When you see grey sneakers, you think New Balance. In much the same way that Coca-Cola and Tiffany have claimed ownership of their respective tones of red and blue, the Bostonian footwear manufacturer has become synonymous with its own neutral shade of pigskin suede. In the month of New Balance’s inaugural Grey Day, it’s the perfect time to explore the significance of the colour – what is it about grey that enabled it to become intertwined with the brand’s DNA? Well, to begin with, there’s more to grey than meets the eye.
There was once a time when it was more common to see a blue or white pair of New Balance than it was to see a grey pair. Prior to the 1980s, the athletic footwear industry wasn't the monster it is now, and was unable to push technological progression the way it does today. Around the beginning of the 80s, however, the emergence of a new fitness and leisure market had athletic manufacturers jostling to position their brands as the must-have for the new fitness consumer. It was New Balance’s hunger for progression that prompted the brand to dip into their textile vault, where they discovered something special – pigskin suede.
Leather is made using a process known as tanning, which works on a chemical level by removing water from the proteins in flesh to stabilise it, leaving it unable to putrefy. The trouble with pigs, however, is that they tend to get in a fair few dust-ups with other pigs, and as a result, the average swine hide is covered in small scars that spoil the leather's finish. The majority of tanned hides are therefore buffed to remove imperfections. Although it’s commonly believed that suede is simply the reverse side of leather, that’s not the case; suede is actually the result of this buffing process.
'Our award winning models are only replaced when better materials and new techniques make a new shoe worthwhile for the runner.' New Balance, 1970s advertisement
Thanks to its dense fibrous structure, pigskin produces buttery soft short-nep suede from the get-go, allowing shoes like the original 990s to flex and move with the foot even when new. The material was ideally suited to the form-fitting slip-lasting process that gave the shoe its glove-like fit, thanks to its ease of manipulation. And as an added bonus, it doesn’t crease!
Due to the fact that pigskin has much larger pores than bovine skin, it’s far more breathable, and when it gets wet, it will dry much faster, thus reducing the chances of shrinking and cracking. But above all, pigskin suede was the strongest leather for its weight that New Balance could get their hands on in the 80s – and the lighter the upper, the more tech they could jam into the sole. Over time, the brand experimented with alternatives such as the synthetic leather Ceracom 574 and the nubuck 1300, but nothing quite matched up to the performance of pigskin.
But if pigskin suede is so amazing, why didn’t all brands make the switch? The most common kind of leather produced around the world comes from cows, followed by sheep and then goat. Despite the fact that there are around two billion pigs in the world, and only around one and a half billion cows, pigskin is the fourth most widely used leather. This is mainly because pigskin is far less versatile than other types. Although it might make the ideal grey New Balance sneaker, pigskin doesn’t hold up as upholstery, and the hides aren’t quite as large. So due to the fact that there’s a smaller market and less demand, pigskin suede doesn’t come cheap.
Unlike other penny-pinching companies, cost has never stopped New Balance from utilising the highest quality materials and technologies in their efforts to produce a better product. In pursuit of fat profit margins and competitive pricing, other manufacturers shunned pigskin. New Balance, however, recognised its benefits and weren’t afraid to communicate that message to customers. If someone was willing to pay more for a top-tier New Balance runner, they were going to get the best.
But our pigskin 101 rundown still leaves one question unanswered: why grey? Well, grey sits boldly outside of the fluctuations of fashion, emphasising New Balance’s unwavering indifference to trends. Grey is also the one shade that best complements the aesthetic beauty of pigskin suede in all its subtleties. Anything too dark or too light obscures the fine, short fibres that carpet the surface. And because so many other companies opted for bright, short-lived colour trends through the 80s and 90s, the simple grey sneakers filled a niche that nurtured a huge, fiercely loyal following.
In their quest to make the best running shoes around, New Balance discovered the ultimate recipe for longevity – a simple blend of premium materials and understated style that resulted in icon status. It’s impossible to overstate just how significant unassuming grey suede has been in building New Balance’s identity; no other sneaker brand owns a colour so completely. And so, like Tiffany blue and Veuve Clicquot yellow, New Balance grey has cultivated a timelessness, never to go out of style, and recognisable the world over.