In our latest exclusive interview, CounterKicks talks with Luis Navarro, Product Manager for Men’s Lifestyle at New Balance. Luis reveals how the well-known 574 shoe was created from scraps, explains what the 574 means to New Balance, tells us why ‘Grey is beautiful,’ explains why the conservative-looking 990 series maintains its appeal in a market of busy designs, and discusses why New Balance’s U.S. factories are so important to the company and its workers. Continue reading for the in-depth scoop…
CounterKicks: What is the backstory to the New Balance 574? Is it true that the shoe was created from scraps from New Balance 576 production?
Navarro: That is very, very true. It’s a silhouette that’s basically a derivative of our 576 which is currently made in the U.K. The 574 has been made in China and also in the U.S.A. for several years. The ‘Made in The U.S.A.’ is more of an exclusive type of project, being a little bit more premium than the everyday version that we carry from our Asian factories.
We had some leftover material from 576. We needed to create something that we could sell in the U.S., so we took the material and we created the 574. It became a huge hit in the U.S. The original material was made with PVC, and we are a PVC-free company. For Q1 2010, we’re going to reintroduce the 574 with key independents, reintroducing it with a material that pays homage to the original material. We did a lot of work developing a new material that would resemble the look and the textures and the feel of that original material for this re-launch.
CK: Was there a specific designer for 574?
Navarro: I believe at the time it was a group effort in that it was a slight pattern revision. If you put the two side by side – the 576 and the 574 – you will notice little minor details between the two. I’m often confusing one with the other. Side by side, you can easily confuse a 574 for a 576. The only thing that’s uniquely different would be the bottom unit that’s on the 576. It’s a full-molded unit as opposed to an ENCAP and die-cut EVA unit on the 574.
CK: In a recent press release, New Balance stated that the 574 is the shoe it is most proud of. What makes the 574 a special shoe for New Balance?
Navarro: Yeah. The 574 was a key model in the late 90s/early 2000s for the company. Being able to succeed and be where we are today, the 574 is a strong part of our heritage and our history. That’s why it’s definitely a signature shoe for the company. We hold it with the most pride that we possibly can. It’s a perfect demonstration of our core values at New Balance of heritage and craftsmanship and innovation and imagination.
We had to imagine what would it be to have a more comfortable, more breathable shoe in the 574. It touches on how long we’ve carried this silhouette and also it’s a true representation of tip saddle foxing construction, which is very New Balance. One of the first things I learned when I came here about a year ago was the nomenclature for our parts, and tip saddle foxing was like the first thing I learned when I stepped foot in New Balance. What that is is the basic design architecture of the shoe. There was a lot of work put into the re-engineering story but prior to that, there was a lot of work put in on the 574 to make it what it had been for years. This shoe started out as a stability shoe, believe it or not, when it first introduced in the mid-90s. It was board lasted. At its time, it was everything that you would need for a standard running shoe in the industry.
Today, it holds more of a lifestyle application, however, it was born in performance and lives in lifestyle. We look at it as an opportunity when we re-engineered it to say ’You know what? If we [New Balance Lifestyle] were a true performance team, what will we possibly do to it to make it feel like a performance running shoe?’ Some of the things that we did on the re-engineering definitely hold that belief.
CK: New Balance has stated that “Grey is beautiful.” What is it about the color grey that is so important to the company? It seems to be New Balance’s signature colorway.
Navarro: For us, we look at it from an artistic and design look. It’s part white, part black. It doesn’t really stand out, so that it allows you to. That’s basically where we are as New Balance. We’re not going to be the showy brand. We’re going to be the brand that allows you to be you. We look at consumers right now, consumers that all have their own self-identity and self-image. They’re not trying to be anyone in particular. New Balance is definitely one of the brands out there that allows you to be you and no one else. That’s why, I think, when we look at the color grey, the color grey goes with a lot of things that are lifestyle-relative. It goes well with denim but it goes well with a pair of khakis. It’s the ultimate casual color. It lets your personality stand out more than your shoes.
CK: What was the motivation for coming up with the 574 Clips Collection?
Navarro: Clips Collection was a true representation that at New Balance Lifestyle we believe that ‘Grey is beautiful’, and that we can cheat with some color here and there. The whole thing on the Clips was bringing a premium project, available to some select retailers in the U.S. and utilizing some of the more premium materials that you would see on the New Balance 993 or 996. We had some leftover material that would otherwise go bad if we didn’t use it within an amount of time and we were like ‘You know, this is a great opportunity to not only be cognizant of waste and also the environment but also come up with a really fun and cool idea with the Clips program.’
