ARTICLE BY Ross Dwyer
The History of the New Balance 550

Period Correct Specs

The History of the New Balance 550

Designed by the mercurial Steven Smith, the New Balance 550 had an all-too-brief career in the late 80s before it flamed out and disappeared for three decades. Thanks to Teddy Santis – the all-conquering design don at Aimé Leon Dore who spied the model in a vintage catalogue – the recent retro resurrection encompasses everything that is great about NB in 2022. Smart moves, impeccable attention to detail and committed creative partners, not to mention the generosity of a mysterious Japanese collector, have conspired to catapult this humble ‘basketball oxford’ into the upper echelons.

James Worthy New Balance Ad
Original New Balance 550

The Tip-Off

Steven Smith is closer to the 550 story than most. As a fresh-faced graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art & Design, Smith took a job in the late 1980s at New Balance, where he was one half of the footwear design team alongside Kevin Brown.

Known these days for his groundbreaking portfolio that includes the Reebok InstaPump Fury, New Balance 997, Nike Zoom Spiridon 2 and various Yeezys, among other avant-garde knockouts, Smith was involved in the earliest days of the NB basketball line-up. ‘People forget that New Balance made basketball shoes in the 1980s. I think New Balance even forgets they made basketball shoes!’ Smith says with a good-natured laugh from his home just outside Portland.

With Brown hard at work on the 740 model for James Worthy, a future NBA Hall of Famer, Smith was tasked with modifying the design to suit the needs of high school and college hoopers, as well as a handful of Boston Celtics players. The result was the 650 and its low-top counterpart, the 550 Basketball Oxford, as it was originally known.

Steven Smith New Balance 550

‘All the pros back then were wearing high-cuts for ankle protection. The 550 was performance-geared but looking at it now, it does seem like a chilling shoe in the making.’

Steven Smith

Priced at a lean $45, the 550 design features include pivot circles on the outsole, tip saddle foxing – which Smith notes was a mantra at New Balance in the late 80s – and his personal favourite flourish, the forefoot ‘sway bar’ where the numeric branding was positioned. ‘I got that idea from automotive design language,’ he says. ‘It helped athletes keep their feet when they were running, cutting and changing direction rapidly.’

Retail competition was fierce in the late 80s and the 550 battled heavy hitters from Nike, Reebok and Converse for shelf space. Quality-wise, the shoe was more than able to hold its own, but the wealth of rival athlete sponsorships and visible technology in the form of Nike’s Air cushioning and Reebok’s Pump system ensured it wouldn’t enjoy a long-term stint in the spotlight.

Steven Smith's original New Balance 550 Design Sketch

The 550 was an anomaly in other areas. Low-top hoop shoes were a relatively uncommon sight in the late 1980s. As Smith recalled, ‘All the pros back then were wearing high-cuts for ankle protection. The 550 was performance-geared but looking at it now, it does seem like a chilling shoe in the making.’ Neither Smith nor New Balance had the faintest inkling the 550 would become a white-hot ‘chilling shoe’ several decades later.

Following a low-key North American release, the 550 was briefly exported to the UK and Asian markets before quickly fading into obscurity, where it would languish for several decades.

New Balance 550 'White/Blue'
New Balance 550 'White/Blue' (2020)
New Balance 550 'White/Red'
New Balance 550 'White/Red' (2020)
New Balance 550 'Shadow'
New Balance 550 'Shadow' (2021)
New Balance 550 'White/Grey'
New Balance 550 'White/Grey' (2021)
New Balance 550 'White/Pink'
New Balance 550 'White/Pink' (2022)
New Balance 550 'Au Lait'
New Balance 550 'Au Lait' (2022)

Hibernation

Though New Balance was, and still is, a running footwear specialist, they dabbled in shoes for all types of athletic activities over the decades. ‘The 550 shows the variety of what New Balance was about at that time,’ Smith notes. ‘They became known as a dad shoe brand, but they had a wide scope of product in the late 80s and 90s.’

By the turn of the century, the 99x series had become New Balance’s flagship thanks to the lofty price points, advanced performance tech and sightings on the feet of everyone from Princess Diana to Steve Jobs and Bill Clinton. Basketball stayed on the back-burner in the 2000s and the brand was largely absent from the ,NBA, save for Spurs forward Matt Bonner, who wasn’t even sponsored by New Balance. Bonner reportedly only became a fan in 2006 after finding some BB8026 Zips in his dad’s garage (you can’t make this stuff up!). Bonner’s stash of quasi-vintage Zips was finally depleted by 2013. As he told SLAM at the time, ‘These Zips are so old they don’t make ‘em anymore. I even went on eBay. Nothing!’ When his last pair died and were dispatched to sneaker heaven, Bonner signed with adidas, leaving NB out in the cold.

Aime Leon Dore x New Balance 550

'The 550 shows the variety of what New Balance was about at that time. They became known as a dad shoe brand, but they had a wide scope of product in the late 80s and 90s.’

Steven Smith

By this time, the 550 was a distant memory buried deep in the archives. New Balance continued to lean on their ultra-deep retro running catalogue through the 2000s and 2010s, and although the Worthy Express made a quiet return in 2014, the brand’s basketball lineage was largely forgotten save for a handful of obsessive collectors.

Eventually, however, Jim Davis made a captain’s call to revive the basketball division. The first step was an A-grade signing. Dissatisfied with his place in the Jordan Brand roster, Kawhi Leonard joined the squad in 2018 alongside preps-to-pros rookie Darius Bazley. A year later, Leonard laid claim to being one of the best ballers in the world by leading the Toronto Raptors to the 2019 NBA championship. New Balance was finally building some serious hardwood clout after a decades-long hiatus.

