New Balance 990 Series: Pioneering Perfection
Loaded with cutting edge componentry and premium materials, the New Balance 990 introduced no-expense-spared performance runners to the world when it debuted in 1982. Over the next three decades, the 99x series (as it became known) was innovative and transformative, forging new directions in cushioning technology and footwear manufacturing. Famed for their idiosyncratic proportions and unique charms, the humble grey-on-grey sneakers have earned cult status among hardcore runners, sneakerheads and tech-billionaires alike. Today, the 990 is still at the vanguard of everything New Balance stands for. The most recent update, the 990v4, is just as understated and perfect as the original release. Time to wind the clock back as we trace the evolution of this remarkable sneaker bloodline.
The 990 concept was first formed in 1978, as the world shifted into an unprecedented era of mass consumerism. The computer age was dawning, international trade was booming and runners were ready to fork over their cold hard cash in exchange for the latest and greatest. Unlike their competitors, who were hurriedly transferring their sneaker production facilities overseas to reduce costs, New Balance identified a loyal market for locally produced, premium quality running shoes. This insight was the impetus for what would become the crowning glory of the brand’s athletic offering. But it wouldn’t come easily or cheaply – the M990 soaked up four years of research and development. By the time it was finally released in 1982, the shoe was packed with every cutting-edge component New Balance designers could throw at it.
The aim was to achieve the perfect balance between the twin pillars of flexibility and support. Prior to the 990, the running shoe industry was of the belief that you couldn’t have one without sacrificing the other. The first step was to create the upper using a technique known as slip-lasting, which is a way of finishing the shoe with a single seam and then steaming it into shape. This process was more complex than the standard method, but produced a dynamic outcome that justified the investment. To balance out the new-found flex, the 990 implemented the polyurethane heel-cradle known as the ‘Motion Control Device’. In fact, the MCD was so successful that it maintains a presence in New Balance’s current crop of performance runners. The following year, the 990 was given an upgrade in the form of a carbon rubber heel pad and ‘Superflex’ outsoles.
Releasing the first runner with a $100 shelf price was a serious gamble, but the shoe’s success was proof that consumers were happy to dig deep for a top shelf product. In 1986, the M995 arrived, debuting one of the most visible technologies in the New Balance arsenal – the ENCAP sole unit. Unlike die-cut EVA midsoles of the past, the new tech featured a moulded polyurethane shell beneath the heel, which encapsulated an EVA wedge. This arrangement offered sure-footed stability without reducing shock absorption, while ensuring low compression set – meaning the midsole wouldn’t squish down and lose its springiness over time. The M995 also introduced a 3M Scotchlite reflective ‘N’ logo into the mix, which left a shining impression in the minds of joggers and jaywalkers alike.
Next off the production line was the New Balance M996. Unlike the reasonably small transition between its two predecessors, the 1988 release was a complete overhaul. The brand presented it as the ultimate hybrid, adding a dual density C-Cap midsole to support the ENCAP wedge. It provided greater stability, support and cushioning, and was capped off with a two-tone outsole composed of blown and carbon rubber. The upper sported a contemporary feel with high tensile mesh and a revised MCD, defined by a more dynamic line that tapered down toward the midsole.
In 1990, New Balance released the M997 to ring in the new decade – building on the innovations that the series had already pioneered. Years later, the fourth release in the 99x genealogy remains one of the most popular thanks to the overlapping panels that offer supportive fit and a contemporary aesthetic. Again, the midsole was completely redesigned and reconstructed. This time it came with a slick moulded finish that hinted at a technological enhancement, namely the fusing of C-Cap and ENCAP – an upgrade to the previous ‘sandwich’ technique. This release also included a heel strap that can be seen peeking out below the collar, a new component that ramped up the lateral support and reinforced the pigskin suede upper. The strap was made with Hytrel, a special kind of copolymer developed by American chemical manufacturer DuPont, which has the flexibility of rubber and the strength of plastic. Additionally, a new rubber compound known as XAR 1000 was added to the heel – elevating durability and traction to new heights.
New Balance remained so committed to their local manufacturing practices that in order to produce enough units to satisfy the North American and European demand, the 997 became their first shoe to be made simultaneously in both US and UK factories. It was also the first 99x model to offer a version designed specifically for women, the W997, which was rebuilt to fit a feminine foot. The women’s version was most notable for its non-reflective N logo, but can also be recognised by its unique panel orientation.