Our agency, Mother, came up with the idea of Clips. Before that, we were throwing a name out there like Snippets, and Snippets was based off of the pieces of the materials that we were gathering from different shoes and then Mother kind of said ‘Let’s make it into ‘Clips’’. Then they came up with the whole movie concept and the short film concept, and put a huge marketing campaign behind this. Some of the reactions we’ve received from retailers that carry the product because they were required to buy all four colorways was that consumers were coming and seeing the project and totally buying into the marketing concept of the short films and Polaroids. But at the end of the day, the shoes were very wearable in that the colors that we picked matched up with something in everyone’s wardrobe. So it was a win-win. The product was right, the marketing campaign was right, and it generated a huge buzz for the 574 which we had just re-launched in the U.S. about a month or so before that. It’s generated a ton of hype and excitement.
A lot of companies struggle with taking an iconic classic and making it better. What we’ve done is that we’ve looked at every touch point within the shoe and have enhanced that experience for the consumer. We went to a more eco-friendly pairing on the suede so that we’re more environmentally-conscious on that side. We’ve reduced the amount of adhesives and backers that are used on the construction of the shoe which ultimately reduces the amount of pollutants in the air and also in the water. We’ve added a layer of Abzorb in the footbed, which is something that we took from our NBx line. So we’re instilling some of our performance features to enhance the experience of our consumer. We’ve also added an anti-microbial footbed – again, something from our NBx line. We reduced the durometers on our ENCAP, our EVA, and our rubber outsoles. That ultimately gives the consumer a softer ride.
We also looked at some of our more premium executions. We looked at different lining packages as soft touch points. A lot of these changes were made to our base model, which is the $60 version. The overall weight and the overall look of the shoe has changed. The weight has definitely gone down. The look of the shoe actually looks sleeker and more modern but yet it’s still the 574. When we’ve taken it out to our key 574 markets, kids still respond to it as the iconic New Balance classic. We’re very, very anxiously awaiting the re-launch of the re-engineered 574 in the U.S in Q1 2010. We believe that we’re going to have the core consumer that bought it year in and year out, and they’re going to be happy with the noticeable differences. Any new consumers are going to be from the changes that we’ve made. Basically, we’re providing the ultimate in comfort in a classic, retro jogger.
CK: The 990 series’ aesthetics are relatively conservative compared to many models on the market today with significantly busier upper designs. Nevertheless, the 990 series is an established, popular runner with a particularly passionate following. Can you explain why the 990 series maintains its appeal?
Navarro: The 990 series is an interesting series of shoes as you look at the rest of the running line. It sits in our performance category. And so, when you look at the shoe, you’ll notice that it definitely embodies a lot of the core values, the core technologies that our performance team is all about. But then you look at the materials that are on the shoe and it blends itself quite nicely to be a lifestyle-type look. I would say when we look at our running line – if you could picture this in your mind right now – you look at a shoe from our NBx line, and then at the other end you have Lifestyle. In Lifestyle you have, let’s say, the 574. When you get to the middle, you’re going to have the 990 series. It is the perfect compliment between performance and lifestyle. It has what is the most premium between both segments of our business in that it carries some very true technologies to New Balance but it also carries some really nice materials like pig suedes and some really nice meshes as well. It fits like something that a cobbler would make for you. It’s very hand-crafted in that sense. Everything from the linings to the way it falls on your foot, all that detail is meticulously reviewed by our performance team but also by our manufacturing team, as they see it as their yet most iconic shoe by New Balance. It’s quite legendary.
CK: It’s interesting how shoes in the 990 series, like the 992 and 993, pull double duty for many people. They are shoes that people lace up and go running in yet they are just as easily worn in casual settings.
Navarro: I would say it’s the ultimate utilitarian shoe. It has a lot of performance features, so you can run in the shoe, but you can also wear it to hang out and be you.
CK: New Balance keeps a lot of its manufacturing jobs right here in the United States. Can you talk about what that focus means to the company and why this method of production is so important to maintain?
Navarro: It represents a lot of the core values that the company is about. A lot of those things that we believe in, in terms of volunteering and teamwork and leadership and integrity, those are our core values as a company. A lot of those things came from our U.S. manufacturing, looking at how those teams of people come in every day and work as a team and take leadership well and they work with the utmost integrity to make sure that our shoes go out the door with the utmost integrity. It’s unbelievable.
I had a chance to go to our Skowhegan facility in Maine back in January and I was nothing short of amazed at how these people come in every day and perform, and perform with such happiness and gratitude. They really believe in the brand and they believe in everything that the brand is about. It’s so impactful and so inspiring at the same time. With that said, we’re very fortunate to have an owner in Jim Davis that believes in U.S. manufacturing and believes in keeping U.S. workers employed despite what the economy looks like today. If you look at other companies, they’ve all gone overseas to be more profitable. I think we look at it as a social responsibility to the U.S. Being socially responsible is one of the things that we believe in as a core value.