In an industry addicted to retro, Highsnobiety presents The New Vanguard of Footwear, a dedicated hub that celebrates the pioneers from around the globe who are changing the face of what today represents a multi-billion dollar industry.
There’s no denying New Balance has been on a roll recently, thanks to great heritage product and an unparalleled roster of collaborators. But a big driver for the brand’s recent success has been the talent within the brand.
Yue Wu, originally from China, moved to the United States eight years ago to fulfil his dream of becoming a footwear designer. If the reaction to his Refined Future pack is anything to go by, he’s off to a running start.
The shoe, which Highsnobiety named sneaker of the year, is Wu’s first as part of the lifestyle team. The designer was previously on New Balance’s performance team working on more commercial models, but it was always his goal to move into the lifestyle realm and make a lasting impact, like the Steven Smiths and Christian Tressers before him.
“One of the biggest reasons I got into sneakers is that I loved playing basketball. There was a period when I thought I could be a professional basketball player,” laughs Yue. “But then I realized that was not in my wheelhouse.”
Basketball and the sneaker culture that surrounds it was what gave Yue the itch, but it was another memory that he considers his defining sneakerhead moment.
“I remember my mom bought me this pair of shoes I really wanted. I think it was a Saturday afternoon. I was super excited,” Wu reminisces. “I left it on the shoe rack in the living room and had to do my homework in my room. The whole time I was thinking about the shoes, so I would fake a bathroom break just to take another look at the shoes. I can still remember the sunshine splashing through a window onto the shoe, and the warm smell of the room.”
Yue remembers that his mom would also buy him footwear magazines, which were the real catalyst in his career choice. “When I was about to go to college, all my friends didn’t really know what they wanted to do,” he says. “I read an interview with a footwear designer who said he had an industrial design background, so I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
His parents, being semi-traditional Chinese parents, were unsure whether a degree in design would lead to a steady job in the future. So Yue and his parents compromised, and he went to engineering school, where he was able to study industrial design.
“My parents were supportive, but design requires talent, and that’s hard to describe,” he explains. “My parents didn’t know if I had talent. I didn’t even know if I had it or not.”
Ultimately, Yue’s studies brought him to the US, where he went to graduate school and took a course at the famed Pensole Academy, which, coincidentally, was sponsored by New Balance. “It was right before my visa expired, so I was like ‘what the heck,’ and tried one of the courses,” he laughs. “I was hired as an intern and, after a few months, was hired full-time.”
The road may have been long and winding, but Yue’s ambitions never changed, just as his entire design philosophy has always been the same from day one: “My ultimate goal when designing is to recreate that feeling on that Saturday afternoon. That’s all I want to do." If those that see or buy his sneakers feel what he felt on that fateful day, Yue will consider his mission accomplished.
That approach also shows how different each designer’s references or inspirations are. While Yue says research is immensely important to his process, it’s recreating that feeling that drives him. Ultimately, he just wants people to be as happy and have as strong of an emotional connection to his shoes as he had when he was younger.
So how does Yue get his creative gears turning to bring that moment back to life? “I just keep sketching until I get into the zone. There’s no purpose, I’m doodling to see where my brain takes me,” he says. “Then, when I feel I’m at a good stage, I write down some of the headlines I’d like to see when the shoe drops. They give me a clearer purpose for when I go back to finalizing the sketch.”
He also admits to a guilty pleasure while sketching. “I’m not going to lie, I love listening to cheesy music. I love pop songs, top-40 charts,” he laughs. “I’m not going to pretend I’m cool.”
That modesty is also evident when he talks about his sure-fire hit in the Refined Future 2002r, which Yue says happened by accident. “Originally, we wanted to do a more traditional, premium leather shoe. I sketched the release version during my lunch break,” he explains. “Joe [Grondin] and Brian [Lynn], my colleagues, went for lunch and came by my desk and saw what was on my screen. If they hadn’t seen it, I don’t know if I was going to show them the idea or not.”
One sneaker that Yue wishes he had a part in creating and considers one of his favorites is Charlotte Lee’s 327, which burst onto the scene in 2020 as part of the Casablanca x New Balance partnership.
“Charlotte and her team absolutely killed it,” he says. “That shoe is one of the reasons why I wanted to switch from the performance team to lifestyle. I wanted to be part of [moments like that.]”
While a relative newcomer to the lifestyle footwear design game, Yue has a certified hit under his belt and is already looking towards the future. Most of the projects he’s worked on have yet to come out, so he can’t share too much about them. But if they’re anything like the “Refined Future” pack, we can’t wait to see what’s up his sleeves.