New Balance and its suite of cushy sneakers have long since crossed the rubicon into fashion-world territory. Shoes like the 990 (now in its sixth iteration) occupy prime real estate on the Mt. Rushmore of dad kicks, while newer silhouettes like the 1906 have helped catalyze a craze for aughts-indebted running shoes that has yet to fully abate. The brand’s retro-inspired kicks remain crowd-pleasers, but in the tail end of 2023, New Balance upped the ante, introducing what might be its biggest, brashest sneaker to date: the WRPD Runner.
The WRPD Runner first debuted in August of last year. Like many of New Balance’s biggest hits, it’s blocky, angular, and anchored by a hefty, foot-cradling sole. But where other silhouettes lean into the brand’s vintage stylings, the WRPD Runner skews more futuristic—an intentional about-face, says Charlotte Lee, a senior footwear designer based in New Balance’s offices in the UK.
“We wanted this shoe to feel New Balance, without actually saying New Balance,” Lee points out. “I smoothed out all of the wavy lines that we typically see on our models and made it feel way more generalized.” The WRPD Runner isn’t just a reworking of the buzziest SKUs in New Balance’s archive: it was designed from the ground up to sit apart from the silhouettes that preceded it. Lee’s inspirations, she says, were abstract forms that conjure words like “fast,” “organic,” and “futuristic.”
To wit: The WRPD Runner sits atop the same FuelCell sole unit specific to the brand’s most advanced sneakers, but it isn’t a running shoe. Lee wasn’t bound by the parameters of athletic performance. Instead, she saw the WRPD Runner as an opportunity to push her employer outside of its comfort zone, in the same way she did designing the 327, a model the New Balance corporate brass wasn’t totally sold on before it emerged as a runaway hit. The success of the 327 gave her the confidence to get even funkier. Lee is well aware of the importance of reining in her wilder design impulses, but she also encourages her coworkers to “sit slightly in that uncomfortable space.”
That’s not say the WRPD Runner is entirely discomfiting—Lee’s first priority is to entice customers to buy what she designs. But the funny thing about shoes is that [checks notes] they go on your feet, and the WRPD Runner immediately appears less radical from that vantage. As New Balance’s reigning “queen of the toe-down”, Lee emphasizes the wearer’s perspective—standing up, glancing down at their sneakers—from the start of the design process. “I want to see the toe-down,” she says. “I want to see how it goes with different outfits.” It’s unsurprising then, that like so many of its counterparts in the New Balance lineage, the WRPD Runner thrives with loose sweats, baggy jeans, and pants that sync up with its pleasantly bulbous silhouette.
All of which is to say, it might take a minute for the general public to warm up to the WRPD Runner’s supersized stylings. Decades went by before the 990 earned its spot in the pantheon, and New Balance’s entire roster of kicks fly in the face of daintier silhouettes like the ubiquitous Samba and the resurgent Mexico 66. But Lee and the New Balance team are betting that the silhouette’s superlative comfort and forward-thinking vibe make for a unique enough combination that customers will come around. If expert opinion is any indication, they won’t have to wait long.