Footwear

Why the New Balance Snoafer Is a Sign of the Times

We speak to designer Charlotte Lee to find out more about the process behind creating the most polarizing silhouette of the summer.

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Why the New Balance Snoafer Is a Sign of the Times

We speak to designer Charlotte Lee to find out more about the process behind creating the most polarizing silhouette of the summer.

Sneaker hybrids are all the rage right now, with more and more complex combinations of mules, slip-ons and sneakers dominating the footwear ether. But as many sneakerphiles will know, there’s one core concoction that had everyone talking these last few months: the New Balance 1906L. A perfect combination of the brand’s signature 1906R silhouette and the humble penny loafer, it’s a fusion that sent the internet into a frenzy — just as New Balance had hoped.

“Every shoe or project I’ve worked on at New Balance for however many years I’ve been here now, has always had that divisive effect because we’re trying to create newness and trying to push the boundaries of what’s comfortable for us,” explains Senior Footwear Designer, Charlotte Lee.

“I’m kind of used to the negative and the positive — but this one was unique because people were questioning their own decision making and you would see the comments being like, “I hate these, I need them.” It provoked conversation, even within a singular person,” she tells Hypebae.

What started as a simple “what if” quickly became one of the most talked about shoes, soaring right to the top of all of our wish lists (yes, all). As the hype surrounding loafers continues, we caught up with Lee to find out more about the process behind creating the most polarizing silhouette of the summer.

Scroll down for the full interview.

snoafer new balance 1906l loafer sneaker shoe silver

What prompted that desire to create a new balance loafer? Where did the idea stem from?
The idea actually came from a conversation I had with Lani, the product manager on the product side, so it was less of a formal brief. We’d been talking about the shift towards formal wear and what that means for the sports industry. We were thinking of a product that could bridge that gap between formal and sportswear and combine those two genres. Loafers were something we were seeing an uptake of and I felt like we could do a loafer in an authentic way that makes sense for us.

It started with a really quick CAD sketch — I had the idea in my head, did the CAD and then I showed Lani and she was just like “Yes.” It was one of the most simple processes, which was actually really unusual, especially for something that seemed so complex. We started the conversation in June 2022, showed the design to the wider team and immediately, it didn’t take any explaining. Sometimes with projects, the team can like concepts but need explaining or a bit of background, but with this one, immediately people were like, “Whoa, okay, yeah, that’s weird but cool. And I think I like it, and I think I want to see it.” So we got a sample back and it went from there.

That’s kind of the mark of a good idea, isn’t it — when you show someone an image and it just speaks for itself and instantly everyone just knew that this was a thing that needed to be made?
Yeah, definitely. I didn’t think anyone knew what they needed it until they saw it, myself included.

snoafer new balance 1906l loafer sneaker shoe silver

Did the design change much from your initial idea to creation? To an outsider, we assume the design started as sneaker-first and then transitioned into a loafer but it sounds like the loafer was actually the initial starting point?
The loafer was definitely the foundation. I created a CAD of the loafer and then it was about finding a way to bring the 1906 into it. We landed on that shoe because it’s a big model for us as a brand and we’re seeing great success in that in that tech running space. It felt like the right model because we’re still doing a lot on it through collaborations and it felt like the right contrast between like something so clean and something so tech-orientated.

I think it’s probably the one concept I’ve created so far where the initial CAD is like 95% of the final shoe. It feels funny even explaining the process to people because it was so simple. To be honest, most of the heavy lifting was done on development because we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just an aesthetic thing, it had to fit and be the same level of quality you’d expect from all New Balance products. My part of the process was relatively quick, but we had high expectations on quality and fit and we were able to land on something that we’re really proud of. It fits really well and we know it’s comfortable.

Which is incredible, actually. The reaction obviously has been mixed. Some people love it. Some people think it’s crazy. Some people feel both. How did you expect people to react?
You can even judge the reaction based on the internal conversation. Lani and I, we got it immediately and then when we were showing people, I was pretty nervous because it is so polarizing and so outside of our comfort zone. But it was received really positively. We felt the same level of trepidation when people started to see it externally but I feel like the industry as a whole at the moment is open to some kind of polarizing newness and a refresh. People are looking for something new and looking looking for something a bit weird, so it felt like it came at a good time.

