Why hypebeasts are queuing for old New Balances
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Good luck finding a pair of New Balances in a 7 1/2. That’s Rob Stewart’s size – and the Glaswegian has, he’s pretty sure, the biggest New Balance sneaker collection in the world, with a haul of “anywhere between” 900 and 1,200 pairs. “I’m not precious about keeping a log,” says Stewart of the “Aladdin’s cave” in which he keeps each shoeboxed pair.
Founded in Boston in 1906, New Balance’s “dad shoes” have typically been the footwear of an older, less fashion-conscious client. “The New Balance buyer wasn’t the most outrageously cool person,” says Simon “Woody” Wood, founder of Sneaker Freaker magazine, of the brand’s gradual evolution. “It was the slightly introverted type who didn’t go out bragging about how many shoes they had – a different mentality to Nike [collectors]. The classic New Balance nerd – and I use that term in a positive way – is obsessed with details and quality.”
Furthermore, its models are often slightly more expensive than those from other brands and, unusually, New Balance has continued partially to manufacture in the US and UK. Stewart, who has visited its Cumbria factory, says that he and many other collectors are drawn to the brand’s commitment to domestic production.
Stewart, 42, bought his first New Balances in 2004. His all-time favourite silhouette is the 991, a “busy” design with a chunky base that was first released in 1982 and was favoured by Steve Jobs. He’ll snap up pairs on eBay, Depop, Yahoo! Japan, Etsy, Instagram and Facebook Marketplace, rarely spending more than £50. Yet in the past couple of years, he and other longstanding collectors – including a sizeable fanbase in Japan – have faced heightened competition as the big “N” has gained increasing fashion traction.
The streak was arguably ignited in late 2020 when New York menswear brand Aimé Leon Dore put its spin on the 550, releasing £120 versions accented with red or forest green that sold out in minutes. (ALD’s founder, Teddy Santis, is now creative director of New Balance’s Made in the USA line.) Tie-ups with designers including Salehe Bembury and Joe Freshgoods followed. Now Timothée Chalamet, Harry Styles, Rihanna and Kanye West are all fans. That some of its most popular models have been released in limited numbers has also fuelled the consumer frenzy.
New Balance now appears on the resale market, where sneakerheads bid on models that are sold out at retail level. Before 2021, it wasn’t available on platforms such as the UK’s Kick Game; it’s now its second-biggest seller after Nike. The most coveted models include the 550, 992 and 2002R styles, and the 2002R Protection Pack Rain Cloud 992 and Joe Freshgoods “No Emotions Are Emotions” have increased in value by 100 to 200 per cent in the past year, says Jesse Einhorn, senior economist at StockX, with special releases going for up to $5,000.
It’s part of a growing trend to collect sneakers as sure investments “like Rolexes or wine”, says Kick Game founder Robert Franks. Sotheby’s recently sold a one-off 550, created in partnership with Netflix and containing slivers of meteorite, for £10,000 in under a minute.
Sums of more than £2,000 are not uncommon for special editions from 10 years ago, such as the New Balance 999 Concepts “The Kennedy”. Meanwhile, ’80s-era models are the most popular vintage, with sales increasing “by double digits from the first to the back half of 2021”, says Garry Thaniel, eBay’s general manager of sneakers. Hong Kong collector Wai Cheung likes the electric colour combos – lime green and purple, hot pink and yellow – from 2000-10 styles; Stewart prefers runners from the mid-2000s that are amalgams of mesh, gel inserts and waterproof panels.
The hype can be a headache. “I didn’t have to camp out [to buy] shoes before – that’s almost a must now if I want something limited,” says Philadelphia-based Richie Roxas. He has been accumulating New Balances since the mid-1990s and owns 600 pairs. He says the two hours he spends browsing thrift stores and scrolling apps in search of eye-catching kicks is as intrinsic to his daily routine as “brushing my teeth”. His greatest find? A pair signed by the Clintons for a 1990s fundraiser and bagged on eBay for $250.
Roxas thinks of his collection, which fills his bedroom, as “a little museum”. He wears about a quarter of his stock; most of the rest are “too old or rare” and stored in their original boxes. Stewart is more pragmatic: he buys every pair with the aim of lacing them up. One of his most valuable models, a 992 collaboration with Japanese brand WTAPS, is currently going for £970 on StockX. Might he be tempted to sell them and make a tidy profit? “Not at all,” he says, barely able to hide his contempt. He still fully intends to wear them.