When Frank Muytjens, head of menswear design at J.Crew, visited Tokyo in 2009, he saw Japanese stores elevating New Balance sneakers to stylish wardrobe staples. “I saw that they took them from out of sportswear stores and put them into fashion stores, and they came up with new colorways that took it from active to street,” Muytjens said.
He had his eye on a pair of all-suede basil-green 1400s, but ended up leaving the country empty-handed. “I definitely wanted a pair, but I couldn’t get them because they only go up to size nine in Japan. So it was kind of born out of frustration, this whole collaboration with New Balance.” By 2010, J.Crew x New Balance first took shape, offering two colorways of the 1400 model, Muytjen’s dark green and a classic navy blue.
The minimal aesthetic of New Balance’s sneakers complemented J.Crew’s line of up-to-date classic menswear. “I always liked New Balance because they were understated and more under the radar than other, more flashy sneaker brands,” Muytjens said. The quintessential New Balance silhouettes, from the 574 to the 1500, are designs from the 1980s, and over the years, the company has only updated the colorways and materials. “The shape doesn’t change, the designs don’t change, they just tweak them here and there to update them and keep them relevant,” Muytjens said. “I feel that’s what menswear is about.”
Founded in 1906 as the New Balance Arch Support Company, the brand mainly sold supports until 1960, when it manufactured the world’s first ripple sole running shoe in 1960. In 1972, the current chairman of New Balance, Jim Davis, bought the company, and with only six associates working to build shoes, began to lay the framework for a manufacturing network in the Northeast. Now, there are three factories in Maine (Norridgewock, Skowhegan, and Norway), a plant in Boston and another in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Though New Balance also has factories across the world, the J.Crew collaboration manufacturing stays close to home.
New Balance’s Made in the USA lifestyle shoes are manufactured at the Skowhegan, Maine factory, an hour-and-a-half drive northeast from Portland. Opened in 1981, the four-story brick factory sits back from the main road near the entrance of town. The factory employs 285 associates from the surrounding area for a single shift from 6:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Skowhegan is surrounded by open land, and relies on New Balance as a cornerstone of its economy. As many shoe factories in the Northeast closed down and production moved overseas in the ‘90s, New Balance stayed put and continued their investment in shoemaking in rural Maine.