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The Art of the Collaboration With New Balance

New Balance

This article was originally published on December 31, 2020.

New Balance straight-up stomped in 2020. Carefully curating a roster of collaborators known for their cult-like appeal and ground-level admiration, the New England label basked in Casablanca’s sun-soaked tennis courts, scaled the Antelope Canyon with Salehe Bembury, dredged up the underground with Stray Rats, and shot an arrow straight through our hearts with Joe Freshgoods.

We caught up with Joe Grondin, senior manager of global collaborations, to chat about the art of building lasting relationships.

How did you land the role of senior manager of global collaborations?
In 2017, I moved to Tokyo for six months with New Balance. Tokyo is such a big market for us. It’s the number one lifestyle brand in Japan in regard to sneakers. I was over there to see how New Balance Japan runs their business and bring some of those ideas back to the US market.

Those six months were the biggest turning point in my career.

I started working with the Tokyo design studio team. We didn’t have anyone managing collaborations for the brand. It was kind of everyone’s part-time job. If you were working on a certain model and you knew someone at a certain boutique, a colab happened, right? It was very regional and retailer-based. It was just kind of a secondary thought. I pitched a strategy for global collaborations in 2017 and pretty much started this role with no budget or resources or anything.

Why is the New Balance brand so revered in Japan? Is the cultural perception of the brand different to the US market?
Yeah, it’s completely different. In Japan, the consumer is so passionate about authenticity, history and storytelling. New Balance is the perfect brand for the Japanese because we’ve been around for over 100 years. There’s so much history, and the brand does a really good job telling that American story. It’s just something that always resonated really well in Japan.

In the US, there was always that ‘old man’ idea, right? The ‘dad shoe’. That stigma is really hard to break. But that whole stigma doesn’t really exist outside the US. The Japanese think of New Balance as a staple. A sneaker like the 996, for example – every single person in Japan has a 996. It’s just the staple 1980s trainer.

What’s the criteria for a New Balance collaboration?
Picking partners for each model is always different. Aimé Leon Dore is a good example. We gave them a lot of different options in terms of silhouettes. Get the brand on board, and then we’ll figure out the best silhouette to work on, right?

Whereas for Casablanca, I had the 327 in mind when I reached out to them. I reached out to them really early in the life of the brand. I saw them pop up during Paris Fashion Week. We built the 327, and I thought, ‘oh, their aesthetic could work really well with this shoe.’ So I reached out to Casablanca and pitched them the silhouette. It was very specific.

But generally speaking, we pick brands that are authentic in the space they’re representing. They have an authentic story to tell. They’re all about product and craft because that’s obviously super important to us, too.

Family vibes?
Exactly. When looking for a partnership, it’s family vibes as well as that independent kind of spirit. Whenever we partner with a brand, we want them to own that space. Stray Rats, for example, are our down-and-dirty streetwear brand. We don’t have too many other players that fall into that space. They’re super authentic because they come from a place that’s born out of hardcore music and video game culture, and they’ve just stuck with it this whole time. They never stray from it. Whereas a brand like ALD – they’re super Queens. They’re New York. They’re not trying to be something they’re not. They’re straightforward and authentic.

It’s the same with JJJJound. They started before Instagram even existed. It was this designers mood board. And they’ve never changed. They’re simple, and they know what they do. When we had the 992, it was a no-brainer to tap JJJJound. They’ve been representing Steve Jobs and the 992 for over ten years. We try to pick stories that are super authentic, and we never force a silhouette on a partner.

Tell us about your relationship with Joe Freshgoods. Was it difficult to launch a collaboration in such a loaded sneaker space over All-Star Weekend?
New Balance have a history in basketball, so we’re not new to the space. But we’re going to Chicago, where Jordan Brand and Nike are dominant. We’ve also never launched anything over All-Star Weekend before. We were complete underdogs, which is why no one expected us to partner with Joe. New Balance is pretty much non-existent in Chicago. It’s not a brand that’s hugely popular in the streets. Tapping the guy that runs the sneaker culture in Chicago was the ultimate co-sign.

But here’s how it happened.

Our VP of marketing essentially hit me up and said, ‘We’re not going to be able to launch the Kawhi Leonard signature shoe because it isn’t ready. We need to figure out another collaboration for this space.’

At that point, it was July 2019, and we were trying to get something ready for February 2020. I went to ComplexCon, and literally every single person I spoke to told us to collaborate with Joe. I’d known about Joe for a while, but it wasn’t until I went to ComplexCon that I saw his impact first-hand. His booth at the event was just crazy.

It was a wild rush to get everything done. Because of the limited numbers, we thought we’d do a pop-up exclusive; people don’t really do pop-ups anymore. On the day of the launch, there were 300 or 400 people lined up – and It was probably one of the coldest days I’ve ever experienced (and I’m from Boston). It was definitely the craziest sneaker release I’d seen. Especially because we were up against stuff like the Off-White Jordans and the Yeezy QNTM. I think people had become a little fatigued by the big hype drops. Having something super local and telling a super authentic Chicago story was refreshing for everyone. I think that’s why it worked.

You also had the huge Yeezy ATV trucks driving around handing out QNTMs…
I think it all becomes a bit too much at a point. We were like, ‘Let’s just partner with the local guy in Chicago.’

What made the New Balance 827 the perfect canvas for Stray Rats and Aimé Leon Dore? Both brands have such a different aesthetic.
We just felt that it was going to hit that late 90s, early 2000s runner trend. Aimé Leon Dore and Stray Rats were both fine working on the same silhouette simultaneously because they’re just such different brands. They have different approaches. I thought it was a cool dynamic to launch the 827 with them. First up, we’re going to give you a nice, retro sport, true running heritage vibe with ALD, and then we’re also going to give you this ugly cool shoe with Stray Rats.

A lot of people that saw the final products didn’t even realise they were the same silhouette.

Was Teddy more responsive to the New Balance 550?
The NB550 actually came from Teddy. He pitched it. He found this random picture of the 550, and he was like, ‘What is this?’ We did a bunch of research and found the silhouette from 1989. The only information we could find about it was from an old New Balance Japan catalogue. We were lucky because the Japan catalogues are super detailed. We started researching hashtags on Instagram and found this collector who had a pair. Once we got the shoe in hand, we built it from scratch with Teddy. He’s so particular about shape, so everything took us at least eight to ten revisions. We were adjusting millimetres here and there just to get it right.

What’s next for New Balance collaborations in 2021?
We’ve got a lot of new stories with the same partners. We had so much success this year, and I think there’s a lot more runway. We want long-term partnerships. We’re not really interested in doing one-off collaborations. We put in so much work building relationships and dealing with contracts and legal just to do one shoe. When we launch a collaboration, we want it to span two or three years. You’ll see a lot more retro-futurist styles next year. Some retro 990s. You’ll see some more of that 327 design language. We’re adding a pretty big partner that I think is going to surprise some people towards the end of next year.

But aside from that, we’re going to be building on the solid partnerships we already have.

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