Once a largely forgotten relic of the brand’s twentieth-century foray into basketball, the New Balance 550 has emerged as the “it” shoe for social media influencers, the downtown crowd in New York City, and casual consumers alike. While we at Sneaker News eagerly await new iterations of the sleek low-top silhouette, we’d like to take a brief look back at the 550‘s history.
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With roots dating back to 1906, New Balance has always been focused on manufacturing footwear products that deliver greater comfort, support and balance to its customers. In the first 83 years of its existence, the Boston-based company made a name for itself within the realm of performance-running – notable designs from that time span include the Trackster (1960), 320 (1976) and 574 (1988). The brand had been servicing tennis, boxing and baseball needs all the while, but one of its most concerted shifts away from running came in 1983 with the release of the New Balance 480.
Seven years removed from the official merge between the National Basketball Association (NBA) and American Basketball Association (ABA), the 480 brought the New England institution’s high craftsmanship and expertise in superior cushioning to the hardwood. As would be the case with subsequent designs, New Balance’s first basketball shoe featured a number of smooth leather panels across the upper, a padded mid-top collar, and straightforward EVA foam and rubber sole unit. While more than capable for the sport in the early ’80s, the basketball sneaker was virtually obsolete by the time the New Balance 550 came along.
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Originally released in 1989, the 550 followed the industry’s trend of brands offering a low-top counterpart to their marquee hoops-ready footwear (e.g. the Nike Dunk Low). Designed by legendary sneaker architect Steven Smith, the model served as an alternative to the 650, a design that closely resembled the 480. New Balance’s latest foray into basketball debuted with a “P550 Basketball Oxford” name and didn’t stray away too much from its six-year-old predecessor: premium smooth leather made up most of the top-half, but perforated profile panels and lightweight mesh bases addressed breathability issues that plagued the 480. “550” text was embroidered onto the lateral quarter panel, while the company’s “N” logo at the profiles received a plump makeover reminiscent of the pop art and graffiti movements that began to penetrate the cultural zeitgeist as the 1990s rolled around. A new molded structure around the heel delivered improved stability and lockdown, while an updated traction pattern and layout provided the responsiveness required for the sport’s increased demands.
Priced at $45, Smith’s creation launched in accordance to the NBA’s strict uniform regulation, donning predominantly white arrangements coupled by solid team-inspired tones. Converse, Avia and Reebok offered styles similar to the 550, but benefitted from high-profile athlete sponsorships. Additionally, competitors’ footwear featured marketable performance-informed technology (e.g. Reebok Pump, Nike Air) that exposed the lack of innovation in New Balance’s lineup. Shortly after debuting in the American consumer, the 550 traveled overseas to the United Kingdom and parts of Asia before almost completely falling into obscurity for decades.
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The “failed” basketball shoe’s modern-day story cannot be recounted without the mentioning of Teddy Santis and his New York City-headquartered label Aimé Leon Dore (ALD).
An unapologetic lover of the ’90s, the Queens-born designer – who’s been serving as NB’s Creative Director of Made In USA since April 5th, 2021 – randomly stumbled upon an image of a low-top leather sneaker from the brand sometime in 2018. Santis gravitated towards lesser-known models within the brand’s design catalog, helping the New Balance 990v2 and New Balance 1300 garner newfound audiences in 2019 and 2021, respectively. Therefore, his interest in the obscure 550 made sense, but it initially provided a challenge.
“The only information we could find about [the 550] was from an old New Balance Japan catalogue,” said Joe Grondin, the brand’s senior manager of global collaboration, in an interview with Sneaker Freaker from December 2020. Scouring hashtags across social media platforms, Santis and Grondin found an undisclosed collector who owned an original pair of the sneaker. Once the partners got the shoes in hand, the 550 was built from scratch with Santis’ meticulousness resulting in anywhere between eight and 10 revisions before a final product was determined.
On September 21st, 2020, the Queens-native shifted the trajectory of both New Balance and ALD by unveiling four colorways of the 550 with the help of Team SONNY, a 15u AAU basketball team led by coach Kenny Satterfield.
