Every major sneaker brand has a household name: Nike has the Air Force 1; Adidas has the Stan Smith; Reebok has the Club C; and, at last, New Balance has found its with the 550. But the sneaker is far from new.
The 550 initially debuted in 1989 as a low-top alternative to the 650, which was New Balance's most popular basketball shoe at the time. It solved several problems that plagued both the 650 and the 480 (another high-top basketball sneaker). Both the 650 and 480 had high, patent leather uppers — clear attempts at competing with the Jordan 1. But the padded collars, while supportive, weren't all that breathable.
New Balance 550 History
The low-top 550 was more comfortable, albeit less conducive to actual on-court success. As such, they didn't see much action, but this was also because New Balance didn't quite have the same star power as more popular basketball brands like Nike or Converse. Plus, the performance-focused innovations that made New Balance popular with runners didn't translate to basketball, where innovations like Reebok Pump and Nike Air reigned supreme. The 550 faded from popular culture as quickly as it arrived.
In the early 90s, it trickled into international markets, where it was met with a similarly "meh" response. It's fair to say the sneaker never would've seen the light of day again had it not been for Teddy Santis, owner of Aimé Leon Dore and the creative director of New Balance‘s MADE in USA line. In an interview with Sneaker Freaker, Joe Grondin, the New Balance executive in charge of the brand's collaborations at large, revealed it was Santis that resurfaced the silhouette — and sensed its potential.
The Sneaker Returns
"The NB550 actually came from Teddy. He pitched it," Grondin said. "He found this random picture of the 550, and he was like, 'What is this?' We did a bunch of research and found the silhouette from 1989. The only information we could find about it was from an old New Balance Japan catalogue. We were lucky, because the Japan catalogues are super detailed. We started researching hashtags on Instagram and found this collector who had a pair. Once we got the shoe in hand we built it from scratch with Teddy. He’s so particular about shape, so everything took us at least eight to ten revisions. We were adjusting millimeters here and there just to get it right."
Finders, keepers, it seems. The New Balance 550 officially returned in collaboration with Santis' brand, Aimé Leon Dore in September 2020. It stayed between the two until December 2020, when New Balance announced the 550's reintroduction to its core line of sneakers (which includes the popular 574, 990, 993 and so on and so forth).
Even more collaborative editions have propelled the 550 to heights unrealized during its original run. Now, the 550 is a bonafide competitor to classics like the Air Force 1, Stan Smith and Club C. Sure, only the Air Force 1 shares the same hoops roots, but all of them have been fully absorbed by the "lifestyle" category, where sneakers may look fit for sport but are really best reserved for more leisurely activities. Both the AF1 and the 550s wouldn't survive professional play, let alone pickup at a local park. Their leather uppers and flat-footed bottoms don't bode well for vertical bounce, but they look great.
Spearheading a Resurgence
Collaborations have been an important part of New Balance's recent resurgence. It wasn't long ago — 2016, in fact — that folks were protesting the brand for its half-hearted endorsement of then President-elect Donald Trump. Designer reinterpretations of the 990, 993 and 2002R have made them some of the most expensive sneakers out (and oftentimes a few of the hardest to find). Regular shoppers are forced onto resale sites if they want a pair. Even the plainer versions are popular. But it's the 550 that's quickly outpacing even these — which had decades-long head starts.
"There are several key components that went into making the 550 as successful as it has been including our use of a classic court silhouette as the foundation and partnering with Aimé Leon Dore in order to unveil the first pairs in 2020,” Paul Kaseumsouk, Senior Product Line Manager for Lifestyle Footwear at New Balance, tells us. "Our attention to detail, strategic rollout plan, and the sheer longevity of the shoe has made the 550 something really special for consumers."
According to Google Trends, the 550 is searched for twice as often as the 990; three times as often as the 993; and seven times as often as the 2002R. Sure, recency bias is a big factor here, but the 550's popularity has survived long lulls between big releases. If you go on New Balance's website, every version of the 550 has been sold out for weeks. Entire Twitter accounts are dedicated to notifying followers when the 550 restocks.
Beyond its pleasing simplicity, the 550 is a comfortable sneaker. And nearly half the cost of most other covetable New Balance sneakers. A standard 993? $185. Your run-of-the-mill 550? $110, which lines up with Nike's $100 Air Force 1 and Adidas' $100 Stan Smith. For now, it's scarcity curtailing the 550's takeover. The shoe's plenty popular on TikTok, where videos about the shoe have amassed more than 43 million views, but it's nearly impossible to buy IRL. Only time will tell if this sneaker goes fully mainstream.
Crowning a King
Sure, Aimé Leon Dore (and designer Teddy Santis) pulled the 550 into the 21st century, but the slew of successive collaborations helped it reached an even broader audience — whether with Japanese retailer AURALEE, NBA agent Rich Paul or Chicago designer Joe Freshgoods. But is there one that reigns supreme?
An early Aimé Leon Dore edition is going for over $500 on resale platforms. The aforementioned AURALEE design is set at a steep $800 dollars. In reality, though, the most covetable 550 will likely be Joe Freshgoods' 'Conversations Amongst Us,' an all-over off-white pair with canvas and suede accents. Not only is it pleasantly simple, but it's a part of Joe Freshgoods' year-round diversity, equity and inclusivity endeavor of the same name.
By working with Black Soles, "an employee-led New Balance community focused on increasing representation and amplifying Black voices inside the company and throughout the footwear industry," Freshgoods worked with the brand's Black employees through every step of the process — designing the sneakers and their packaging, crafting the ad campaigns and so on and so forth.
"This project is a bit different for me. It isn't just an apparel and footwear collection," Freshgoods, aka Joe Robinson, says. "It's a timestamp and a deep dive into the importance of communication and community. I wanted to approach this from a different lens from how brands usually celebrate and spotlight Black people. Conversations Amongst Us isn't a marketing blurb, it's simply the truth."