Status, class, a place in the mecca of fashion… any brand knows well what it means to become allies with the universe of Miuccia Prada, and the great sneaker empires were not going to be left behind. The first move was made by Adidas in 2019 with a limited edition of its classic Superstar model for Prada, handcrafted in Italy along with a bowling bag; and now, the American brand New Balance has been chosen to complete Miu Miu’s latest fashion shows with its century-old sneakers.
Unlike the pristine proposal of the “Pradidas,” based on a snow-white model with no superfluous elements, the sports shoe that complements Miu Miu’s spring/summer 2024 collection, presented recently in Paris, delves into the brand’s most retro archive, with a very personal sneaker known as the 530 SL.
Miuccia Prada has reimagined the brand’s classic 530, known for its ultra-comfortable fit made with a breathable mesh and padded material, as a lighter, flatter sneaker in beige and brown, with the Miu Miu logo-name clearly displayed on the tongue. Topped with striking yellow, orange or white laces that give off a vintage vibe from all sides, they are an almost Wesandersonian version of the legendary model first launched in 1992 as a running shoe. “This collaboration reminds me a lot of the one with Aimé Leon Dore [the cool New York brand with which New Balance has collaborated on several occasions], which brings a high fashion touch to sportswear,” says creative director, stylist and specialist in urban trends Alfredo Santamaria (@gothic__sport on Instagram).
In a limited edition still pending a release date, this sneaker is the next step in a fruitful collaboration that began in 2022 with the New Balance 574. This mythical shoe from 1988 that was present in one of Prada’s most influential shows (featuring microskirts and exposed underwear), also passed under the deconstructive eye of its creative director, with unpolished, frayed edges in denim, white nappa and velvety corduroy on cognac and cinnamon tones. A classic of the 1980s sports wardrobe, now with a haute couture price tag ($950).
The story of an American classic
Prada’s interpretation of the 530 model for next spring came to life a few months after its 1990s aesthetic was revived by New Balance itself, accompanied by a high-performance ABZORB® midsole (much more comfortable) and the generational portrait that photographer Ewen Spencer created of this youth culture staple during the last decade. A decisive era in the history of the company, whose mythical “N” has gone from being in the center of political controversies to becoming established as a cult brand, supported by both the streets and celebrities — Taylor Swift included.
But first, let’s talk about its origins. Created in 1906 in Boston by William J. Riley, the birth of New Balance was based on a revealing balance system (hence its name) that this Irish businessman developed after carefully observing the chickens in his garden. The invention was based on an orthopedic insole that acted on the arch of the foot, providing three points of support on the sole of the shoe. A simple but effective solution that made walking a much more comfortable experience.
His first shoe design arrived in 1938: a model with spikes and leather created for a running club known as the Boston Brown Bag Harriers, which caused a sensation among professionals in this discipline. With the arrival of the new owners, Paul and Eleanor Kidd (the daughter of Arthur Hill, Ridley’s partner), in 1956, the company adopted the name New Balance Athletic Shoe Company. Four years later, it would release its first big hit: the Trackster. Designed to run a marathon, its rippled and ultralight sole conquered the running clubs of prestigious universities in the area.
When billionaire Jim Davis took over the management in the 1970s, New Balance went from being a family business with six employees who manufactured 30 pairs of sneakers a day (and turned over $1 million a year) to establishing itself as a multinational company with a current value of $4.4 billion. Davis was also involved in creating the brand’s identity; he came up with the idea of placing the iconic “N” on the sides of the shoe. At that time, the numerical nomenclature with which future releases would be identified also began to be used. That was the case of its first bestseller, the 320 model from 1976, recognizable for its light, striking silhouette and manufactured in nylon, which took the number one position in a ranking made by Runner’s World magazine that same year.
The brand’s list of icons grew during the 1980s, with the 990 model being an exceptional case. Launched in 1982 as a running shoe with a revolutionary sole that combined comfort and technology, it transcended the track to become part of the relaxed codes that prevailed in the fashion of the moment. In only six months, the sales of New Balance grew ten times, with the company positioning itself as a staple in informal fashion and, specifically, in the streetwear style that was beginning to take shape.
The price was not an obstacle. Sold for $100 a pair, they became a luxury item, and for a while the New Balance sneakers were the most expensive in the world. “The 990′s impact in 1982 can still be seen today,” noted Sam Pearce, who was the creative design manager at New Balance a few years ago. “There are threads of DNA that have continued and evolved over time, and with each release we always respect the integrity of the series. We tackle it in much the same way a company such as Porsche would handle design, improving performance while totally respecting the product’s legacy and design aesthetic.”
This evolution produced the model 992, created to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the brand, which Steve Jobs wore when he unveiled the first iPhone in history in 2007. In this way, the founder of Apple would unwittingly turn this model of sneakers into a symbol of the normcore style that conquered the 2000s, which was based on comfortable, neutral and unpretentious clothes and accessories. Although their price does not seem so steep anymore, their aesthetic influence is still intact: proof of this are some versions of the original model, such as the 990v3 or the 990v5. The latter, in gray, has become the favorite sneaker of celebrities like Timothée Chalamet, Kaia Geber or Kourtney Kardashian. Seen as one of the most stylish sneakers of recent times, at the level of the Adidas Gazelle or the Nike Jordan I, its current popularity seems to be surpassed only by the 550 model. A shoe released in 1989 for basketball players with premium leather and perforated side panels to improve breathability.
From burning shoes to sold out shoes
The reason for the success of this model has a name: Taylor Swift. The author of 1989 has been seen on numerous occasions wearing a red pair of 550s, co-designed by the New York firm Aimé Leon Dore (currently sold out). The alliance between the Pennsylvania singer and the Massachusetts brand is a clear example of how an effective exercise in product placement can change the image of any company. Her latest feat has been breaking the internet by appearing with the 1906R model, designed in collaboration with Ganni. At an original retail price of $170 (and as expected), they were sold out in a few hours.
Having the blessing of the pop star not only served to boost the company’s earnings; it is also the best antidote to forget one of the most controversial chapters in its history.
In 2016, a “friendly” tweet by New Balance for the new Donald Trump administration unleashed a wave of discontent on social media and turned the company’s product into an object of protest and rejection. The succession of negative comments was followed by videos of people burning and throwing their sneakers in the trash, which was seen as a boycott against the support of multinationals for the new president.
The company saw the backlash an unfair demonization of its image. As New Balance sources said to The Wall Street Journal journalist Sara Germano, the positive message that was posted on the social network formerly known as Twitter regarding the businessman’s election had to do with the company’s opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) proposed by the Obama administration and also rejected by Trump. According to the company, this deal would raise manufacturing rates for its shoes in the United States, putting the company at a cost disadvantage.
In recent years, being associated with stars like Taylor Swift and having stimulating collaborations inside and outside of the world of fashion (Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons or the musician Jaden Smith, among others) has restored the brand’s social health. A status symbol, both for runners and trendsetters. “Something very representative of New Balance is its timelessness; it advances technologically, but without changing its classic essence, and that is key for it to always present as a part of the current trends,” says Santamaria.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition