Rebirth of Cool: How the New Balance 550s Made a Major Return

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There’s no denying that the New Balance 550 is one of the most popular silhouettes on the market right now. Designed in 1989 by Steven Smith, the sneaker was made as a modification of the NB740—James Worthy’s signature sneaker—to appease the needs of high school, college and select Boston Celtics players. 

Smith, whose résumé includes the Reebok InstaPump Fury, NB997, Nike Zoom Spiridon 2 and select Yeezy models, created the low-top counterpart, which featured pivot circles on the outsole, tip saddle foxing and a forefoot sway bar where numeric branding was positioned. 

“I got that idea from automotive design language,” Smith said to Sneaker Freaker. “It helped athletes keep their feet when they were running, cutting and changing direction rapidly.” 

Originally known as the 550 Basketball Oxford, the sneaker was priced at $45. After a small US run, the shoe was exported to UK and Asian markets before it was ultimately shelved. Three decades later the sneaker returned, thanks in part to Teddy Santis, founder and creative director of the New York-based brand Aimé Leon Dore. He sought to revive the model after browsing a Japanese catalog. Santis and New Balance tracked down an original pair from an overseas collector and immediately went to work. 

“We found a scan in our archives of the old tech pack Steven Smith drew by hand,” Paul Kaseumsouk, a product line manager at New Balance, told Sneaker Freaker. “Nailing down the shape, the tooling, every single stitch line down to the millimeter—we obsessed over it. It took us 10 rounds of samples and 18 months of trial and error to get it to where we wanted to be.” 

Santis’ ALD and the Boston-based brand had already formed a partnership, releasing a myriad of collaborations—997s, 990v2s, 990v5s, 827s and 1300s. For the 550’s return, ALD released four colorways as part of their “International Friendship Through Basketball” collection, with slight updates to the 31-year-old sneaker. The white leather was replaced with eggshell tones and the midsoles featured an aged aesthetic. 

Aside from ALD, other cultural figures have been able to put their touches on the 550, and a slew of inline colorways have been released over the last two years. As part of his “Conversations Among Us” initiative, Chicago creative Joseph Robinson, aka Joe Freshgoods, released his iteration of the late ’80s basketball sneaker—a cream canvas upper with hairy suede overlays and an aged yellow midsole—last April. 

Klutch founder Rich Paul also has his own set of 550s. Two years after becoming the first sports agent to have a sneaker collaboration, Paul and New Balance released a pair with an off-white perforated leather upper, navy detailing and yellowed New Balance logos. His name was featured on the woven labels and insoles to customize the design in a way similar to most player-edition sneakers.

Paul’s sophomore collab, which released back in July, features a premium lavender suede upper with purple accents. His name makes another appearance on the tongue tag, with contrasting white shoelaces, a white midsole and a lavender-colored outsole to finish off the look. 

“The 550s for me have always been about that nostalgic feel,” Paul told Esquire last month. “I had this feeling about the 550, and for the first [collab], I thought the 550 silhouette wasn’t new, but it wasn’t really known or understood. Now I feel like more of the masses are aligned with the 550, so I wanted to bring it back one more time. The next one will be a different silhouette.” 

Nearly three years since the return of a once forgotten model, Kaseumsouk admits he didn’t know the impact the shoe would have on today’s sneaker culture. 

“We knew we had something special with the 550 and that ALD was going to tell that story perfectly,” he told Sneaker Freaker. “But we didn’t know just how big it was going to be.” 

Photo via Getty Images.

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