Footwear has been experiencing an interesting transition period. Running brands like Hoka and On are gaining market share; reigning champions like Nike are announcing job cuts due to disappointing sales, and you (or someone you know) are thinking about adding a pair of leather loafers to your rotation. In the midst of it all, a brand like New Balance has been the quiet achiever. From the success of the New Balance 2002R, to the 990v6 and the 1906R — not to mention numerous sell-out partnerships with the likes of Joe Freshgoods, Ganni and more — it’s no surprise that New Balance announced $6.5 billion USD in annual sales in 2023, a 23% increase when compared to 2022.

While New Balance does a great job of staying in its lane, the brand is not afraid to shock its loyal fanbase with drops outside of its comfort zone. Earlier this year, images surfaced of a new Junya Watanabe x New Balance collaboration, showing what appeared to be a loaferized 1906R. A polarizing concept, yes, but there would arguably be much more buzz around the reveal of New Balance’s silver GR version of the same hybrid design a few months later. The New Balance 1906L: an eyebrow-furling combo that sees two opposites — a New Balance 1906R and a classic penny loafer — do more than just attract. These two footwear styles may bear many differences, but the New Balance design team managed to boil them all down into one unified concept.

As the old adage goes, there’s a time and a place for everything. And there’s no denying that a sneaker-loafer hybrid, which combines comfortability and Y2K aesthetics with one of the most popular formal styles of the moment, seems to make perfect sense in 2024. Lani Perry, New Balance’s senior product manager, told Hypebeast that the shoe was birthed after noticing “that formalwear was coming through but that no one was willing to sacrifice comfort anymore.” She added, “That’s why this shoe feels like the right product at the right time. It’s literally the best of both worlds.”

“We had been talking a lot about the formalwear influence within post-pandemic fashion and design,” senior footwear designer Charlotte Lee added. “And we were obviously noticing people buying into more formal silhouettes, whether it was clothing or footwear.” This movement led Lee and Perry to question what that meant for the sports industry as a whole, and for its brands too. “If people are wearing more brown shoes or leather products, how does that crossover with a brand like New Balance?” With sneaker overload hitting an all time high over the past couple of years thanks to a sheer oversaturation of product, it’s no wonder many were led to feel some level of “sneaker fatigue.” It’s almost as if consumers were left with no choice but to want out and update their rotation with a pair of Weejuns, rendered stuck with the daily dilemma: sneakers or no sneakers?

“Some of the comments are like, ‘I hate this, I want a pair,’ and that’s a reaction that we didn’t expect or anticipate.”

After posing two deceivingly deep questions — “Can we do a loafer? Should we?” — Lee and Perry were unknowingly on the cusp of potentially solving footwear’s problems in 2024. But the point was meaningfully chiming in on the climate of footwear in a way that still made sense for New Balance, even if not at first glance. As a senior footwear designer, Lee has played a fundamental role in shaping New Balance’s modern era, with a handful of her designs including the 327, XC-72 and the WRPD Runner. While the New Balance 1906L is yet another masterful stroke from the designer, Lee admitted that she was the most nervous she had ever been to present the concept. “We got it, but just because we get it doesn’t mean everyone else is going to get it. And luckily it was received really well, and I didn’t even have to explain it.”

Generally speaking, the shoe design process is a lengthy one, with those initial stages of the 1906L’s conception dating back to 2022. As Lee put it, “We would never want to get something out quick, for the sake of getting it out.” Without context, the 1906L is just a crazy looking shoe; but Lee and Perry, who are each commemorating ten years with New Balance this year, don’t take the weight of their creation lightly – or the role they play in it. “Because we have strong loyalists of New Balance, people really watch the brand with a magnifying glass and notice every little difference on our designs,” Lee said. “So with every shoe we do, we’re like, ‘What reaction is this going to cause?’” Naturally, Lee and Perry were prepped for a bounty of reactions to their newest design.

“I think we knew externally, people were going to question the 1906L,” Lee confessed. “I think this fatigue of expectedness from brands has got to people. So something like this just cuts through and they’re like, ‘Well, what is that? Do I like it? Don’t know. Do I hate it? Don’t know. Do I want to wear it? Maybe.’” The response to the New Balance 1906L was always going to be mixed. “We knew there were going to be haters, there always is,” Lee said. Conversely, there were instant fans, and also others in the middle of the Venn diagram who were unsure of the initial stance they took — just scroll through any comment section. Admittedly, Lee and Perry were somewhat surprised at this level of sneaker existentialism that the 1906L seems to have cultivated. “I think we just weren’t anticipating that love and hate towards the shoe from people. Some of the comments are like, ‘I hate this, I want a pair’ and that’s a reaction that we didn’t expect or anticipate. It’s arguably the best reaction we could have.”

To state the obvious, the innovative nature of the 1906L’s sneaker-loafer design is such a strong departure from the quintessential New Balance release – arguably even more so than the 2002R mule (remember those?). This moment speaks for the bigger picture at New Balance, positioning the footwear label as a place where innovation thrives. There could be more upheaval on the way, but Lee and Perry simply say to watch this space for now. “I think it’s given us the confidence to talk more progressively about stuff that isn’t naturally in our wheelhouse as a brand. I wouldn’t say there’s anything in the works right now that is a follow on from this, no. But I think naturally now we will be talking more and more about what trends we’re seeing and what we feel like we can legitimately play into as a brand.”

Absolutely nobody had the New Balance 1906L on this year’s bingo card, but for better or worse, it seems to have set alight a much needed spark within footwear. Looking ahead, as the hybrid model will continue to fire up the comment sections and take center stage of even more Throwing Fits memes, its creators have their eyes fixed on what’s next. “Once it hits, once it’s available to buy, I can’t wait to see how people are styling it, wearing it and what audiences and groups and what lifecycle it goes through. Will it be a thing for a long time, will it not? Who knows..” Just don’t be surprised when you finally admit to liking them.

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