Thrill of the Hunt: Matt Kyte is the Ultimate New Balance 997 Nerd
With a double-degree in New Balance nerdery, and a post-grad in advanced internet sleuthing, Matt Kyte just might be the ultimate 997 fanboy. One of the original cabal of diehards who lobbied to bring back the shoe in its original ‘Made in USA’ form, Matt has since researched and documented every single 997 release. Time for a history lesson, shot straight from the hip!
Take us back to 2014. I know you were super hyped when the 997 was announced.
I had definitely been campaigning for years to bring it back and I’m pretty sure plenty of other people within the industry were doing the same. This would have been late 2012. Needless to say, I was ecstatic at the prospect of the 997’s return. By that time, most of the ‘Holy Grail’ sneakers had all made a retro reappearance, but the 997 remained a glorious unicorn. The Crooked Tongues forums had an ongoing thread dedicated to bringing the model back as a members-only special.
I’d argue the 1500 is the greatest New Balance shoe of all time, but the 997 had mythology. The 997 was largely undocumented outside of a few pairs in the hands of OG collectors and random sightings on Yahoo Japan. The lack of info was excruciating. It’s hard to know what New Balance produced because these shoes were truly handmade, which means that strange variances are common. The 997 wasn’t exactly scarce in its day, but vintage pairs are still one of the hardest New Balances to track down.
It’s a shoe that we all agree is cherished by every NB nerd, yet finding a legit collector has been a challenge.
Yeah, when you think about it logically, it’s a shoe that came out in 1991 and then disappeared. Compared to its 99x family members, the 997 was the only model that was never revived. Except for some unusual multi-coloured Asia-made CO.JPs in the 1990s, there was nothing! With such a huge gap in production we’re getting to a point where there simply aren’t any pairs anywhere. If they don’t exist, how can anyone even think about owning one pair, let alone a collection?
To be clear, there are three original 997s. There is light grey, charcoal, and a white edition. I’ve only seen a couple of pairs in white ever, and I’ve never even seen the charcoal except as a catalogue image.
So when I say there’s really only one true OG 997, you can see why. The others are beyond rare.
The 997 looks different to every other Newbie. The sharp profile kills me. The heel elevation is perfect.
Aside from the 996, the 99x series has always packed junk in the trunk! But, with the 997, you get a really good balance and perfect proportions. Steven Smith managed to incorporate a good amount of wedge, while keeping the profile sleek.
The 997 moved the 99x series away from stacked foam soles and introduced ENCAP by exposing the internal foam on the medial side and incorporating Hytrel Thermoplastic. I’ve always been quite fond of that gumby piece of XAR-1000 rubber tacked onto the heel, as it gives them a notable rake, which reminds me of an old hot rod.
I’m really into the toe angle of the 997 and how the OGs are really snub-nosed. The toe rubber gets really chunky and then the thick cut suede sits really prominently over the delicate mesh. It’s the nerdiest thing in the world but there’s something about that which gets me every time.
How do you stack it up against the rest of the 99x series, including the 998 and 999.
I’ll be honest and say I never really got behind those models. I know they’re more comfortable thanks to the ABZORB foam, but there’s something a bit over-complicated about the designs. The 998 and 999 just aren’t as refined as the 997. To run with the automotive metaphors, the 997 is like a sleek Lamborghini Miura from the 70s, while the 998 is the crazy 80s Countach with huge spoilers and a brick car phone.
My favourite 998 is that odd hybrid that had the white and green upper fused with a 997 sole. That made me look at the 998 in a completely different light.
The 999 is another step in that direction, as the toe gets rounder and the midsole chunk goes to another level. I was never attracted to the 999, as it seemed a bit of an awkward transition.
The best of the 99x series are the 990, 997, 991 and 990v.4. The 99x series has always been the best representation of the brand since its inception, and I think those models really nailed the subtle ‘NB tech’ look cohesively.
In your mind, what does the perfect 997 look like? Is the original grey-on-grey scheme the one and only?
I mean, yeah of course, I love the shoe for what it was the first time I saw it, and that’s the original production version in tonal greys. If I want to be a total shoe nerd and go super obscure, then the white leather versions are the low-key fave. I’m just a sucker for white sneakers. Of course, I also have my own ‘what if’ versions drawn-up and ready for the day New Balance sends me an email!
The first sample of the 997 retro was controversial. The 1990 catalogue shows the midsole as light grey but several inconsistencies challenged the notion of a 1:1 reproduction.
I don’t know how deeply I should go into this, but basically the retro was definitely wrong, although it was much better than the first samples. As you said, the correct colour was a really light grey. On the OGs, this faded to a yellowed beige as most foam compounds do over time. Needless to say, there was a feisty email written by myself sent to NB at the time of the first retro outlining my position.
The toe box mesh was different as well. The retros have it in a charcoal grey that is visibly darker than the suede, but the OGs were much more closely colour matched, which I feel throws off the overall balance totally. To this day it still irks me! Funnily enough, I own all three of the retro 997 in the OG grey.
Well you can definitely care too much, that’s for sure. It’s bound to lead to tears. The early catalogue images didn’t always have ‘997’ written on the midsole either.
Yeah, I think that can be put down as a promo sample oddity. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a pair in the real world that lacked the model name and number on the midsole. Even the NB Japan archive models have it. There was a single pair shared by NB around the time the 990v3 came out which didn’t have the midsole branding, but again, who knows.
Random stuff in catalogues isn’t uncommon, especially with New Balance. The test is finding the real-world example as proof. Often it’s the opposite case with NB. There are things that officially don’t exist but then people turn up with pairs to prove all the theories wrong!
Speaking of which, you once told me the 997 was made in the UK at some point. The Flimby factory have no recollection. Now’s the time to back it up, or we’ll have to call BS!
I have images saved from the Crooked Tongues forum, but they don’t explicitly show the ‘Made in England’ logo on the tongue. Unfortunately the owner’s preference was to lace his shoes a bit too high, which hid the stitching. To give this context, the images popped up on the ‘TIA’ forum threads in 2008 or 2009.
The owner wasn’t exactly gushing with amazement over them, and we all assumed more info would come to light at some point.
Alas, those images are still the only evidence the 997 was made in the UK factory. But who knows? They certainly look nothing like 997s from the USA factory. There’s no thermoplastic panels and they sport shiny ‘N’ logos in 3M that are very similar to the 576s that came out of Flimby in the 1990s.
Since I have definitive evidence of both the 998 and 999 being produced in the UK, the plot thickens. I’m not sure if New Balance is able to confirm they even exist, so it’s highly likely this will stay a mystery. The lack of documentation is the cause of much excitement and frustration for New Balance nerds!
I’m definitely feeling the mini-NB logos they put on the women’s 997s. Not sure we’ll ever see them again.
I think footwear has got to a point where there’s not much else to do except bring back weird stuff, so I wouldn’t rule it out. I can’t say I love them, but given that the 997 was the first time there was a women’s specific style in the 99x lineage, I think it’s cool from a historical perspective.
Purists typically struggle with new-gen designs like the 997S. Given you aren’t even old enough to remember the OG, is that stance a bit hard to justify?
I think I could just remember the OG if my family had the money to buy them back in 1991! I get your point though. Hybrids are not intended for the OG purist anyway, so it’s no biggie. I think the point of the hybrid is to take some of the proven design principles of a classic, and then repackage them for a contemporary customer. If brands are drawing up hybrids in the hope of a cosign from guys debating the correct shade of a midsole colour, they’re setting themselves up for disappointment.
Now, tell me about your 997 illustrations. What made you start? Attention deficit? Boredom? Pure nerding-out?
The purest form of adoration is to painstakingly replicate something. It might sound super wanky, but drawing every model gave me a much deeper appreciation for the 997 design. There’s definitely part of me that was simply excited by the prospect of researching and documenting such a mythical model.
What level of research are we talking?
Realistically, my archive is a result of probably a decade of learned information acquired through my own research and with the help of many of my peers back in the days when sneaker forums were popular. Most of the information came from examining genuine pairs, catalogue snippets, tiny random images from Japanese blogs, and deep YahooJP auction listings with no semblance of English in the titles.
Now that you’ve finished, how do you feel?
I’d feel better if they stopped making 997s! I had a similar problem when I did the same thing for New Balance’s 1500 archive. I started that project when Flimby announced that production of that shoe would halt, but they kept producing them.
I ended up bailing on the 1500 project as it started to feel like it would never end. By this point I had started on the 997 archive, which was vastly more detailed and containable. When you’re simply documenting a shoe that came out last week it loses any sense of intrigue. Much like collecting sneakers, the thrill is in the hunt.
Now that I can step back and look at things objectively, what I’m most proud of is that the archive was the result of a massive group effort. At a time when the footwear scene seems more segmented and diluted than ever, it’s nice to have something pure that speaks strongly to a very dedicated audience.
Photos: Daniel Edwards
Head to 997archive for a look at Matt's comprehensive 997 reference guide.
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 hit up our our interview with designer, Steven Smith. For a look back at United Arrows' 997.5, read our interview with UA's director, Poggy, or hit our interview with Ronnie Fieg to see how he reimagined the 997.