• Made in the USA: Making the New Balance 1978

  • March 20th, 2017
  • News

Words by Gary Warnett. Images by Thomas Lindie

New Balance 1978

THE 990 CHANGED EVERYTHING

In the spring of 1978, New Balance started the process of creating a shoe that would push the boundaries of running shoe design. Released in 1982, the American-made 990 would break the bank via a wallet-bruising $100 price tag (£59.99 in the UK – roughly £148 in 2017 money). With its custom VibramFlex sole and striking motion control device at the heel, this silhouette altered the marketplace entirely, despite looks that appear downright conventional to a modern eye. The onetime most technically advanced running shoe ever made was an American-built masterpiece.

Here’s where things get a little confusing. Comprehending the different tiers of NB’s performance output is a numbers game. After debuting the 990 V2 in 1998 – repeating the name because 1996’s 999 had reached four digits – the series would become a favourite for a fan base that spanned dads, Steve Jobs, plus a dedicated street-level audience in Virginia, Philly, D.C. and Baltimore. Confusingly, the 991 appeared in 2001, the 992 in 2006 and the 993 in 2009, followed by the 990 V3 in 2012. Early last year, the 990 V4 appeared and it’s still a bestseller for the brand. The MADE 1978 is a deconstructed and American-made lifestyle proposition launching this month that taps into the 990’s legacy and embodies the “made” ethos.

While the 1978 seems simple, a trip to Boston and Maine to see the model being constructed (complete with a cameo from company owner Jim Davis), showcased how the shoe represents a far deeper narrative.

A QUICK HISTORY

British-born Boston-based businessman William J. Riley founded new Balance in 1906 as a manufacturer of arch supports and other supportive accessories. It made a tentative step into making American-made running shoes in the 1930s, but its Trackster shoe – released in the early 1960s – was acclaimed by its intended audience. One such fan was businessman and jogger Jim Davis who began thinking about the process of buying the company in 1971, before making the deal in 1972. Back then, New Balance shoes were primarily made in a garage by five workers in Watertown with an average output of 30 pairs of Tracksters per day. Under Davis and his team’s ownership, the brand would shift from its predominantly mail order mode of retail and introduce a matter-of-fact numerical naming system.

MADE IN THE USA

As evidenced by recent discussions, the topic of American-made elicits a lot of opinions. Some bigger brands will counter the notion by citing costs and covering themselves with talk of how many they employ in the country through distribution and retail, but who makes the premium product? There’s a tactile, comfortable reason why New Balance’s locally made silhouettes elicit the mania in connoisseurs that they do. Like its rivals, NB makes plenty of product in Asia too, but four million pairs of shoes made or assembled in the USA isn’t an insignificant figure.

Assembled and made need some clarification here though – assembled usually refers to a ready made upper (often made in Asia) attached to a sole (which is also usually made overseas), while made in the USA status is a factory-built shoe with no less than 70-percent domestic value. It’s easy to assume that the tongue foam and laces are shipped from faraway places, but finding out that laces are often made in Ohio and that foam was formed locally in Maine is a surprise. Companies support other American companies in the supply chain.

Jim Davis’ crusade to bolster the local economy is no pipe dream, but it was instigated at a time when athletic footwear was shifting from domestic manufacture entirely. Shoemaking has been a key industry in Massachusetts since the early 20th century, and rubber products were another significant output. New Balance’s Brighton and Lawrence Massachusetts factories opened in the early 1980s, with a factory in nearby (if you consider a three-hour drive from Boston nearby) Skowhegan, Maine opening in 1981, followed by a Norridgewock, Maine facility in 1982. Maine was home to Nike’s last US factory, which closed in the 1980s, and as the industry declined, New Balance found a skilled workforce in the region looking for jobs. The production line in Norway, Maine started rolling in 1997, completing the five factories the company currently runs in America.

New Balance made shoes in Ireland around 1978 and even operated a short-lived Ontario facility in the 1980s. On these shores, the introduction of a Workington factory in 1982 led to the 1991 opening of larger premises in nearby Maryport – the introduction of the much-loved Flimby era.

