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.
Photos: John Zientek
The bespoke line operates on the fourth floor of the building, producing high-end New Balance models for various collaborations. Two assembly lines operate side by side on the well-lit floor, while the buzz of machines provides a heavy aural backdrop. The associates on the line — who range in age from their 20s to their 60s — work in cycles set-up in 44-second increments. Each assembly line is made up of 36 to 40 operation stations, where a person works on a different step of shoe construction. As premium leather is cut and pieces are sewn and glued, the shoes quickly take shape. From start to finish, it takes 22 minutes to make a New Balance shoe, an upgrade from the eight hours it took in 2004. With these efficiencies, the Skowhegan factory is able to produce around 3,000 pairs of shoes a day.
On the bespoke line, associates constructed the latest J.Crew collaboration sneaker, the Moonshot: a 997 silhouette, off-white suede leather, navy blue mesh and textured gray rubber highlights. Named after the historic Apollo 11 mission, the shoe will be available at J.Crew locations on July 20 to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the launch. Though the light leather and dark accents are reminiscent of the moon, Muytjens found inspiration in something much more terrestrial. “For the Moonshot, I went to the Noguchi museum in Queens for general inspiration,” Muytjens said. “I was touched by how beautiful and organic his sculptures are, the raw materials he uses like granite and stone, and how there’s so much texture to them.”
After six years of collaborating, J.Crew and New Balance offer a strong representation of both brands in the Moonshot. “There is a grounded, down-to-earthness to both brands,” Muytjens said. And despite this shoe’s namesake, it’s similarly earth-rooted, anchored by a simple colorway and homespun manufacturing. It’s all quite distant from rocket science, but it’s a recipe that works well for both brands.