There was a time — really, not very long ago — when New Balance still felt like an “if you know, you know” brand, largely overlooked by most sneakerheads. Yet over the last 24 months, in particular, its position within sneaker culture has exploded, as styles reach astronomical prices on the resale market, and pretty much every release meets universal acclaim.
As we acknowledged in our end-of-2020 recap, its rise is down to a host of factors: a smart yet reverent approach to the archives, an embrace of nostalgia towards the brand’s ‘70s and ‘90s eras, and a rare restraint with design. Yet beyond that, its canny approach to collaborations has undeniably been the strongest force in its upward momentum. Drawing from a highly diverse roster of partners, New Balance has managed to achieve a rare thing in sneaker culture: maintaining a constant sense of newness without giving in to gimmicks.
“When you show consumers something that they haven’t seen before, it’s more impactful than partnering with a brand that they’ve been seeing on their feed for the past ten years”.
So what’s the formula? To better understand, HYPEBEAST joined Joe Grondin, New Balance’s senior manager of global collaborations, for a live-streamed discussion hosted by thegoodlife. Dubai, and in line with the launch of our dedicated Middle East Instagram channel, HYPEBEAST Arabia.
“It’s been a crazy shift,” says Grondin, who founded the brand’s collaborations department from scratch four years ago. “When we started, we had pretty much no budget, so we needed to start really small. Some of the first projects, like the first Stray Rats 990 or the first Aries project, were like 100-200 pairs.
“Now we’re seeing not only the volume of these projects go up, and the recognition go up, but our whole in-line business, too. We can’t supply the demand that we have right now. It’s a champagne problem, for sure.”
New Balances’ cast of collaborators is an unusual mix, comprising everyone from Joe Freshgoods to Jaden Smith. Grondin can’t identify exactly what unites them all, but insists that focus groups and agencies play no part in the selection process. “It’s hard to pinpoint that thing,” he says. “We’re just trying to occupy as many subcultures as possible, and picking the most authentic brands to do that. Every brand occupies their own space, so there’s not much overlap.”
But as the renown (and resale value) of the collabs has grown, so has the number of pitches from interested parties. “We’re getting approached by some of the biggest brands in the world right now,” says Grondin. “Obviously, we’re taking some of those opportunities, but we pride ourselves on being a springboard for creatives.”
“And besides,” he adds, “When you’re able to show consumers something that they haven’t seen before, it’s often more impactful than partnering with a brand that they’ve been seeing on their feed for the past ten years. That discovery element is a massive part of our strategy.”
Complementing that — and in stark contrast to many of New Balance’s more corporate competitors — is the level of creative autonomy given to collaborative partners. Grondin insists that they have never forced a certain model onto any creator, instead allowing the pairings to manifest organically. It’s a rare stance.
“We can’t supply the demand that we have right now. It’s a champagne problem, for sure”
“It’s somewhere that a lot of our competitors have fallen down,” he says. “Often, there’s a big push from senior leadership: like, ‘this is the big bring-back model this year, we need to get our partners on it.’ And they’ll throw a load of money at it, to try to make it cool. But the consumer can see right through that.”
He cites the Salehe Bembury 2002R as an example of New Balance’s different approach. “We just know we wanted to work with him,” he says. “We gave him a bunch of options, and we landed on the 2002 kind of randomly, to be honest.” Yet once they had agreed on the style, the brand fully committed to it, making Bembury the launch partner for the model, and giving him total creative freedom to interpret the design and rollout of the sneaker. It’s perhaps unsurprising that, in anecdotal conversations between footwear designers and HYPEBEAST editors, New Balance is so consistently named as an ideal collaborative partner.
The lack of corporate involvement, and endless rounds of stakeholder sign-off, has also given the brand a nimbleness with which it can outflank its slow-moving competitors. The Casablanca link-up, for instance, came about after Grondin spotted the brand’s posters during Paris Fashion Week in 2019. “I had no idea who they were at the time,” he recalls, “But I thought their aesthetic was so fresh, like a new-wave Gucci.” Within days, Grondin was pitching the collaboration to Casablanca’s founder, Charaf Tajer, via Instagram DM.
“That’s our selling point,” says Grondin. “If we want to do something, there’s not really any levels of approval. I’m not having to pitch it to someone [internally], because they trust me by this point.”
Maintaining that sense of spontaneity and creative freedom will be a challenge for the brand as it continues to become one of the most hotly-watched collaborative platforms. But Grondin isn’t concerned. “We’re launching Stone Island in a couple of months — I think people are gonna be really surprised by how we approached that,” he says. “Our design team is the best it’s ever been.”
Besides, their MO is pretty simple, too: as Grondin puts it, “we’re striving to be the sportswear brand with the best taste level.”