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Aimé Leon Dore’s “International Friendship Through Basketball” collection served not only as the silhouette’s first reissue since ’89, but also its first collaboration. High-quality leather reappeared in an eggshell tone that paired well with simple red, grey, green and black contrast, as well as with the slightly-yellowed midsole underfoot. Santis’ subsequent takes on Smith’s decades-old design have favored simple two or three-tone stylings, but their most defining detail has undoubtedly been the “aged” sole unit. In an attempt to meet demand for its collaborations (which skyrocketed with the help of fashion-focused content found on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube), ALD has held restocks of various pairs since Fall 2020. On July 19th, 2021, Santis and company announced that they’d be remastering the NB 650 in similar colors to their first run of 550s; pre-orders opened up shortly after the announcement with a scheduled delivery date of between February and March 2022.
Along the way, a mix of old and new partners alike have helped New Balance further expand the low-top model’s reach. Japan’s AURALEE previewed a minimalist interpretation of the sneakers during its Autumn/Winter 2021 showcase. Akin to ALD’s pairs thus far, the Ryota Iwai-led imprint’s featured a slightly-yellowed midsole that harkens back to the 550’s debut era. U.K.-based retailer size? also equipped a pair from July 2021 with a “Neo-vintage” aesthetic, but its upcoming trio of 550s introduce tried-and-proven CORDURA® fabric to the basketball-informed creation. LeBron James-confidant and KLUTCH Sports founder, Rich Paul, utilized the “it” shoe for his first collaboration with the North American footwear behemoth. Without overtly nodding to the past like projects before it, Paul’s take evoked basketball’s “golden years” through straightforward color-blocking. Special packaging also helped the sneakers revisit the ’80s.
Santis and Grondin surely have another 550 in the works, but they’re seemingly allowing other team members to reimagine it first. Comme des Garçons Homme revealed two monochromatic styles as part of its Autumn/Winter 2022 collection. The west side of Chicago’s Joe Freshgoods (JFG) tweeted the sneaker’s three digits on January 31st, suggesting his third collaboration with the New England-headquartered company will see him bring his knack for storytelling to the 33-year-old design. Other members of the NB family like Jack Harlow, Kawhi Leonard and Ronnie Fieg may eventually get their own 550s, but no evidence has yet surfaced to support speculation.
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Partnerships were crucial to relaunching the model, but New Balance has maintained interest in the 550 on its own. On November 25th, 2020, the brand’s social media accounts shared that the sneaker would arrive to global retailers on December 1st, marking its initial return as a mainline product after more than 30 years in the archives. The two simple colorways that kicked things off were, as Paul Kaseumsouk, product lead for the 550, told SoleSavy News in April 2021, “exact replicas of some…that you had seen in 1989 and 1990.” Succeeding general releases have also looked to professional and collegiate basketball’s past for inspiration, bringing storied rivalries and successful franchises to sneaker form.
“Sea Salt” and “Shifted Sport” collections from July 2021 and September 2021, respectively, have also seen NB inject new life into the silhouette. Barring production and logistical delays, the company will likely continue experimenting with its lifestyle-focused darling, selling out non-collaborations and adjusting the design as consumer trends evolve. One such update likely to land on the 550 within the next few years is a move towards vegan-friendly materials. Jaden Smith has helped New Balance on the sustainability front with newer pairs of his Vision Racer silhouette, though the Massachusetts-located manufacturer has revisited its popular 990 series with an eco-conscious lens over the last year.
Currently, the New Balance 550 costs $110 at retail, with limited editions typically arriving at a slightly higher $130. As has been the trend across the footwear industry over the last few months, however, price increases may affect the model in the near future. Styles are often found via NewBalance.com, but their popularity frequently leads customers to buy pairs on the after-market for more than the $110 MSRP. Higher production numbers and a more frequent release cadence (à la ALD restocks) have helped meet demand.