This year, New Balance celebrates the 20th anniversary of the classic 580, which seems like somewhat of an oddity in the company’s history. It was originally based on the “Made in USA” M585 off-road running shoe, and the silhouette was re-adapted for the Japanese market by moving production over to Asia and being re-christened as the MT580. However, its signature chunky midsole and more technical look compared to others in the 500 series – such as the classic 574 and 576 – led to a lukewarm reception upon release.
As sneaker history goes, the partnership between New Balance Japan, Japanese footwear specialists, Mita Sneakers, and the now-defunct streetwear label, RealmadHECTIC, created a frenzy in the Tokyo street scene and gave the MT580 a new lease of life by. Subsequently, the demand for it from sneakerheads all over the world eventually saw the MT580 getting global releases and becoming a bonafide classic in New Balance’s lineup.
Back then, Mita Sneakers’ Creative Director, Shigeyuki Kunii, was just starting out in his career in the sneaker industry and the word “collaboration” was not as ubiquitous as it is now. Although Kunii=San is one of the most prolific sneaker collaborators in the industry, he credits the original 580 project as what kick started things for him.
The importance of the 580 in sneaker culture is the impact it had on collaboration culture, and our discussion with Kunii-san reveals the often forgotten story of this cult favourite sneaker.
Why did you choose the 580 instead of something that was more popular at the time, such as the 1300 or 576?
Collaboration culture as we know of today wasn’t as mainstream during that era, so we thought it might be both the first and last chance to work with a big brand. So we went in with the mentality that it had to be something original and what we like rather than a model that is already popular. When we spoke to realmadHECTIC, they were thinking of the 580 too, so we just went with it much to the surprise of New Balance Japan, who were apprehensive about a collaboration project based on the 580, which was readily found in bargain bins. However, it was a really rare chance for us and we were adamant about working on it.
How would you define the impact the 580 had in collaboration culture?
Back then, collaborations were known as SMUs (Special Make Up), which were limited edition releases prepared by the brand and made available at certain stores and chains. The partner retailer or label were not given a chance to provide input or take initiative. New Balance Japan gave us the freedom to create and promote as we liked. Although common now, it was truly groundbreaking at the time to work with such a high degree of freedom.
How did you get the word out about the project?
For the first collaboration, we displayed a set at the store and took pre-orders for purchase as per-usual. At the time, Naotake Magara and Yoshifumi “Yoppi” Egawa of HECTIC sent some to their friends in New York and London as gifts, whilst I also gave some to friends both in Japan and overseas. News spread by word of mouth and by the time of the 2nd and 3rd collaboration releases, so many customers came and we had to sell them by ballot. Things got out of control and 3,000 customers came over two days for the ballot. That is our all-time record for sneaker ballots. This was all before news and information was so easily available on the internet.
This year, New Balance are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 580, what does that mean to you?
We chose the 580 as our very first collaboration as we were wearing them since they first hit the discount racks, and we still wear them right up until this day. When the 580 was released in the USA, they put us in the description, and when it became an inline production and global release, our story was always shared. For the 10th anniversary, we worked closely on a global level. When the REVlite version was introduced, we had the opportunity to invite new partners such as SBTG and Whiz Limited to work with.
For this 20th anniversary, we were able to work with the original collaborators again. For each key point of the 580s existence, we have always been cooperating closely together with New Balance, so in a way there’s nothing extraordinary about this 20th anniversary for us. We are really glad that some things have not changed and we hope to continue this partnership as long as we can.
What aspect of the 580’s success are you most pleased with?
The thing I like the most is that this is a New Balance model that was born in Japan. When we dig back into the history of New Balance, we can find many stories of Japan being involved with product development, such as the flagship 1000 series. We have classic New Balance made in USA and made in UK shoes, and we are very proud that the 580 represents Asia. For us, 580 is a big deal and if the 580 didn’t exist, then Mita Sneakers might not exist today. So for us it has always been “THE” standard model when it comes to New Balance.
This year, the 580 is available at New Balance Concept stores and select stockists around the region in MRT580 REVlite, “Deconstructed” and “Re-Engineered” models. Expect more 580 “surprises” to be revealed throughout 2016 and beyond.
Japanese Translation: Junko Homma Photography: Streething Special Thanks to Eugene Yeo (New Balance Singapore), Tetsuya Shono (New Balance Japan) and Shigeyuki Kunii (Mita Sneakers)