With a history dating back to 1906, New Balance certainly knows what’s what when it comes to footwear. Despite continued success since its inception, it’s only recently that the Boston-based brand has managed to break through the ‘dad sneaker’ stigma it found itself aligned with. Now, the footwear company has made it large on the world’s biggest social media platforms and become a hit with influencers and celebrities from across the globe. First designed by Steven Smith in 1989, the New Balance 550 has been around longer than you probably first thought, but it wasn’t until 2020 that the sneaker saw phenomenal uplift and success.
Before the New Balance 550 came into play, NB had already been making shoes for over 80 years. Founded by an English immigrant in Boston, Massachusetts, the New Balance Arch Support Company made its debut by providing comfort and support - two of New Balance’s main priorities still to this day - in the form of orthopaedic footwear. It wasn’t until 1938 that New Balance released their first running shoe. Constructed from a crepe sole and kangaroo leather, this performance-driven trainer allowed the company to change direction and make that all-important move into the sports sphere. Having made an impact in running clubs right across Boston, in 1941 the brand expanded into tennis, boxing and baseball - and yet, still no basketball to be seen despite the sport’s success at the olympics in the five years prior.
Fast forward to 1983: New Balance finally decided to take the plunge onto the b-ball court. Making their debut with the New Balance 480 (a shoe that would now more closely resemble the New Balance 650), the brand originally received complaints that the lack of perforations on the all-leather upper made for one sweaty sneaker. By the time the New Balance 550 rolled around six years later as the P550 Basketball Oxford, the 480 was practically non-existent, but New Balance made sure to put into action changes to the silhouette that ensured the same mistakes weren’t going to be made again.
Constructed from a mixture of mesh and leather, the 550 boasted perforations across the upper which allowed for enhanced breathability; something that had been missing before. Retailing for a cool $45, the New Balance 550 seemed set to be a big hit, but despite attempting to make a statement in the basketball scene for a few years now, the Boston-based brand didn’t have the same technology and high-profile offering that other competitor brands had at the same time. They even released the high-top New Balance 650 the same year. Both styles adopted the large ‘N’ logo on the medial and lateral sidewalls that was first seen on New Balance 320 in 1976, 13 years earlier. Neither broke the boundaries New Balance expected; but boy, if only they knew what was to come 37 years later…
Teddy Santis & Aimé Leon Dore
Until the turn of the decade, the New Balance 550 and 650 hadn’t been seen since the early ‘90s. In late 2020, Teddy Santis, founder of the New York-based brand Aimé Leon Dore, stumbled across an old New Balance catalogue. Within said catalogue was a picture of the original 550 sneakers from the ‘80s. With ALD always balancing the line between athleticism and fashion (Santis is a big basketball fan), the P550 Basketball Oxfords presented themselves as an intriguing opportunity for the two brands. The style of the sneaker was perfect for the direction Aimé Leon Dore were interested in reviving for the 21st century.
That being said, aside from this snippet in the vintage catalogue, the ALD team had no way of finding out more information. Luckily for the Santis, Japanese catalogues are super detailed, and after trawling through Instagram hashtags, they managed to find a collector with an original pair, Joe Grondin - Senior Manager of Global Communications at New Balance - revealed in an interview with Sneaker Freaker. In an effort to stick with the original design, Grondin shared how meticulous Santis was throughout the design process:
“He’s so particular about shape, so everything took us at least eight to ten revisions. We were adjusting millimetres here and there just to get it right."
Santis wanted his next collaboration with New Balance to be the most authentic yet. Having had intense success with the 827, 990v2 and 1300 models, there was a lot of pressure to get the next move just right. By taking on the vintage, aged aesthetic that’s now synonymous with the New Balance x ALD partnership, the 550 took on the weight of the original design whilst injecting it with a modern-day twist. In October 2020, the next Aimé Leon Dore x New Balance collaboration was unveiled with a full-page advertisement in the New York Times. Quite a statement. In a collection labelled ‘International Friendship Through Basketball’, part one of the New Balance 550 revival with the 2014-born lifestyle brand saw the release of four new colourways, so true to the ‘80s pairs that they could have been relics: green, grey, navy, and red. Taking to Instagram, Santis shared the following:
“Reintroducing the P550 Basketball Oxfords. They were originally released in 1989 and haven’t been touched since. The silhouette has been something of an enigma - almost impossible to find information on it."
A renowned success, six months later the partnership released the second chapter of their collection; two more pairs that paid homage to the original ones. The “Green/Yellow” iteration of this second drop has to be the most popular of the ALD x 550s, with the “Red/Navy” colourway mixing up the similarly hued iteration that had been seen previously.