Seeing Jim appear on the factory floor was interesting. In most jobs, the boss’s presence has a tendency to give the staff a sudden shock and noticeable change in work ethic – regardless whether the associates had a heads up or not, their focus on the multiple tasks at hand before and after his meet, greet and wander down the line was largely unblinking.

JOE PRESTON (Executive Vice President, Global Product): “Most of them had been there 20 years so there’s probably no surprise in Jim walking in. We’ve always relied on our workers to work things out and do things better. Right now made in the USA or made in the UK is much more popular than it was ten or 15 years ago. It’s becoming more popular outside of our industry – everyone is talking about making stuff here and we’ve been making stuff here for decades. Jim started it out of principle and it really has become a part of who were are and it’s definitely pride that’s a piece of it as well as the craftsmanship that comes with it. But along the way, as jobs were fleeing the US, it was our factory associates that were finding ways to be more efficient and improve quality. That’s why, when you see Jim walk the line, nobody’s jumping because they’re the ones that are coming up with the answers. They’ve continually allowed us to make the next step in quality and efficiency.

When you make your product within a stones throw of your office there’s a big difference. You can see things quicker and you can understand how to make things better – how to improve materials and there’s nothing like seeing it. Seeing is believing. MADE is the reason. We make it.

We were in Maine last June for a community event with the factory workers and we were at a school repairing the whole outside of it. It was amazing working with the people from the factories – many of them had gone to that elementary school and their parents had gone to it too. That’s two generations of people working at New Balance. When you see that, there’s a sense of responsibility to create something that is enduring for the community.”

While the lion’s share of American-made product sells to audiences in the country that built it, a substantial audience in countries as far afield as Japan has maintained a steady demand for its output. Joe has his own ideas as to the reasons that appetite seems insatiable.

“My personal experience and personal take on this is that the authenticity is really important to that consumer and so is quality, so they see things that are real and appreciate that realness. With the made in the USA and UK, there is a premium nature that comes with it and a legacy that’s somewhat unique. You get into it and you can’t find a lot like that. Harajuku was, and still is, the place that sets trends.”

THE 1978’S UPPER

In the Norridgewock factory, an upstairs factory creates the 990 V4 largely by hands and at a speed that needs to be witnessed to be fully fathomed. It’s evident that the men and women putting the shoe together have become familiar with one of the key silhouettes in the company’s running rollout. On a production line downstairs – and appropriately parallel given the role the 990 plays in its design – the 1978 is being crafted, with its suede upper ultimately fastened to some pre-made sole units.

Suedes are carefully inspected for defects, brushed and cut. Smaller pieces are assembled and embroidered. Vamps are built, uppers are constructed, sewn around, and socks are closed around lasts. After the upper is formed it’s heated and pressed onto the sole. That hot melt process necessitates some fast hands, because an associate has around eight seconds to lay the sole and get it in the press. This of course, is a deeply oversimplified interpretation of a skilled process.

Heading up design direction, Brad Lacey went back to the absolute origins of classic New Balance shoes and history with deep research that resulted in a book entitled the Origins Project that’s Valhalla for any footwear geek. The downside? There are only 100 or so self-published copies and they’re for internal use only.

BRAD LACEY (Global Design Director): “The very first time making a shoe myself was – and I know this sounds cheesy – kind of spiritual, because you do this for 20 years and never get to jump in on it. You don’t realise as you direct things how complicated it is. So you think you’re doing really well at shoe school when you’re going down the line thinking you’re crushing it, thinking it’s so easy. But there’s this part of the process at the very end called closing. The most skilled people are down there on the floor. They turned me loose and let me run a freehand sewing machine down there and I really fucked up the shoe…pardon my French but it was completely mangled. This set me thinking about rethinking that complication. We began thinking about design for manufacturing – designing product specifically for how we make stuff today, not necessarily thinking about running faster and jumping higher, but thinking about lifestyle and craftsmanship.

