I didn’t get it. Really, I didn’t, despite being surrounded by them for ages on the feet of my father and most other fathers I ever came across, and eventually, the feet of my friends, who I thought were too cool for them.
For the longest time, I didn’t get the fascination with the New Balance 990. In all five of its incarnations, it’s always been that one shoe that every single dad in America seems to own at some point in their lives, the kind of shoe you wear to the grocery store and out to mow the lawn and out to dinner at a chain restaurant. An indiscriminate shoe for an indiscriminate dresser, which is to say not for me. I’m far from fashion-savvy but I’ve always thought sneakers (at least those worn by folks who care about them) should be flashy, colorful, and eye-catching. As such, it always baffled me to see runway models, die-hard sneakerheads, and fashion bros alike stepping out in such a shoe that seemed almost intentionally ugly.
Reader, I was wrong. I’ve seen the light. I understand. You don’t have to be a dad to wear a pair of New Balance 990s. In fact, regardless of the state of your parenthood, your wardrobe might not be complete without a pair.
First introduced in 1982, the New Balance 990 has been a staple, if not THE staple, of the brand’s line for nearly thirty years. Unlike Air Jordans or Adidas Ultra Boosts with their annual retoolings, there are only five iterations of the 990, dubbed the v1-5, respectively. The redesigns are never drastic ground-up rebuilds but rather subtle retoolings, distinct but never looking like an entirely new shoe. It’s got a famous cult following in the sneaker world, namely for being the preferred shoe of Steve Jobs (he often paired 990s with his famous black turtleneck look at Apple reveals). You can also see the shoe on everyone from Hailey Bieber to Ben Affleck. Available in a variety of colors but best known for its primary grey rendition, the 990 is simplicity. It’s universal. It’s your dad’s favorite shoe, sure, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be yours as well.
I recently laced up a pair for the first time, the recent v5 (launched last year), and immediately regretted the years I’d spent looking down on it. It’s an instantly cozy shoe that requires no breaking in or busting up to cushion your foot with comfort and ease. The neutral grey tones, composed of lush suede and flexible mesh, proved immediately versatile, going well with just about any outfit in my wardrobe.
Furthermore, also unlike a pair of Jordans or crisp Air Maxes, 990s practically beg to get broken in. Creases, scuffs, and fading only add to the aesthetic appeal of the shoe, doing away with any need to be precious about their condition. Plus, listen, sole inserts may seem like the sort of thing nobody over 50 needs but I assure you they’re a game-changer. Every pair of 990s comes with a pair of Ortholite inserts that adds a sturdy and supportive base to the shoe. Yes, it’s the most Dad Shoe touch imaginable, but it works wonders on your feet.
It’s also what sets the shoe apart from every other classic everyday staple shoe like the Converse Chuck Taylor or a classic pair of Vans. The accessibility and low price of those two shoes can’t be denied and yes, a pair of New Balance 990s will set you back a few bucks more. But the money isn’t for a logo, it’s for quality. They may not cost under $50 but they’re an investment worth making.
The New Balance 990 is, at face value, counterintuitive to everything about sneaker culture. It’s lowkey. It prioritizes quality of materials over design. When it’s redesigned the result is a subtle evolution rather than a total retooling. And it looks better the more you wear it out. The extent to which it’s antithetical to what we’re told to value in a pair of dope kicks is kind of the entirety of its appeal, as it turns out.
Yes, it’ll always be the Dad Shoe. But hey, there’s never been a better time to take a note from the former father of Apple and pick up a pair. If you need an outfit to rock them with, try pairing them with jean shorts and a Hawaiian shirt for ultimate dad vibes. You can make it work.