“Worn by supermodels in London and Dads in Ohio” was the motto to introduce New Balance’s fifth iteration of the 990 shoe in 2019. As the advertising alludes to, the 990 has become a very popular shoe in the fashion world, worn on the runway for Commes Des Garçon’s 2018 show during Paris Fashion Week. Every trend that spreads around the world has a place of origin that births its hype, and for the 990 that place is the DMV, specifically Washington D.C. Most people associate New Balance 990s as being unremarkable and mundane, but in the DMV, the shoe was a medal of prosperity and wealth. To learn more about the sneaker’s popularity in Washington D.C., it is important to understand the history of the New Balance 990 and how it even came to be in the first place.
History of the New Balance 990
Deeply rooted in New Balance’s history is how it prides itself on perfecting the craft of creating athletic goods. The Boston-based brand, started in 1936, only had six employees making close to 20 pairs a day through 1972. Since the brand started, they put running at the forefront, and each shoe was strictly sourced and manufactured on American soil to ensure that quality was never forfeited. It was this meticulous attention to craftsmanship and performance that has helped New Balance amass its strong following in the 70s and 80s, especially during a time when running sports were becoming extremely popular.
Jogging was becoming more of a recreational activity than regular weight lifting and that led to a rise of running products from brands. A few of today’s big names in the footwear, ASICS, Puma and Reebok, all added their shoes to the jogging market, but none could top New Balance at that time. To top things off, New Balance introduced their 320 model in 1976 and was voted the best shoe in the market by Runner’s World magazine that same year. New Balance was on everyone’s radar and to capitalize on its achievements, they needed to create the very best running sneaker in the market.
Come the 1980s, mass production was at an all-time high in the United States, making up about 30% global manufacturing. With the high volume of mass production, products like sneakers suffered from lower quality even when more were being produced than ever before. As personal health and fitness fads were trending across the country, the market’s demand for more athletic-wear reached its peak. As shoes were manufactured quickly and sold cheaply to answer the call, New Balance went against the grain and introduced a new model that didn’t skimp on quality.
In 1982, New Balance introduced the 990, a premium runner entirely manufactured in the United States. The shoe featured plush suede and leather details throughout in the classic New Balance grey motif, but it also came with a price tag of $100, making it the first sneaker to ever reach the three-figure price point. It was a risky move for an era so used to a cheap sneaker, but that didn’t stop it from being a hit, especially from an unexpected group.
New Balance Meets DMV
In 1986, the First Lady of the United States, Nancy Reagan, gave her infamous speech in support of the War on Drugs. “Just say no” she said to millions of Americans on live television. The crack-cocaine epidemic was running rampant throughout a country that was, ironically, also focused on fitness more than ever. Lower income communities on the East Coast were affected by the epidemic harder, due to lack of resources and the effects of increased police brutality. The drug wave brought on fast cash and new socioeconomic forces to these deprived areas, turning dopeboys and hustlers into role models and superstars.
As drug dealers from the trade pocketed huge profits, they spent their fortune on developing their own sense of style. Some places had a taste for flashier clothing, like New York City, and their affinity for custom Gucci pieces from local Harlem designer Dapper Dan. But in D.C., gangsters went for a more subtle approach.
To stay as under the radar as possible from law enforcement, dealers from D.C. wore neutral colors top to bottom. Logos from high-end brands like Hugo Boss, Versace, and Giorgio Armani would be donned on black tees and pants. And the shoes to accompany them were the New Balance 990s. In an interview with Sneaker Freaker, Curtis ‘Curtbone’ Chambers, a D.C. native who was a member of the violent Rayful Edmond gang from the 1980s, spoke about the gang’s love for the 990 sneaker. “Back in our time, we liked the blacks and greys. So with the New Balance being the greys, it went with everything we was doing,” says Chambers. “We’ve always been into designers, but we weren’t into the loud colours…New Balance fit that also – it was our code”. The sneaker fit into the low-key demeanor that D.C. hustlers were looking for; the most expensive shoe to date that was a basic color and comfortable to wear while standing long hours on the street.
In an interview with StockX, Ian Callender, a notable figure in the DMV’s growing sneaker community and co-founder of Culture House D.C., notes the impact the 990 had on the community while growing up around the time of the sneaker’s release. “It was an out-the-gate desirable back in the day… like the original status shoe that aligned you with money” recalls Callender. “I’d often see all the D-Boys rocking ‘em, so when I got older I always wanted to cop,” says Callender. The shoes evolved from a basic running sneaker to an aspirational object as the streets created icons out of the New Balance runner. It fit the bill for hustlers in the DMV, and being a $100 shoe in the same market as lower priced kicks made it an instant status symbol. This help develop the New Balance 990’s history into something richer than just for sport.
The New Balance 990s Today
There are only a handful of shoes that have withstood the constantly changing trends within fashion, and for New Balance to have the 990 still be relevant in over 40 years proves the shoe has real staying power. In 2019, New Balance released their fifth iteration of the 990 model as the shoe has grown popular within the sneaker and streetwear scenes. Even today’s top charting rappers speak highly of the shoe. On an episode of Sneaker Shopping, Meek Mill said how it’s important to “keep a fresh pair” of New Balance 990s, and Lil Uzi Vert has appeared publicly wearing the “dad shoe” while performing on stage. Outside of the rapper fandom, the New Balance 990 has made street style appearances on the feet of tastemakers during fashion week in New York City and London.
Despite its growing favorability around the world, it is important to understand the foundation made by D.C. street culture allowing it to thrive for all these years. New Balance constantly pays homage to the DMV for uplifting the shoe since its 1982 release, tapping local sneaker boutiques like YCMC and DTLR for collaborations on 990v4s and v5s. The DMV can be thanked for bringing to light the versatility of the once running-centric sneaker and further evolving the history of New Balance as a whole. Without D.C.’s appreciation for subtle fashion, maybe the 990 would only stay as a shoe for dads in Ohio and not for supermodels in London.