It wasn’t long before New Balance had forged a strong relationship with DuPont, and together they worked to create ENCAP II which debuted in the M998. The shock-absorbing compound had initially been developed for use on the railroad, creating ABZORB foam in the process. The new isoprene rubber had been designed to resist compression and maximise energy displacement on a cellular level, making it perfectly engineered for life inside an ENCAP shell.
In 1996, the New Balance M999 followed with just a few tweaks to the formula that had been pioneered by its predecessors. The brand continued with the winning combination of ENCAP, C-Cap and ABZORB, but added a metatarsal pad to cushion the forefoot and expose a section of ABZORB beneath the heel. The retooling left the midsole with a much more intricately sculpted sidewall, something that would only become more pronounced in the editions that would follow.
It was only two years later that the disruptive M990v2 bucked the trend for forward advancement by repurposing the upper of the original 990 and pairing it with new sole technology. The high-tech unit drew on the changes introduced by the 999, with ABZORB foam running the entire length of the ENCAP sole before popping out at the heel in a sealed bubble. Revisiting the classic sneaker set a precedent that saw the design team reinterpret the OG shape numerous times over the years to come.
From this point, it was as though New Balance had found a new drive to push the limits of running innovation. The M991, released in 2001, filtered the legendary 990 through a modern lens – resulting in an aggressive stance thanks to the streamlined toe box. For the first time, the ABZORB foam peeked out not only from beneath the heel but also from below the forefoot, alluding to the superior cushioning that lay within. The svelte design seamlessly incorporated motion control, which flowed from the midsole and gave the design an edge of modern minimalism. The outsole also introduced the new Ndurance rubber compound, which promised maximum durability in high-wear areas.
New Balance celebrated their 100 year anniversary in 2006 and the calendar filled with special releases and heritage throwbacks to mark key moments in the brand’s history. New Balance continued to press into the future with the M992. The new release brought the all-new ABZORB SBS to the table, which enabled it to stand tall among a throng of hyped anniversary drops. Where previous iterations of the proprietary cushioning contained foamed rubber, the new version was a non-cellular elastomer – squishy rubber that would always bounce back, even after years of crushing abuse. The new tech was placed under the heel and forefoot to provide optimal cushioning and a smooth transition throughout the stride.
The MR993 followed in 2008, combining elements of the 991 and 992 into one clean package. The big addition was ABZORB DTS, or ‘Dynamic Transitioning System’, a new form of cushioning that utilised ABZORB foam together with the SBS elastomer to target different areas with support and stability. The upper underwent a few minor tweaks, including the addition of an elegant ‘993’ stamp on the heel.
By 2012, the OG 990 was approaching its 30th birthday, and as it entered middle age there was no doubt it had embraced the role at the head of the rapidly expanding 99x family. To celebrate, New Balance introduced the M990v3. The update showed a little more mesh between its pigskin paneling and perforations for extra breathability. The design had a more utilitarian look than its predecessors, emphasised by the diamond patterning on the tongue and ribbed N logo. Aesthetics aside, the shoe’s technology remained relatively unchanged.
One of the more controversial additions to the 99x line came in 2016 with the M997.5, a hybrid model that married the much-loved upper of the 997 with the dynamic ABZORB sole unit from a 998. Blending two old-school styles together is bound to trigger murmurs among purists, but the success of the 997.5 is undeniable. Within its first year, the model became the canvas for both collaborative hype and plenty of well-received general releases.
Released in 2016, the M990v4 is the youngster of the family, a contemporary rendition of the tried and true 990 recipe that reminds everyone why they fell for the shoe in the first place. The modern, streamlined look alludes to its athletic pedigree, channelling design cues inspired by the OG era. The panels span out from the N logo, with layers of mesh accented by shadows of leather that are set against the pigskin contours. The ENCAP sole is made up of a polyurethane ring with an EVA core, providing the signature balance between cushioning and stability. If you’re after a reliable, long-lasting running shoe, the 990v4 is simply as good as it gets.
For over 30 years, the 990 has encapsulated all that New Balance stands for. Much like the brand itself, the model has never been fond of fanfare, nor has it ever tried to hog the limelight – it simply continued winning over fans based on the combination of supreme performance and understated practicality. Offering innovation without pretension, the various permutations of the 990 have ensured that NB is still way out in front of the pack!
Additional images supplied by Up There Store & Lower Grounds