How The New Balance 992 Became An Unlikely Sneaker Icon
New Balance 992 original, 2006. Photograph courtesy of New Balance
In an oversaturated market, where endless collaborations and hyped new colourways seem to drop every week, few sneakers manage to stand the test of time. New Balance and it’s unassuming line-up of sneakers, specifically the 99X, is one of the exceptions.
The 99X series debuted in 1982 and the inaugural model, the 990, was considered a game-changer. The silhouette was driven by the desire to offer the best of the best. Combining comfort and fit with some serious tech, New Balance hoped the shoe would appeal to the expanding market of runners in the US. But change was afoot in the 1980s – and we’re not just talking about the jogging boom. Dress codes were becoming more relaxed and people needed sneakers that would work with casualwear. The $100 price tag, which made the New Balance 990 the most expensive athletic sneaker at the time, also made it a bona fide status symbol, which was coveted by runners and proto-sneakerheads alike.
“The 990’s impact in 1982 can still be seen today,” says Mr Sam Pearce, creative design manager at New Balance. “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.”
The 99X series was undoubtedly ahead of its time when it made its debut, but it truly found its footing almost two decades later in 2001, when normcore icon Mr Steve Jobs adopted the grey New Balance 991 as part of his pared-down tech god uniform. Then in 2007, Jobs took to the Apple keynote stage to unveil a product that changed many of our lives for ever, the iPhone, in a pair of New Balance 992s. A new era of tech, and the non-ironic dad shoe phenomenon, was born.
The 992 quickly became Jobs’ favourite sneaker. Rumour has it the Apple boss even had a hand in the model’s early design, reportedly sharing a sketch of his ideal sneaker with New Balance chairman Mr Jim Davis. Is there any truth to those whispers? We’ll likely remain in the dark on that mystery, but it was those all-important details that made its release so significant: the classic upper (a subtle, sportier evolution of the 991’s), the innovative Abzorb SBS shock absorption technology, which took three years to produce, in the heel, forefoot and insole, and the signature “Made in the USA” manufacturing. It was the most expensive 99X model to when it debuted in 2006 and it was loved by collectors and dads until it was discontinued in 2010.
Early concept designs by Mr Jonathan Bacon, 2004. Image courtesy of New Balance
The 992 began to creep back into our consciousness in 2020. As the only model from the 99X series yet to enjoy a retro re-release, it was perhaps just a case of when. But don’t call it a comeback. Its return felt organic and authentic. It wasn’t a clever marketing ploy designed to piggyback off the success of New Balance’s recent 990s. Nor was it accompanied by a flashy relaunch campaign or big-budget social media push. It hadn’t even completely disappeared; it was just quietly waiting for the right time to re-emerge and, with sneakers now a fixture mainstream fashion, 2020 was the perfect moment. “As the last pairs from 2006 started to crumble away, there was a real appetite to see this one return,” says Pearce, who played a part in bringing it back.
The updated iteration stayed true to the 2006 original, but there were a few small differences in its construction (a lot can happen in sneaker tech in 14 years). Most notably, the Abzorb insole was swapped for an OrthoLite sock liner without impacting overall quality. “We treated this shoe with the utmost respect and built the model to be exactly as the original,” says Pearce. “This is something our Domestically Made platform is most proud of. Build quality and material spec will never be compromised.”
Ms Ida Broen, a creative consultant and New Balance collector, claims the 992 is among some of the most comfortable shoes she owns. “You can feel the difference from other models when it comes to the technical details, such as the sole, leather quality and stability,” she says. I’m inclined to agree. The arch support, soft lining, padded heel collar and cushioned insole hug your foot in a way that few other shoes can. The 992 epitomises New Balance’s core values: unparalleled comfort and fit, authentic American craftsmanship and universal appeal.
“The 992 epitomises New Balance’s core values: unparalleled comfort and fit, authentic American craftsmanship and universal appeal”
There’s no better way to announce the resurrection of a classic than by lining up a slew of collaborations. The New Balance 992 has been reinterpreted through partnerships with streetwear doyens Kith, WTAPS and Mr Justin Saunders’ digital mood board turned design studio, JJJJound. The first to put his spin on the reissue, however, was Chicago native Mr Joe “Freshgoods” Robinson. “Where I grew up, we didn’t wear New Balance. It was the home of Michael Jordan, the Bulls. I didn’t start getting into New Balance until I got a little bit older. I was one of those people that was like, ‘Oh my god, all these shoes look the same,’” he says, referencing New Balance’s reputation for grey-on-grey design. “I didn’t really have the knowledge about the numbers and the different series. The reason why my approach was so different was because I didn’t know that much about the New Balance history, so I was able to attack it from a different lens.”
Robinson’s take on the 992, dubbed No Emotions Are Emotions, was in stark contrast to those indistinguishable greyscale trainers he was familiar with. “The goal was for you to step back and see this shoe from far away,” he says. “I love when you can tell what somebody has on from a mile away.” Inspired by the anatomy of the heart, they featured a deep purple mesh offset by panels of suede in varying reddish hues, from light pink to blood red (unlike another notable recent release, they contain no bodily fluids). They came complete with an optional set of blue laces, inspired by veins (we reiterate, there’s no blood in these shoes).
New Balance x JJJJound 992 Green, 2020. Photograph courtesy of New Balance
The Joe Freshgoods X New Balance 992 collab was released during the 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend, a sporting bonanza that’s marked by sought-after sneaker releases from brands such as adidas and Nike. This time, though, it was New Balance that won the heart of the Windy City. Hundreds of people queued to secure their pair, despite the -25°C temperatures. “My ultimate goal, which was proven successful, was to have my city line up for New Balances,” says Robinson. “I wasn’t trying to appease New Balance nerds. I was trying to bring people like me, who weren’t particularly into New Balance, over to New Balance.”
The impact of this collaboration set the pace for the New Balance 992’s reentry into the sneaker world, one that’s advanced substantially since its 2006 premiere. “Success is a double header with any release,” says Pearce. “As well as being a great design, timing is just as important and the 992 hit on both.” It’s the 99X series’ legacy, which has evolved over nearly four decades, that’s laid the foundations for the 992 to become a true sneaker anomaly: a past, present and future classic.
“New Balance has such a strong brand identity because it’s for everyone,” says Broen. “From the classic grey to all the new releases, it’s something both men and women can wear because of the timeless design and colour palettes.”
The 992 is accessible and easy to wear. It transcends trends and gender norms and it’s cooler than it thinks it is. If the 992 were a person, it would be that edgy, yet approachable kid who’s just moved to your school and always has a well-thumbed copy of some Mr Jack Kerouac or Mr Kurt Vonnegut book in their hand. They know all the answers, but won’t put their hand up in class to reveal them. They don’t need to. The 992 is endorsed by no one, so it can be loved and worn by anyone.
“To me, it’s the grey shoe,” says Robinson. “Out of all the grey shoes and grey hues that New Balance does, it’s the grey shoe. It’s like its white Air Force 1.”