though. Both outfits share a keen eye for heritage, quality and Americana style, and Aimé Leon Dore made the New Balance 550 – a random basketball shoe from 1989 – a must-have silhouette thanks to two dashing sets of colabs. Between those 550s and ALD's wealth of other co-created sneakers, Teddy Santis displayed a keen sense of New Balance's heritage and how to elevate and evolve it for a new generation, so New Balance named Santis as the new creative director of their MADE line in April. Though his first collection with MADE won't be releasing until 2022 and we haven't seen any products yet, the world of sneakers was humming with anticipation all year long. That buzz, combined with ALD's hit releases like 550s and 993s, made the partnership one of the year's most triumphant.
Salehe, Star of the Show
Though Teddy Santis may be hard at work imagining a new reality for New Balance MADE, Salehe Bembury is the man who shot the brand into the stratosphere and continues to push the envelope. He's a dead-serious creative with a background in industrial design and a wealth of footwear industry experience – and he brings all that, plus a healthy dose of fun to his New Balance colabs. This has taken him from a VP position at Versace, where he was working when he did his first project with New Balance, to a new role as the founder of his own Spunge outfit and a place as one of the most in-demand collaborators in the industry. This is largely thanks to his work with New Balance, and it's a relationship that's tremendously beneficial to brand and designer alike.
Bembury provided New Balance with some of its biggest kicks in 2021. His 2002R 'Water Be the Guide' was a refreshing, cool-toned follow-up to 2020's 2002R 'Peace Be the Journey', and his expansive 574 'Yurt' collection gave us the most viral sneaker of the year, thanks to a whistle on the back that was a hit on Tik Tok, used for everything from Kenny G-style saxophone solos to a re-creation of Juelz Santana's 'The Whistle Song'. Even three years ago, the idea of New Balance putting a whistle on a sneaker would seem unfounded, and that shows you just how much pull Bembury has at the brand – and how much they trust him to create as he sees fit.
Both of the above-mentioned collaborative partners have played a piece in New Balance's rise over the past 24-odd months but in 2022 NB brought some more big guns into the fold – BAPE and Stone Island being the two biggest examples. BAPE (one of the biggest streetwear brands in the world) brought its signature camo patterns (some of the most recognisable graphics in all of street culture) to the 2002R, while Stone Island teamed with NB's Tokyo Design Studio crew for a high-end hybrid take on the Fuelcell RC Elite V2.
Usually, BAPE is known to work with adidas and Stone Island with Nike, so it's even more impressive that they both linked up with New Balance, a duo of surefire signs that the brand's cultural (and collaborative) cachet is rising ever higher.
Style, Meet Sustainability
Hot new product is great, of course, but what's even greater is trying to reduce your environmental footprint. No matter how many awesome shoes you make, it doesn't change the fact that there's only one Mother Earth! However, the modern consumer often demands that sustainability and style must go hand-in-hand, so New Balance made great strides in bringing the two together over the course of 2021.
The MADE Responsibly 998 initiative cobbled together pieces of excess suede, mesh and leather from New Balance's paused NB1 custom shoe program and brought them all together in a delightful, high-quality hodgepodge of unique, 1 of 1 styles. Jaden Smith included everything from reground EVA foam midsoles, recycled polyesters and insoles made partly of castor bean oil in his Vision Racers to cut down on their environmental footprint, while his recycled 574 was New Balance's first-ever surplus take on the classic silhouette. NB even kicked off a partnership with The Renewal Workshop to make high-quality refurbished garments. Reduce, reuse, recycle and revitalise!
New Balance thought it had bid adeu to a major thorn in its side when it won a court case against Chinese brand New Barlun in 2020. However, New Barlun continued to knock off New Balance after the court case was closed... until a Chinese court decided to hold them responsible for damages to the tune of $3.85 million in 2021.
Though that amount of money is a drop in the bucket for New Balance, a brand that had $3.3 billion of revenue in 2020 (2021's revenue has yet to be reported at the time of writing), the victory is more about what it represents and the protection it affords New Balance's trademarks as well as the trademarks of other footwear brands. It was one of the largest payments awarded in the sports sector of Chinese intellectual property lawsuits and is a warning sign to counterfeiters that they can't act with full impunity – where in the past, it seemed as if they'd receive nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Talk about a new balance, right?
Fresh (Goods) Feature
Call us self-serving if you must, but Joe Freshgoods' 990v3 colab on the cover of Sneaker Freaker #45 was a big moment in NB's 2021 collaborative canon. It was the global debut of Freshgoods' second colab with the brand – leakers didn't get their paws on it beforehand! – and saw him discuss the inspirations behind (and potential impact of) his latest colab, all while sending the sneakersphere into a frenzy several months before the fresh goods were actually made available. The issue is currently sold out, but you can check out in-stock issues at the SF shop.
Want more end-of-year New Balance news? Check out the brand's 10 best releases of 2021 by clicking here.