I started looking at the legacy of the 990. That legacy of what it stands for is pretty special. So this guy Teddy Graham was the original developer and creator of that shoe and he’s still here, so I talked to him about it and he’s a funny guy anyway, but as he talked about it I got more interested in what the 990 is about.

This shoe didn’t take four years to make, but I wanted to think like they did in 1978 with no limits to technology and how we constructed the shoe. I wanted to pay respects to how they were working back then, using partnerships and really embracing technology. So the guys at Vibram were incredibly useful. They told me at a trade fair that they had this amazing new compound that’s more durable than pretty much everything else. The original 990 had this Super Flex compound. I thought about that as a new process. Then I asked what the most efficient shoe being made in the factory is right now and it was the 990 V1. I asked for all the parts and pieces of the V1 and I’d guess there were maybe 30 components. I laid it all out and was amazed at the level of complication in the shoe even though it looks so simple. I wondered what we could eliminate and simplify. It takes a different kind of craftsmanship on the 1978, like leather cutting. Matching the leathers and cutting it is incredibly important and difficult. Then there’s the perf patterning – we were looking at this new technology that can do these really intricate perf patterns, so I started playing with that. The original 990, including the side profile, inspires the whole outsole design. It’s pretty faithful to the original.

I started it two and a half years ago. It took a lot of work. It was about six or seven months before we got a good upper sample. The tooling went pretty quick. There was a lot of learning. One of the reasons I wanted to do this project was to learn. We’ve been known for a certain type of shoe for a long time, but how far can we take things forward? You’ll see a lot of that going forward – we’re never letting go of the legacy though. Quality is inherent in everything we do.”

THE 1978’S SOLE

Connoisseurs of boots and shoes alike know that Vibram means bonus quality. You’d also be forgiven for assuming that Vibram soles were stock designs imported in from overseas, given that it’s an Italian company. That’s not the case. Thanks to that tight company friendship, Vibram supplies the raw materials, while the 1978’s sole is made in Boston. Direct injected moulding is a science of high temperatures and stable shifts down to ambient temperatures that don’t shock the material.

With the brand cutting its teeth in injecting moulding with their excellent US military spec 950 running shoe (at time of writing, unavailable to the public), it’s a process that the place a substantial amount of trust in. To add rubber to the sole of the 1978 would create unnecessary wait, so the process – carefully honed alongside Vibram – allows for an all EVA unit.

A notice in the Brighton facility calls out the following stats for the 1978: 840 pair daily production, 140,000 yearly productions and a 15-step operation sequence. Just to reiterate that your shoe is in safe hands, it also makes a point of mentioning that the average tenure at NB of the associate at work is 20 years.

BRAD LACEY: “How can we get the highest US content in the product? Some of the sole units in our heritage products are really intricate. You strip ’em apart and there’s ten parts. Through a modern process, you don’t need that. Vibram was a huge partner and their trust in us to bring some engineering was amazing. They don’t do that for everyone.”

TIM LUKE (Manufacturing Innovation Manager): “Vibram has been a supplier and had a relationship with New Balance since the late ’70s. We’ve used them on many different products and many different experiences. That translated to the 1978. We really wanted to find an EVA material where we had a full contact to the ground phase to it. We had no need for additional rubber pieces that would prevent abrasion. Vibram could do that for us. We took the material and ran lab tests and trials with them. Then we were able to get a formula that could work for what we wanted – the marketing team wanted a sole that had a nice feel to it, so a lot of time EVA soles are light but have a really cushy feel. The 1978 sole is firm and really structured too – it had to have this sense of value and firmness that would give it that resistance. We can mould it and we can add some topcoat cements to it before sending it to the other factory to assemble. It’s been a great process that started about a year and a half ago with early conversations. As far as EVA moulding, that started a long time ago at this site and that started with other partnerships that we have within Asia and asking what the best equipment and mould vendors are for that process.

