Originator: Steven Smith Talks Designing the New Balance 997
After landing his first design job at New Balance in 1986, Steven Smith went on to play a pivotal role in the evolution of the entire 99x series. Given the task of refining the 995, then designing the 996 from scratch, Smith’s valedictory contribution to the series was the 997. With ENCAP and C-CAP cushioning, XAR-1000 carbon rubber outsoles, and the Hytrel Thermoplastic lockdown strap, the 997 was a huge leap forward.
How did you get yourself into footwear design?
As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a designer. I spent a lot of time repairing things and was always really interested in how stuff was put together. Automotive design definitely appealed, but I didn’t like the idea of working on only one small component within a huge project.
Since I ran track back in high school and wore New Balance running shoes, I was already familiar with the company. When I graduated from college, I heard they might be hiring a new design group, so I interviewed and joined the firm in 1986. My running experience definitely helped open the door at New Balance.
What was the company like when you arrived?
New Balance was a much smaller company back in the 1980s. Aside from me, Kevin Brown was the only other designer. I started working on some perforation designs for the 99x series, then graduated to working on basketball shoes. The first big model I worked on was the 995. At that point it was pretty much baked, but I added some finishing details. The 990 was my favourite shoe at the time, so I couldn’t believe I was working on its successor!,
I loved designing footwear at New Balance. It was great being the sample size because I could put on the prototypes and know immediately what the next steps were to make each shoe better.
Did you keep many of your old prototypes?
At one time I had about 150 pairs. When I left the company, I gave them away by the bag to friends in my hometown that couldn’t afford to buy nice sneakers. Some of those were one-of-a-kind samples that would be Holy Grails for collectors today, but I don’t regret giving them away. My collection right now is pretty small as I donated most of my personal samples to New Balance for their archive.
There must be some really crazy Steven Smith designs that never made the cut?
There was one far-out project we called New Balance X. I did a whole range of shoes but the concept never really took off. It was supposed to be the ultimate ‘Made In America’ collection as it would have been totally made to order.
I also made up a pair of white and red 995s with a 996 prototype sole unit that looked amazing. It’s in New Balance’s archive collection but I would love to get my hands on a new pair. They were so pure and clean. Maybe they should actually release it now as the ‘Steven Smith 99x pro-model’? [Laughs]
The 997 was, in fact, your swansong at New Balance. What are your memories of designing the shoe?
The 997 was a really fun project. I remember working with Steve Burris and we looked at the 997 as a blank slate to really push forward with innovation. Our brief was to create a runner that was way more technically advanced than previous 99x models. Steve was a big support, especially with developing the ENCAP cushioning process. Jean Briggs was the materials manager and she always found cool stuff to help offset the simplicity of the grey tones. She must have added the dimpled leather to the mix at some point. But yeah, I left the company shortly after the 997 launched, so I lost track of how things developed after that.
The grey and navy colour combo is classic New Balance. Did you view that conservatism as a restriction or creative freedom?
I don’t really think about colours in those terms. Grey and navy are just a classic combination that appeals to the New Balance consumer. It is conservative I guess, but they also let you appreciate the design contours of the shoe more than some crazy combination. We definitely saved a stack of money on how many different coloured markers we needed in the design department though!
What was the inspiration behind the plastic side panel? It’s funny how it evolved over time and was produced in different materials.
The 99x series was designed to provide the best all-round trainers for comfort and support, so we were always looking for extra ways to enhance the user experience. The idea behind that panel was simply to add extra functionality. The collar lockdown strap was almost like an anti-sway feature that locked the top eyelet into the heel counter for added stability. Sometimes the features that are all about enhancing performance end up becoming the iconic design element that people remember the most. I’m always surprised and rather pleased that there are hardcore fans of these shoes that really sweat over the miniscule details.
The 997 seems to have a really unique profile at New Balance. Do you agree?
The shoe was definitely a big step forward technology-wise. Moulded upper components, multiple density midsoles and that super-thick, blown-rubber sole made it a standout in the running shoe environment. And the 997 was really tough, they lasted forever!
We were always driven to make the best possible shoe at the moment in time we were working on it. The 997’s look is definitely driven by the fit and the design lines. As a team, we had a collective knowledge of what needed to go into the shoes from a runner’s perspective, and that helped the design process immensely.
I’ve always wondered why the model was iced for two decades. The rumour is that the moulds and patterns were lost. What are your thoughts?
I’m not sure about that, but it could be because the factory shifted and things were lost during the move. Regardless, it definitely made the 997’s comeback in 2014 a lot more mysterious and compelling.
You lived and worked through the ‘dad shoe’ era. What does that term mean to you and how do you feel about it?
I think the concept of ‘dad shoes’ is pretty cool. They’re big and chunky and super comfortable. There was always a certain association of old-money and wealth that went along with New Balance products, and the idea of ‘dads’ kind of added that aura of financial stability to the brand.
One more nerd question. The 994 is missing from the 99x series. What happened there?
Honestly, I have no idea. The 99x numbering was originally based on the $100 price point of the shoe, which was a pretty big deal at the time. I know we went from the 990 to the 995, then to the 996 and the 997. The numbers started to run out, so then they went back to the 991 after that. Maybe New Balance will get around to the 994 one day, who knows?
Photos: Micah Fischer
This feature was originally published in Sneaker Freaker's New Balance 997 book. For a look at the 997's history, read about its journey to cult status, or delve into the minutiae of the 997 back catalogue with Matt Kyte. For a look back at the United Arrows 997.5, here's our interview with Poggy, or hit our interview with Ronnie Fieg to see how he reimagined the 997.