Tracing Grey: The Legacy of New Balance
A crispy clean grey-on-grey colourway is the highest honour that can be bestowed on a New Balance sneaker. In the past, prominent designs such as the 990, 1300 and 574 have donned the neutral ensemble, and now only the finest of their progeny earn the right to follow in their footsteps. In the wake of New Balance’s inaugural Grey Day, we reflect on and celebrate the brand’s 50-plus shades of grey. And in doing so, we’re stirred to examine exactly what it is that makes the ashen athletic style so important to the New Balance and their fans.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when New Balance decided to embrace the now-iconic grey scheme, but by the beginning of the 1980s, advertisements for the 410 boasted that New Balance were ‘not in the habit of wilfully changing their shoe models each year to match the fashion colours of the Paris collection.’ The brand wanted to show customers the quality of their product rather than simply just dazzle them with bells and whistles.
As the decade of the Walkman and Atari got underway, toy stores lined their shelves with Rubik’s Cubes and the sportswear industry found itself undergoing dramatic change. Each of the major players were looking for new ways to stand out from the crowd. Many manufacturers were striving to cut costs in order to pass savings onto consumers, perpetuating what had become an aggressively price-oriented market. New Balance, on the other hand, realised that there was another way to view the situation, and it didn’t require buying into the new wave of consumerism that was sweeping the globe. Rather than produce cheaper shoes that customers would replace on the regular, the crew in Boston decided they would make the best quality shoe possible, with no expense spared.
The result was the New Balance 990, released in 1982 with a whopping $100 price tag. The 990 was the most expensive running shoe of its time. Once it hit the shelves, their audacious decisions immediately paid off as word spread that the grey Made in USA runner was worth every penny. After only six months, the company had taken orders for over 50,000 pairs, smashing the projected first-year sales of 5000. The 990 quickly became a status symbol – the grey pigskin suede sneaker identified its wearers as possessing discernment and taste.
With their unconventional approach bringing so much success, New Balance decided to see if they could push the envelope even further. Two years later, they released the 1300, a supremely technical runner that was so expensive it was advertised with the slogan ‘Mortgage the house.’ But once more, the $130 price tag came attached to an all-out technological triumph wrapped in a bundle of cool grey nubuck.
Although these earlier models became the quintessential grey New Balance designs, the mid to late 80s saw the brand adopt the silvery hue across all corners of their product offering – including the model that would go on to become the brand’s bestselling sneaker, the 574. Other designs such as the 676, 575, 735 and released in shades of blue-based cool greys, while the 495 took advantage of a warmer, red-based palette.
As the 90s rolled on by, the 997 and 999 began cultivating cult followings, as did the 1400, which went on to become one of New Balance’s most consistent sellers. But it was thanks to progression in information technology that the cement-coloured sneakers really hit the spotlight. Better cameras and the ability to distribute images quickly allowed the world to see public figures in a far more casual light. Before long, folk all around the world knew that Bill Clinton jogged around the White House gardens in grey 1500s.
Then the dotcom era hit full steam toward the end of the decade, and one of the foremost pioneers of the age, Steve Jobs, shunned the corporate uniform in favour of a black turtle neck, faded jeans and grey New Balance. With that, the grey running models had crossed another frontier – from running to everyday wear – and infiltrated the boardrooms of Silicone Valley.
The new millennium brought with it an age of online forums and social media, which allowed niche tastes to reach new audiences. Small pockets of the United States had long been home to neighbourhood hustlers who favoured certain New Balance styles for their understated aesthetics, ostentatious price tags and ability to handle the occasional sprint. Once the street appeal of grey New Balance emerged, driving cultural figures such as Kanye West and Pharrell Williams jumped on the wagon and all of a sudden every kid with ambitions of online influence had to have a pair.
It’s easy to see how New Balance’s slate grey sneakers ingrained themselves in the present-day conscience of cool. The simple approach to design has enabled the brand to focus on the quality and functionality of their product, while also speaking to a diverse range of consumers. With so much history tied into a colour, is a single Grey Day enough?