The time was ripe for the 550 to return and all it took was one dusty Japanese catalogue – and a little luck! – to transform the 550 into one of the most hyped retro shoes in 2021/22.

New Balance 550 OG

The Revival

‘We don’t try to push models and collaborations on our partners, we do things authentically,’ says Paul Kaseumsouk, a product line manager at New Balance. The comment rings especially true in the curious case of the 550. The founder of cult brand Aimé Leon Dore, Teddy Santis was riding a professional hot streak when he identified the 550 as a possible bringback king. ALD, as the brand is known by loyal fans, already had a budding relationship with NB after the two combined to release exclusive 997s, a pair of 990v2s and 990v5s, multi-coloured 827s and a co-branded 1300. When Santis exhumed a vintage Japanese sneaker catalogue in the archive, he stumbled upon a chunky low-top he’d never seen before.

The famously press-shy Santis isn’t one to talk about his process or sing his own praises, but Kaseumsouk explained what happened when the ALD founder first laid eyes on the shoe he’d go on to make famous. ‘He was immediately like… We need to bring this back!’ However, finding an image of the shoe and then procuring an original pair are two totally different challenges. After hours of Instagram deep-diving and hashtag-hunting, Santis and New Balance’s Joe Grondin found a Japanese collector with an original pair from 1989.

More importantly, the owner was gracious enough to loan them out. Without this largesse, the 550 might have never returned and certainly not in exacting period-correct spec. Now that Santis, Grondin, Kaseumsouk and NB designer Sean Scudder had an OG pair to evaluate, the game was on. ‘We found a scan in our archives of the old tech pack Steven Smith drew by hand,’ says Kaseumosouk. ‘Nailing down the shape, the tooling, every single stitch line down to the millimetre – we obsessed over it. It took us 10 rounds of samples and 18 months of trial and error to get it to where we wanted to be.’

Aimé Leon Dore x New Balance 550
Aimé Leon Dore x New Balance 550
Aime Leon Dore x New Balance 550
Team Sonny
Aimé Leon Dore
Aime Leon Dore x New Balance 550

The final product is true to the original in every manner, save for its official title, which was changed from P550 (Performance’) to BB550 (Basketball). The painstaking re-creation paid off as it passed muster with the famously precise Santis. Steven Smith is also a fan. ‘New Balance did a great job of replicating the tooling and outsole of the original designs,’ Smith says with an approving nod.

The comeback started September 21, 2020, with four fresh colourways unveiled as part of Aimé Leon Dore’s ‘International Friendship Through Basketball’ collection. The accompanying lookbook spotlighted Team Sonny, an under-15 AAU basketball squad based in New York. The 550 was back in the game after a 31-year absence, making it more than twice as old as the teenagers who were proudly photographed rocking it.

The OG league-friendly white leather was swapped out for subdued eggshell tones. The midsoles featured lightly ‘aged’ detailing and each pair was accented with a simple-yet-traditional sporting hit of red, grey, black or green. All four pairs sold out immediately and would go on to be restocked several times before ALD dropped a second batch in April 2021.

size? x New Balance 550 'Cordura Pack'
size? x New Balance 550 'Cordura Pack' (2022)
New Balance 550 'Conversations Amongst Us'
New Balance 550 'Conversations Amongst Us' (2022)
size? x New Balance 550 'College Pack'
size? x New Balance 550 'College Pack' (2021)
United Arrows-Exclusive New Balance 550
United Arrows-Exclusive New Balance 550 (2021)
'Don't Look Up' x New Balance 550 'Dibiasky'
'Don't Look Up' x New Balance 550 'Dibiasky' Custom (2021)
Comme des Garçons Homme Plus x New Balance 550
CdG Homme Plus x New Balance 550 (TBC)
Rich Paul x New Balance 550
Rich Paul x New Balance 550 (2021)
AURALEE x New Balance 550
AURALEE x New Balance 550 (2021)

The Victory Lap

In the two years since Aimé Leon Dore reintroduced the 550, the model has become a staple on par with stalwarts like the 574 and the 99x series. General releases have encompassed everything from collegiate-influenced colourways to lofty colabs with AURALEE, Comme des Garçons Homme Plus and industry leaders like Klutch Sports co-founder and NBA super-agent Rich Paul.

Reviving a classic with a hyped colab and letting that residual noise trickle down to the inline releases is far from a new strategy. Nike often leverages partners like Supreme to reintroduce a heritage hero before the mainstream rollout begins, but the backstory has to be told to perfection, especially when there’s zero nostalgic recognition. Timing is also critical. Thanks to the discerning eye of Santis, the 550 was undeniably the right shoe at the right time.

After three decades of obscurity, the 550 has secured its place in the New Balance lifestyle lexicon. The commercial influence has even inspired the revival of its high-top cousin, the 650, which is returning via a partnership with ALD this year. Though it’s hard to predict exactly how sneaker tastes and trends will evolve in 2022, the 550 is sure to be a major player in end-of-year listicles.

Demand is so high, some markets are being starved of pairs due to insufficient production numbers, which should keep the FOMO quotient fomenting for quite some time.

New Balance 550

‘You never sit down and say, "What I’m making is iconic," I just like to be resolved and purposeful in my design. I revel in the remixes because it blows me away how versatile my old designs end up being and how other people interpret them.’

Steven Smith

‘You never sit down and say, ‘What I’m making is iconic,’ reminisces Smith. ‘I just like to be resolved and purposeful in my design. I revel in the remixes because it blows me away how versatile my old designs end up being and how other people interpret them.’

‘We knew we had something special with the 550 and that ALD was going to tell that story perfectly,’ says Kaseumsouk. As our conversation winds down, he pauses for a minute, then smiles, ‘But we didn’t know just how big it was going to be!’

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