We travel north to Flimby, UK to take a look inside the factory that manufactured those made-in-UK New Balance's in your closet, and learn about the limited edition "Real Ale" pack.
While the New Balance imprint is rooted firmly in the Boston area, founder William J. Riley traces his family's heritage directly to England, a country that constitutes an important chapter in the New Balance story. A two hours drive north of Manchester lies a quaint village named Flimby, the unsuspecting seat of New Balance's Made-in-England range. Churning out around 28,000 pairs of shoes on a weekly basis, the factory floor was abuzz during our latest visit, as the release date for the New Balance "Real Ale" pack was quickly approaching.
Conceptualized as a followup to 2010's "Pub" pack of 576s, the new "Real Ale" pack consists of three made-in-England silhouettes - the "Cumbrian Red" 1500, the "Ye Old Flimby Prime" 576 and the "Chicken Foot IPA" CT300. To coincide with the release of the pack, we spoke with New Balance Senior Footwear Designer Mark Godfrey, Senior Footwear Developer Chris Hodgson and Factory Manager Andy Okolowicz.
Why "Real Ale?" Explain the concept?
Mark Godfrey, Senior Footwear Designer: The idea of a pack right now is well established but a few years ago when we started doing them, before they were mainstream, we always tried to tap into quintessential English culture. “Real Ale” we see as a cultural trend, so we took that idea and looked around the area here – where the beer is being made. We took ales from around the area and took direct color inspiration from them. The CT300 is based on a golden pale ale and the 576 is based on a darker, almost stout-like ale. And the 1500 is a red amber ale. The colors are really strong and tie nicely with the story as well.
How do you see the differences between the U.S. factories and the UK factories?
Andy Okolowicz, Factory Manager: Our factories are very similar actually – in terms of how we manufacture the shoes anyway. I think each factory throughout the New Balance organization has its own footprint, its own look and Flimby, because of its history since 1982, we’ve developed the look of our product and it is very unique to this area. But yeah, in terms of equipment they are very similar. We tend to use softer materials, generally, and a lot of our guys here have a lot of experience working with shoes. Some of them having been making shoes for 40 years so that shows through in the quality. Back in the mid-‘80s there were maybe 80-90,000 people manufacturing footwear in the UK and today they are less than 4,000.
What would you say are the signature models made at Flimby? And what was the first one?
Chris Hodgson, Senior Footwear Developer: The first model that was ever produced there was a H610 hiking shoe, as sponsored by Lou Whittaker, that was produced when we were at the factory literally four miles the other side to where we are now. And then we went from there into a 990 running shoe, a range of soccer boots and a range of basketball shoes that we were making for the U.S. And then we started to make some proper performance stuff in the factory and spent a number of years doing this. We started to buy some uppers in from Asia and assemble them and then we made some domestically manufactured performance walking and hiking shoes and off-road shoes, then we slowly developed into lifestyle.
So you can see the Flimby house moving with the trends and what is needed at that time. But if you’re a sneakerhead you would be most familiar with the 1500s.
Mark Godfrey: No, but if we deem that to be a route we want to take, Flimby is more than capable, so it’s definitely possible.
Andy Okolowicz: Although there are all these additional new styles to New Balance, the demand for the heritage classics - which are synonymous with Flimby - still exists and it's still growing, so there’s no pressure to move away from that with Flimby. The more technological advancements they are able to make in Asia; it makes less sense for Flimby to concentrate on that when they can make the classic runners. So it’s more about the appropriate factories for the appropriate model.
If these heritage classics are so popular for New Balance, can we expect more silhouettes to re-emerge from the New Balance archives? Mark Godfrey: Yeah, definitely more influence coming from the ‘90s product – we’ve brought some of that back with the 860 and 530 – some of those ‘90s products are being brought back now as well, so we might consider deconstructing some of those as well. Every generation moves forward and seems to reference back about 20 years for when their childhood was. So maybe a in a few years time people will be looking back to what styles were cool in like 2002. These things are often revisited so we’re just lucky we have such a large back catalogue.
Chris Hodgson: Trends have become so much more diverse as well. There are a lot of parallel trends going on at one time now instead of just everybody following one trend and moving on to the next. We’re seeing a lot of new trends emerging, we’re still seeing the growth of our core classic running at the same time.
Talk about the sneaker archive that is kept at Flimby. Is there somewhere you keep all the samples?
Chris Hodgson: We have an archive ourselves which stretches back a while. It would’ve stretched back even more but unfortunately around 40 shoes we lent to an exhibition in France a few years ago got lost in transit. What are your favorite Made-in-UK New Balance silhouettes?
Mark Godfrey: For me, probably the 991.
Chris Hodgson: 1500, no question.
Andy Okolowicz: I have 1500 on today so I guess I’d say the same. But I really like the 576 as well.
Favorite from the “Real Ale” pack?
Mark Godfrey: I’d say 1500, because of the colorway.
Chris Hodgson: 1500, because it will fit best.
Andy Okolowicz: I would wear the 576, only because I prefer the black or grey. But if that were on the 1500 then it would be that.
Peep the full pack here and check out 4 Fascinating Stories from the New Balance Sneaker Archive.