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Interview with Stephanie Howard: Designer behind New Balance 850

Interview with Stephanie Howard:
Designer Behind New Balance 850

To commemorate the re-release of the New Balance 850, we caught up with head designer, Stephanie Howard, and asked her to take us back to the early days of the shoe’s conception. When the 850 first hit stores back in 1996, Howard was the youngest designer over at New Balance. Today, she is the Founder and Creative Director at the award-winning design studio, How and Why. In the course of our conversation, Howard discusses her innovative design concepts, the general climate surrounding the shoe’s release, and its ability to stand the test of time 23 years later.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, Stephanie Howard….

Before hearing about the re-release, when was the last time you came across a NB 850?
Good question. Probably 1996!

 

Do you have a commemorative pair of the first run in your collection?
If only my foresight were so good! I don’t believe that I have an original pair, but I have some footwear projects in storage that I plan to look through just in case.

 

When and how did you find out that it would be re-released?
An email from a friend about a month ago (designer Sean McDowell). We worked together at NB and Nike. A mutual friend and colleague, Tom Carleo (VP of Running), was trying to track down who the designer was. Since then, a few colleagues old and new from NB have been in touch about the release.

 

Do you remember the early reviews and comments about the release? What was the initial buzz like?
The funny thing about being a footwear designer is that by the time a shoe releases, we are already designing 1.5-2 years ahead. When this released 1996, my mind was already on what’s innovative for 1998. I do remember there being buzz around the success, which translated to even more openness to taking creative risks. I felt like a solid foundation of "creative trust" was built, and by then I was the Lead Designer helping the team with creative direction for all categories.

 

Was there a discussion or blow back when you proposed to create a New Balance shoe without the iconic "N" as the focal point?
We were very careful with our approach to this. I created a presentation for Jim Davis (owner of New Balance), showing the logo evolution of some of the world’s most important brands. We knew he was an entrepreneurial and independent thinker, and didn’t feel intimidated to ask. He embraced the concept allowing us to push the boundaries of design further.

 

How early on in your design career was the 850? Was it your first official shoe design?
I started working at New Balance the summer of 1994. The NB 850 was was my third shoe design. We had a really small design team then, and my focus was the running shoe line.

 

What were your initial ideas and design innovations for the NB 850?
Even though the brief was to make a stable running shoe, I hoped to seize on the opportunity to make this a shoe that could expand our audience beyond performance runners. The existing sole was designed by Brian Keating for the NB 750, so my focus was the upper. All NB’s previous shoes had a saddle piece and N-logo centered on the side for stability. My initial concepts were to re-think that area, because it felt creatively restrictive.

 

What was it like being the youngest designer in a well-established, shoe company? Exciting? Daunting?
It was exciting. I may have been the official youngest, but we had a pretty great albeit small team of young people that were designers, developers, and project managers. The culture on the product creation team was a spirit of independence. We were pushing for an expansion of thinking at the company. “Fashion”was an unspoken word, and yet we saw the emerging future where visible technology and innovation were going to be celebrated for casual wear as much as for athlete performance.

 

What were you proudest of in the 850? Anything that still sticks with you 20+ years later?
I love thinking back to my fearlessness when presenting a bold branding change to Jim Davis. I’m sure I was a bit nervous, but was new enough to the industry not to overthink what was happening. It’s fortunate that it was a successful creative direction. It turned into a franchise product, and there was a lot of success with the 851 as well.  

Check out our full editorial Bodega Presents: The New Balance 850

Ricky Orng

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