In the same year, ALD remastered the retro New Balance 650R. The high-top basketball shoe was approached in the same manner as the 550. Whilst sticking as true to the original design as possible, Santis was able put his own spin on the silhouette by translating the vintage feel onto the sneaker. The ‘N’ logo came in that ALD-special material, same as the 550s, and three iterations dropped in green, navy and grey - similar to the first 550s that dropped ten months earlier.
New Balance obviously noticed the impact ALD’s founder was having on their brand. In early April of 2021, Teddy Santis was appointed as New Balance’s Creative Director of the MADE in USA branch of their brand. Breaking the news on Instagram, Santis shared that he was “beyond proud, honoured and humbled”.
When talking to SoleSavy, Product Lead for the 550 at New Balance, Paul Kaseumsouk, shared that thanks to the ALD partnership, the New Balance 550 is now their ‘future icon’:
“It’s gonna help diversify our portfolio and flex that other arm we have. I think it brings a different perspective, a different consumer, a different aesthetic, and we’re proud of that.”
For 2022, we can look forward to fresh New Balance 550 colourways coming as part of the next ALD x New Balance collection. Revealed to be releasing in “Mocha”, “Olive” and “Dark Purple”, the three pairs will add an extra dimension to the 550 line-up whilst remaining true to the retro aesthetic we expect from the Queens-born brand.
Since Santis reintroduced the New Balance 550 to the world, many brands have jumped on the bandwagon and put their own stamp on the failed basketball sneaker. Japanese brand AURALEE released a monochromatic, off-white version of the low-top sneaker, whilst UK-based retailer size? decorated their edition with bright-orange accents. It has since been revealed that the sneaker store will also be releasing a trio dressed in CORDURA® fabric, taking on much more earthy tones than the previous release. Agent to LeBron James, Rich Paul’s collaboration with the Boston-based brand took inspiration from the previous ALD collaborations by adopting the same vintage tones. Often seen on influencer and one half of The Girls Bathroom podcast, Cinzia, the Rich Paul 550 saw classic colour-blocking updated with blue and yellow hues, perfect for summer dressing and a giant step towards the 550 becoming the ‘influencer sneaker’ for 2022.
In the future, we can look forward to Comme des Garçons Homme x New Balance 550 releases in both black and white colourways as part of their Autumn Winter ‘22 collection. It has also been rumoured that Joe Freshgoods would also be releasing a New Balance 550 to add to his extensive collection of New Balance after posting a tweet that hinted at a future collaboration, but nothing has been confirmed so far.
From layups to loungewear, the New Balance 550 has made a name for itself not from hitting it off on the hardwood, but from its virality on social media. It’s almost impossible to scroll through your Instagram feed and not see an influencer styling the 550 to within an inch of its life. Now branded the ‘it’ shoe of 2022, the New Balance 550 makes a tidy profit on secondary resale sites, regardless of whether they’re a collaborative pair or not. They often sell for triple their retail price, with smaller sizes being particularly difficult to get hold of. The New Balance 550 x AURALEE is currently the highest price-wise of the 550 roster, presumably thanks to its neutral, easy-to-style colour palette.
Hailey Bieber has also been spotted sporting New Balance 550s on the regular. Her laidback, effortless looks are textbook styling ideas for the 550 - one that has been adopted far and wide by those who spend an admirable amount of time on Instagram and TikTok. By releasing more mainstream colourways, such as the “Cafe Au Lait” and “Light Pink” iterations that took the world by storm in the early part of 2022 definitely account for the silhouette’s popularity.
When looking at search trends, it’s apparent that the sneaker’s popularity has skyrocketed not since its rebirth in 2020, but only really in the last year. When looking at monthly search volume from the early part of 2021 to the same date in 2022, you’ll learn that queries containing or surrounding the New Balance 550 have risen 1327%, making it the most searched for New Balance silhouette at present. If that’s not the definition of ‘having a moment’, who knows what is?
It’s almost impossible to scroll through your Instagram or Tiktok feed without being bombarded by fresh New Balance 550 colourways that have emerged or a flurry of content creators showing you the best way to style your lifestyle sneakers. However, with all things that are popular, there's a reason behind this. With the general interest in sneakers moving rapidly from what used to be a very niche collectors’ hobby, to a much more widely appreciated, cultural phenomenon, the New Balance 550 is a silhouette that looks back at the past; celebrates (and stands for) not only the sneaker sphere, but streetwear and fashion; and, perhaps most importantly of all, is straight-forward in its design and easy to wear (much like Nike’s beloved Air Force 1). It’s no wonder every man and his dog has a pair! Yet, this is not something to be mocked or disregarded, but recognised and applauded. The New Balance 550 made it from nothing to something in a very small space of time; not many silhouettes can claim the same.
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