Every shoe or project I’ve worked on at New Balance for however many years I’ve been here now, has always had that divisive effect, because I’m trying to create newness and trying to push the boundaries of what’s comfortable for us. So I’m kind of used to the negative and the positive. This one was unique, because people were questioning their own decision making and you would see the comments being like, “I hate these, I need them.” It provoked conversation, like even within a singular person. We’ve seen how many people are tagging people for reassurance or questioning “what do you think of this?” It’s caused a conversation that I don’t know if we could have anticipated, but it’s what I would have hoped for, because I think the industry was e was ready for that level of disruption, and it came at the right time.

snoafer new balance 1906l loafer sneaker shoe silver

Why do you think that is? What is it about right now that makes people a little bit more open to things that are not the usual?
I think that during the pandemic, everything was so uncertain that there was a return to the classics and a safety in familiarity. Then we came out of that and there’s since been this change and shift towards newness and excitement. There’s the blending of genres and with styling now, there’s people everyone’s wearing whatever they want to wear, but with a real mix of genders and subcultures and forms and fits. The sneaker industry as a whole hasn’t really caught up with that same sentiment yet. I think people are just way, way post pandemic now, which is great. We’re all willing to take more risks and to push the boundaries of that these comfort lanes that we associate with formal or sports and start to blend things more more closely and more frequently.

Definitely, almost feels like it’s trickled down from fashion and into footwear, right?. With this silhouette, was the initial idea always that it was going to be unisex? For a lot of people, their first introduction to the shoe was the Junya collaboration — which was obviously for the male consumer, so was that a big consideration for you?
Yeah, definitely. Lani and I have worked really close together for a long time now. As we came into the brand, which is almost 10 years this year, we both were like why can’t we even access some of these products? It’s been a topic of conversation obviously within the industry for a long time, but we’re the people that are able to make change and that’s 100% a credit to Lani here because she has been relentless with this and conversations about why things aren’t unisex.

Everything we create now, we need it to be unisex. There’s absolutely no reason at this point in time why it shouldn’t be and we probably wouldn’t advocate for something that isn’t. I feel like as creatives in this industry, you have to kind of listen to what’s happening externally and there’s so much conversation around unisex silhouettes that it’s on us to stand up in those conversations and say, “we need this.”

snoafer new balance 1906l loafer sneaker shoe silver

It’s definitely something that people want, isn’t it?
Yeah, and lifestyle product is definitely much more straightforward to create as unisex. Performance is different. But within lifestyle, there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be that offering up and down the scale. Some things will lean more feminine, some things more masculine, but who are we to say who buys what?

Yeah, exactly. Once the product is out there, it’s kind of up to everybody else, right? You touched on this a little bit before, but in terms of the loafer as a silhouette, what do you think that kind of says about the current state of the sneaker industry? Why do you think the loafers specifically have become such a popular option?

There’s a lack of desire to be restrictive. Elasticated waist bands are a thing now, and comfortable clothing and loose silhouettes. I think that’s translated into footwear as well. We had massive trends with slip-on footwear and mules in the past but now, I feel like a loafer is a more elevated version of that comfortable slip-on product. It’s very wearable and comfortable, but also formal, which is two things that wouldn’t normally go together. We’ve all gotten used to a level of comfort but also want to have a level of sophistication and combine those two worlds.

That makes sense. So this is just the beginning for the New Balance Loafer. But how do you kind of envision the future looking like, will there be more colorways and more collaborations? Is that going to be an integral part of the New Balance offering?

Yeah, we definitely want it to establish it in like an authentic space. As soon as we created the loafer, I think silver was an absolute no brainer. It made sense to be as close as possible to the original. And then obviously, we’ve done the black and white with Junya and we’ve got other colours that are in that similar vein. But I think the thing about loafer is it can coexist in both of those worlds, whether it’s more like tech running, or closer to what we recognise as formal product. There’s definitely an evolution of that within the inline offering which I think will appease the people who want to style it more formally. It coexists in both those those aesthetics, but I’m really excited to see how people style it and how they integrate it or make it contrast against against the rest of their aesthetic. I think there’s going to be plenty of colorways coming out.

snoafer new balance 1906l loafer sneaker shoe silver

Do you think you’ll be experimenting with other New Balance silhouettes?
No, I feel like the loafers were a moment in time thing. I’ll never say never, because who knows what’s going to happen but I think it’s more about this opening up a door of opportunity for us as a brand to be able to play in these spaces. We’re a brand that’s always been able to poke fun at ourselves and we know we can take ourselves seriously in a serious space. I’m excited for myself and other designers in the brand to be able to now explore further, maybe through other silhouettes or other clashings of worlds and bringing things together that don’t really necessarily make sense. People have seen the loafer and it’s caused a reaction so there’s more ability to take risk there and to refresh it.

Are there any other kind of sneaker hybrids that you’re hoping to see kind of enter the mainstream or anything that you’re already like, I wonder what would happen if I put those two together?

The loafers were on my personal agenda for a long time because I’m actually a big loafer person. There’s nothing else on my list as of yet that I want to do and I think if we did do that, it could become a bit too expected. I think the shock factor is so important with the loafer, the next thing would need to have that same level of shock. If we just did a boot, for example, I think that wouldn’t be as as shocking. But again, never say never, I’m just one designer with one brand. There’s so many amazing and talented designers that are coming up with cool ideas all the time. So if it opens up a door of opportunity for other people to think of what their interpretation of blending two worlds together is, then I’m just as excited to see what everyone else comes up with.

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