Why the Grey New Balance Transcends Its Status as the Archetypal “Dad Shoe”

From 574s to 997s, it's the sneaker that never goes out of style

June 15, 2020 10:51 am
Why the Grey New Balance Transcends Its Status as the Archetypal “Dad Shoe”

A couple of months back I got to thinking: when I was a kid and every dad in my neighborhood was either a dedicated jogger or a wannabe who ran to the nearest Burger King, crushed a Whopper and told his family he did at least eight or nine miles, I swear every single one of them had the same pair of sneakers: grey New Balances.

Was I making this up? Was I permanently stuck on a mental loop of seeing my own father drenched in sweat, a promotional mesh hat on his head, in short running shorts and his ubiquitous pair of 574s? Obviously there were other sneakers that dads ran in during the Reagan era, right?

So I did what anybody does in 2020, and I went and asked thousands of strangers on the internet what sneaker they remembered their dad wearing the most. While there were a few Nikes and Reeboks in there, the winner by a wide margin was “grey New Balances.” Like by hundreds of answers. Not a specific number like the 990s, 995s or the 574s my dad wore, just grey. It is sort of the official color of New Balance.

574 Core

“Whenever we create a new product, or bring out a new version of a one, the grey will always be the first one we launch, and always be the one that we have available continuously during its life,” Brian Lynn, head of the New Balance Lifestyle design team, tells me. “Grey is at the heart of everything.”

Yet the grey running shoes, specifically those with the aforementioned numbers embroidered on them, have really transcended all things “dad” and “normcore,” staying hot among various crowds for decades. Just last year, in a new campaign to get more people excited about the 990s, the company highlighted that fact with an ad campaign that said the sneakers are “Worn by supermodels in London and dads in Ohio.” And when New Balance put the 992s back into the world earlier this year, the German retailer 43einhalb paid tribute to the shoe’s connection to the tech world by putting together a tribute to Steve Jobs’s signature minimalist style. The Apple founder’s favorite color New Balance? Yup. You guessed it.

Made in US 990v5

I have a few ways I like to wear them: usually with chinos or a pair of black Levi’s, the latter usually a part of my own homage to the classic Jobs look, when I want to look sleek but not like I’m trying too hard. They work pretty much any time of the year and are always the most durable sneaker in my collection. Right now, looking in my closet, I’ve got a pair of 574s I customized to add a little pink pop to them, and possibly one of my favorite pair of shoes I own: Made-in-USAa 990 Bringbacks. A truly perfect pair of sneakers, and one that I’m totally willing to blow close to $200 on. Nothing too fancy, yet people can’t miss them when they’re on your feet. You’re walking in a pair of American icons. They’re subtle, but also designed in a way that somehow always looks current.

Made in US 990 Bringbacks

And that’s the thing that gets me: the grey New Balance — I don’t care what number is attached to it — has staying power. The only other sneaker that I can think of that has had the ability to stick around as long and holds no allegiance to any one group of wearers is the black Converse Chuck Taylor. Yeah, Nike and Reebok have plenty of models they can rescue from the archive and spruce up to look more contemporary, but there is a cool-today, back-of-your-closet-tomorrow feel to many of those. With a pair of grey New Balances, they can be whatever you need them to be: a way to make any outfit feel less stuffy, or what you put on to go for a run, to Burger King or otherwise.

All I know is that grey New Balances have occupied my thoughts more than any other single sneaker. I’m fascinated in figuring out what keeps them working, and why, for at least the 40 years I’ve been on this planet, they’ve remained the archetypal simple statement shoe. People are loyal to this particular type of sneaker, in this particular color, because they know it will never go out of style. Not white, not black, not whatever colorway is in style at that moment, but grey — elegant, cool, neutral grey.

That’s why I always have a pair in my arsenal. And no matter what trends come and go, I always will.

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