What happens with EVA is that you bring it in and it needs to expand. We build our mould to the specific expansion rate of the material and we work on that with Vibram. We bring in material that’s below and above that rate and we bring that together so that when we go through that process, the sole is the length that we need it to be. With EVA moulding you put it in a cavity that’s around 2/3 its size, then the machine opens it and it expands. It then goes through a stabilization tunnel that brings its temperature down in a controlled environment. To get the upper to bond, you need cement. We wash it, heat it up, add a primer then a second coat of cement to it. At that point in time it’s complete so it can be send to Norridgewock so it can be heated up and added to the complete upper. They’ll take the upper and this sole and put the sole and upper into a flash activator heating unit to activate the cement on both sides. They’ll sole press those together and match them up then place them into a press for a period of time.”

“We really wanted the Vibram name as part of the name. If they and New Balance want their name on a shoe, we’re all going to be very particular about it. We agreed with a handshake and we not only ran our own testing on the soles – not just destructive testing but also extensive wear testing to see how they perform in the field – Vibram also requested to be sent shoes to test themselves before they would say yes.

The [EVA] beads themselves are supplied by Vibram and they’re made in Asia. New Balance has a policy that to classify something as a made in the USA product it needs to be at least 70 percent made in the USA and the 1978 well exceeds that level. We continue to work with Vibram to adjust for that too.

We are buying a Vibram spec material we developed together. They approve it too. They’re based in Massachusetts down the road and we speak to them on a weekly basis so they know exactly how their name is being used.”

THE 1978’S COLOURWAYS

If the inaugural 1978 colourways seem familiar, it’s because they riff on the familiar neutral NB palettes.

BRAD LACEY: “The launch colours are inspired by the 730, 555 and 990 that were all around back in the day. The 730 was the most expensive shoe on sale at $70 when it launched, which was the highest price on the market. Jim Davis was getting all this flack from the sales guys, but we went on to sell a $100 shoe too – it wasn’t about the price but the quality. The 555 is my favourite trail shoe and I love that colourway. It was interesting in that time period – everything was blue and yellow from the German brands at the time, but this had these beautiful earth tones and that’s when things started crossing over. The grey of the original 990 and the 520 before it was there because it was considered the perfect colour for running in the city. They really thought things through.”

THE FUTURE

If the 990 was then and the 1978 is now, what was learnt through the process of making guides what comes next.

BRENDAN MELLY (Senior Director of Manufacturing): “Craftsmanship and quality continues to be the vision in terms of what we do. But it’s also important that we emphasis innovation and speed too. I think we can do both. We can’t lose that history but we’re also in a very mature market and we’re investing in the Boston area. The vision isn’t necessarily to compete with Asia in terms of numbers but to leverage innovation, whether that’s customization, personalization and things of that nature that differentiate but allow you to evolve.”

JOE PRESTON: “We have plans to significantly increase our USA and UK-made production. We see this as bridge product between lifestyle and performance. We use some elements from both and we think that we can bring in a new consumer that we haven’t been able to bring into the brand before. Along the way we will continue to drive authenticity and quality in our classics because the art of those shoes is so timeless.”

BRAD LACEY: “We’re looking to build on the 247 concept. We’re also looking to expand on the 574 legacy, also through a modern lens. There’s some historical stuff too – you’ll see some things from the Origins Project that informed it. There’s also a collaboration coming out later this year that’s the missing link in the 574 story. It’s pretty cool. We’ve got some good partners in Japan working on that one too.

There’s definitely a care and a process in the factory that stretches out the timeline. Our own timelines have changed pretty radically even while I’ve been here. It’s one of the toughest things about being a sneaker designer, but even the fastest guys are still nine months away – that’s pretty fast, but it’s not apparel, which is a lot quicker.

Part of my job is to write these mission statements for all categories and one thing we reinforce is that no designer gets to call what they make a future classic. Time will tell and it’s after years go by. It’s our goal and I tell my teams to imagine a designer 20 years down the line. You guys define that!”

Words by Gary Warnett. Images by Thomas Lindie