Retrofuturism Done Right: The Story of the New Balance 9060
When footwear designers create a new lifestyle silhouette that references a brand’s past, their responsibilities are dual-pronged: they must construct something that pushes the brand’s lifestyle line in a new direction without dismissing the design stories it stands on. At a brand with over a hundred years of heritage like New Balance, this can be a tall task. ‘Designing something that looks both familiar and unexpected is a challenge,’ says James Lee, senior footwear designer at New Balance who works on energy projects, global collaborations and Tokyo Design Studio footwear. ‘We have to pay homage to our heritage while trying to be innovative at the same time.’ These efforts have resulted in the creation of the 9060.
Lee teamed up with New Balance designer Yue Wu — who’s known for creating the 2002R ‘Refined Future’ pack — to make the 9060. Drawing from the heritage of the 990 series and the high-speed of 2000s running shoes like the 860v2, the 9060 amplifies key eras of New Balance history by speaking to both the OG NB consumer and the next generation, who have discovered the brand through their recent high-heat colabs. Read up on the story of the New Balance 9060 below.
From 990 to 860v2 and Back Again
‘One of the themes that we discussed a lot during the process of designing the 9060 was retrofuturism,’ Lee says. ‘We were coming off of the success of the 327, which was inspired by the 1970s, and the 57/40, which drew from the 1980s and 1990s, so looking to the 2000s felt like a natural progression.’
Lee and Wu were tapped to create the 9060 at the tail end of 2019, right before the COVID-19 pandemic had employers enacting work-from-home mandates. Not only did the duo have to tag-team a shoe design from start to finish – something they both freely admitted they hadn’t done before – they also had to do it remotely.
Though it may seem the remote nature of the designers’ communication would be a challenge, according to them it wound up sparking an informative line of creative dialogue. ‘When you’re in an office, the environment is naturally collaborative,’ says Lee. ‘While working on the 9060 we’d build independently, we'd come together, share our ideas and evolve them. It was really invigorating.’ Wu seconds this statement. ‘I always enjoy sharing my concepts and asking for feedback because it sparks new ideas, so this level of creative collaboration was great for me.’
The designers joyously dove into New Balance’s extensive archives to hunt for a running shoe from the 2000s that would contrast the 990 inspiration. They immersed themselves in dozens of silhouettes from the aughts before eventually settling on the 860v2, a shoe that happened to be re-releasing while the duo were working through their brief. Lee took on creating the sole while Wu tackled the upper.
The duo focused on key themes in their design process. ‘We wanted to identify a few elements that tied the 9060 to its heritage and kept coming back to the concept of motion,’ said Lee. Wu notes that this concept of motion is, in fact, what made all the shoes that inspired the 9060 memorable in the first place. ‘You can say that the 990 line’s sway bar is iconic or that the N-ERGY midsole on the 860v2 is, but what really makes a shoe an icon isn’t a specific piece – it’s how that piece fits in the shoe’s overall motion.'
'I like the idea of repurposing classic components in a way that you don’t often see.’ – Yue Wu
Asked to describe the upper in a single word, Wu cracks a smile. ‘Dramatic,’ he says. ‘It’s always a challenge to balance old and new, and I didn’t want to just take direct lines or shapes from the 990 series – so I studied each model, identified exactly what made it iconic and tried to exaggerate those details. That’s why the logo is reflective and the medial side features abstract embroidery. I like the idea of repurposing classic components in a way that you don’t often see.’
All these details are wrapped up in a ‘Mindful Grey’ colour scheme that combines New Balance’s signature grey shades with rich tan base tones and a pop of refreshing aqua to boot. Wu also tucked an Easter egg into the shoe’s final design: the tongue badge is a reworking of the jewelled ABZORB pod on the forefoot of the 991.
The panelling, tongue detail and super-sized N logo that Wu created for the 9060’s upper demand attention, so Lee wanted to make sure the midsole was just as vibrant as the top half. Its podular shape, designed from scratch and loaded with squishy ABZORB cushioning, skirts the line between high fashion and sportswear, but the detail that Lee feels provides the most impactful twist is the motion-controlling CR device on the heel. ‘The CR device is a staple of the 990 line that ties back into our history, so here we exaggerated it by making it thicker and adding an offset,’ he says. ‘There’s also a texture on the back half of it, so it gives off this cool magnifying glass effect.’
Thanks to assembly line-level efficiency and plenty of constructive back-and-forths, the two were able to arrive at the final design with relatively little friction. ‘We had the finished product back after only two rounds of sampling!’ Wu says proudly.
In the two-plus years between the 9060’s creation and its rollout, New Balance have grown into a full-on collaborative fashion powerhouse. Hand-selected partners like Aimé Leon Dore, Salehe Bembury and Joe Freshgoods helped introduce the brand to a new audience, without alienating its core fans, and it was Freshgoods himself who was tapped to reveal the 9060, debuting it as part of his ‘Inside Voices’ collection in May.
Using a well-known collaborative partner to bring extra attention to a new silhouette gives a designer a chance to see their creation in a new light. After so much time obsessing over every single stitch of the 9060, both Lee and Wu were excited to see Freshgoods put his own spin on the design.
‘It’s easy to get tunnel vision and hone in on a shoe from a macro level while you’re designing it, so it’s super refreshing to have a partner come in and look at your creation from a more broad perspective,’ says Lee. ‘Joe shares the same values as us, but communicates them in different ways,’ added Wu. ‘He saw our vision, and put his own special twist on it.’
'We found the perfect balance on this project.' – James Lee
That twist resulted in the Joe Freshgoods x New Balance 9060 ‘Penny Cookie Pink’ and ‘Baby Shower Blue', a continuation of Freshgoods’ and New Balance’s community-oriented narrative, established with the 992 ‘Anatomy of a Heart’ and 990v3 ‘Outside Clothes'. The Chicago native’s involvement brought an immediate level of familiarity to the 9060 and set the stage for its full in-line debut later this month, a moment that Lee and Wu have been waiting for since the design brief first crossed their desks in 2019. ‘We found the perfect balance on this project,’ says Lee.
The New Balance 9060’s in-line rollout will begin with the above-mentioned ‘Mindful Grey’ colourway, which will touch down at New Balance outposts in Australia, the US and around the rest of the globe on July 16. The RRP is set at $150.