FROM FLIMBY TO PHILLY, A TRANSATLANTIC VOYAGE THAT BEGAN ON THE FACTORY FLOOR
While the imprint of New Balance is deeply rooted in Boston, USA, founder of the brand William J. Riley, an Irish immigrant living in the US at the time, has long since traced his family heritage back to England, a country that has unequivocally played host to vital chapters in the history of New Balance and cemented itself as a branch in the brand’s ascendancy.
New Balance’s English outfit is situated in the idyllic settings of Cumbrian village, Flimby. Buried between coastal tides and perpetual landscapes, the Flimby factory was set up in the 80’s to control their European market, allowing the brand to cut decisive hurdles to get to consumers quicker and expand their growth. The factory became an outpost for early hiking shoes, basketball and football collections before moving onto notable iterations of classic running styles.
Soon after the factory starting pushing out significant numbers on classic runners, people were adopting them in different light, although used for running purposes they became an upcoming staple with fashion aficionados. Such cross-convergence became pivotal in attracting a new audience as well as opening the door to fresh, innovative models never seen before. New Balance were grasping the attention of like-minded, low-key sneaker enthusiasts across the pond – one of which was Richie Roxas, a Philadelphia based collector who was gathering a large collection of heritage styles, New Balance rarities and unknown specials.
Just as the millennium passed, a new-found advancement in design hit the shelves – Apple introduced the iPod for the first time, Windows XP was the new-norm, the communication of email celebrated 30 years of free-flowing, worldwide conversation and New Balance released their most progressive sneaker to date – the Made in the UK 991. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the inaugural silhouette, SEVENSTORE caught up with Philly-native Richie Roxas to about talk about his affinity to the model, how it became integral to the brand’s trajectory and why Flimby-made product is world-renowned.
Going back to the mid-90’s, Roxas was regular guy who started collecting a number of brands. Not initially enticed into New Balance, it would later become his favourite. “It wasn’t until I saw older and cooler people rocking them for style, that I too, began to perceive them that way”. This started Roxas’ new-found passion, leading the charge ahead of the other brands, the Boston-based was the stand-out, charging ahead of the pack – somewhat indicative of recent years.
Back in Flimby, the factory was deeply entrenched in a continuation of rich, premium Made in the UK product which was regarded as some of New Balance’s best worldwide. Of that was the 991, an addition to the legendary 99x series of the early 80’s, it was an advancement of running design with the inclusion of ABZORB technology and improved an improved midsole, synonymous with performance running models of that era. The 991’s innovative approach hadn’t gone unnoticed, Roxas noted that, “The 991 really is a perfectly ‘balanced’ model. The shape is chunky, yet sleek. It’s comfortable as hell. It looks good with nearly any outfit. The materials are top notch as always.” From sportswear to their development into lifestyle sneakers, New Balance and the Flimby factory moved with what was needed and what was popular at the time.
Whereas the technology was a progressive move for New Balance, the running sneaker’s use of the brand’s signature grey was a focal point with consumers and still is to this day. Roxas remembered, “New Balance seemed to be the most comfortable and to be made out of the best materials. Their signature grey colour set them apart. Conveniently, grey goes with everything so that helped too.” It became accessible, wearable and versatile. A sneaker which could be used for running, but also fitted as a casual addition to a pair of jeans which was later adopted by late Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, who famously wore 991’s for a number of years after their release.
Within its initial launch in 2001, Roxas explains, “Basketball shoes still dominated, but there was also a big surge in running sneakers as fashion-wear. New Balance were definitely rocked for style and performance around then. What makes the 991 so important is that it marked the (temporary) end of the successful 990 series and ushered in a new era of elite running models (followed by 992 and 993). The 991 not only used New Balance's current technology at the time, but it's also like a hybrid of the classic runner style mixed with a chunkier midsole. It's the perfect mix of old and new. You could say the 991 was years ahead of its time.” Heralded alongside the USA’s favoured basketball signatures of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, New Balance are regarded as Americans own, but the 991’s transatlantic connection makes such a design ubiquitously British.
From Flimby to Philly, the 991 and New Balance has spearheaded some of the world’s most sought-after models, relying heavily on quality and craft. “To me, the Made in the UK New Balance represent the brand’s best quality. It is ultimate in material, colours, feel and craftsmanship. They also last a long time and are very durable. Their standards are pretty high and strict. The fact they can be a bit harder to get over there (UK) just made me want to collect them even more. Made in the UK are my favourite within the brand. There are few other sneakers out there that rival or better the Made in the UK New Balances.” This is a testament to New Balance and Flimby’s dedication to classic silhouettes which have become globally recognised, something which doesn’t happen by luck, but sheer admiration of great product.
While rooted in New Balance heritage, the 991 can’t be ignored in world swamped with collaboration product. “The sneaker itself comes from two different times and successfully bridges the 90’s and the 00’s. 20 years later, everything comes back full circle, and sneaker fans are embracing sneaker designs of the early 00's and rocking them with a modern look. The 991 is a timeless design which suits many eras.” Which is what makes it so special. It is a fundamental to the New Balance catalogue, holding up the framework for modernised product, like foundations would hold up a house. It is the spine to New Balance design perspective, consumer base and global recognition which has been on the ascendancy since the turn of the millennium. That’s not something to mull over, but something to honour.
The 20th anniversary of the 991 is an ode to the original but a reminder of the understated influence, design and inspiration the silhouette paved for the upcoming generations of New Balance. Its heritage undoubtedly lays the groundworks for New Balance, transcending from Flimby across the Atlantic Ocean’s icy tides, to the streets of Philly and into the hands of one of the biggest New Balance collector’s in the world. Its story and its make-up ensures that the 991 has never been more current, making it a true icon of New Balance.
The New Balance 991 is available online now.
Special thanks to Richie Roxas & Manuel Dominguez Jr.