Legacy of Trust: Ronnie Fieg Talks About his Love of the New Balance 997
With more than two decades in the footwear game, there isn’t much Ronnie Fieg hasn’t already accomplished. At the helm of his sprawling Kith empire, Ronnie’s ambitious collaborations with everyone from Coca-Cola to Tommy Hilfiger and Versace have continually upped the ante. Fresh from his recent New Balance 997 collaboration — that also tapped icon 997.5 releases by nonnative and United Arrows & Sons — Ronnie’s unbridled enthusiasm for the 99x series is evident. Packed with intimate design details, and a few personal memories, this six-strong project was all about the love!
As a 13-year-old, you worked in your uncle’s shoe store. Given your personal influence in the industry, and the scale of Kith’s operations now, do you ever reflect on the fact that you’ve made your dreams into a reality?
A lot less than I would like to! [laughs] I think there will be a time when things calm down and I’ll be able to reflect on my success, but being a leader for a team this size means you always need to live in the future. We have over 300 staff at Kith, so it takes a lot of teamwork to run the business. Without my team, it would be impossible to do what we do.
Do you even have a job title, or have you gone past that? You’re listed on Wikipedia as a designer.
I don’t like titles very much, but I am the CEO, and the creative director. I actually am very, very, heavily involved in design. That’s where I spend a good portion of my time, but I make all the business decisions as well.
Does that mean you’re a control freak — in the best possible way?
A little bit. Yeah, I would say I am, but as time goes by, I’ve become less and less of a control freak. My team has been with me for quite a while now, so I’m better at delegating and knowing that things can be accomplished without me having to be there every step of the way.
You take a prominent role on social media as the face of the company. Why is that personal connection to your customers so important?
The only reason I stay on social media is because I care about the emotional connection that people have to Kith and me. It’s important for people to understand where things come from and why things are done the way they are. It’s also important to give people more than what they paid for when they buy products, and the best way to do that is by giving them my personal perspective.
You’ve done more than a dozen shoes with New Balance. What are your observations of the company?
New Balance have always stayed true to who they are, and I respect that immensely.
How do you stack the 997 up against the rest of the 99x line-up?
The 99x series in general is New Balance’s key strength but I love the 997. It’s a sleek and timeless silhouette, and totally representative of what New Balance is currently doing. The shoe was so ahead of its time! Looking at the past, present and future at New Balance, the evolution from the 996 to the 997 and the 998 is incredible. I just feel like the 997 really stands out as being the sleekest and most modern-looking of those three models. Do you agree?
Absolutely. It’s all about that chunky midsole.
Yeah. By the way, I’m a huge fan of all of them, right? Let me just say that because it’s important. The truth is I really love all of them and I still can’t pick my favourite. The upgrade from the 996 to the 997 is substantial. The midsole is perfection. The 997 also helped perfect New Balance’s design language, and it informed how people would come to view the 99x series in general. When you look back at the 99x shoes that have come out since the 997, they all have a little DNA from that shoe.
Did the memory of the Beauty&Youth 997.5 from 2014 always stick with you? Those things are beyond unobtanium.
I have a full pair and they’re still deadstock! They were easily the hardest shoe in my entire collection to track down. They have been a Grail since I first saw those pictures and I had to trade a lot to get them. The larger sizes are very, very rare. I might have the only deadstock pair in size 10.5 in the world.
When you say traded, are we talking greenbacks or shoes?
I traded some shoes and had to put up some serious money as well. I think I might have one of only 12 pairs in my size in the world. I’m sure the others were worn to death so, who knows, maybe they’re the only deadstock pair left in the world?
I have to say, I didn’t dream of bringing the shoe back, I just dreamed of owning a pair one day. I was thinking about the 997 and New Balance’s plans this year, and everything just clicked into place. For United Arrows & Sons to trust me is a big thing. I spent a long time making sure the shoes were done right because messing with a legacy is something I don’t often do. This is far and away the best New Balance project that I’ve worked on.
The 997 branding on the midsole has been removed and I can see a few other interesting design details have been added.
Yeah we did. We also put a black tongue on them because they dropped on Black Friday. And if you look closely, you’ll also see that the logo has three different layers. The triple stack logo makes it more dimensional, with the layers of white, pink and silver 3M. These little design nuances are so important. Throw in the fact that the 997 is made in the USA and I’m super psyched.
You’ve also embraced the hybrid lifestyle designs that aren’t based on sports heritage. What’s your take on the 997S?
I’m definitely a purist when it comes to archive product, but the idea to take those OG silhouettes and modernise them is exactly what New Balance needs to be doing. I’m 36 years old, so I have an affinity for shoes from the 90s because I grew up in that decade, but today’s kids deserve a design language that speaks directly to them. I see the 997S as an opportunity for New Balance to dig into their archive, not only to reproduce shoes as one-to-ones, but to evolve. Every brand needs to adapt or they’ll die. The difference between New Balance and a lot of other brands is they definitely don’t forget where they came from, and they keep their focus on their heritage just as much as they do on the future.
That’s a good way to put it. The reaction has been super positive.
The 997S is beautiful. The tooling is amazing. I’ve seen a lot in my 23 years of working in footwear and I know good tooling when I see it. I don’t want anyone to think we’re forced to work on specific shoes by brands. The materials are super nice and the shoes are light, but not too light. When you touch and feel and wear the 997S, there’s an instant respect because of its quality.
The 997 was a very technical shoe when it was released so it was important for New Balance to keep that in mind when they built the 997S. It’s such a well-built and engineered shoe. I am passionate about the 997S because I believe it’s the future of the 997 model. Both versions can live side-by-side, they just speak to two different consumers.
One final question. Given you’ve accomplished so much, where do you think you’ll be in five years time?
That’s a good question. I don’t know where I’ll be, because everything that’s happened until now has been an organic journey. Different doors open along the way and opportunities present themselves all the time. I’m just gonna continue working hard and try to expand Kith globally. I do have other goals that I want to achieve outside of the current business, and I’m inching toward those things slowly. Hopefully I’ll get there soon!
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 and our interview with designer, Steven Smith. For a look back at United Arrows' 997.5, read our interview with UA's director, Poggy, or delve into the minutiae of the 997 back catalogue with Matt Kyte.