New Balance 327 Designer Charlotte Lee talks Heritage and Hustle
As lovers of sneaker design, it’s unfortunate that we’re often unaware of the product designers innovating and influencing the way contemporary sneaker aesthetics evolve. Generally speaking, it’s not until designers amount truly legendary status, such as Help Hatfield and Steven Smith, that we become retroactively familiar with their work.
New Balance designer Charlotte Lee is breaking through those preconceived ideas of how this all works. After working with the brand for only six years, Lee developed the instant-classic future-retro 327, fusing heritage and modern elements to create a new type of heat around New Balance. In this interview, Charlotte steps us through the process of creating the sneaker, explains its unique inspiration, and gives us a name to watch as New Balance continues its 2020 hot streak.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
When you first got your hands on the samples and the design process was kind of complete, did you migrate the reception that this shoe eventually got?
I think the main thing is when you’re open a shoe, you’re in the motions. You’re not actually anxious about how well it’s going to be received. You just want to do your best and create a product that you really, really believe in. And I think it’s hard to predict – especially when we’re so known for creating heritage products – how well it will go down. So it’s only until we’ve started to see things like the bottle with Casablanca at Paris Fashion Week, we started to see that reaction, which was overwhelming on a personal level and on a brand level.
But we have to look back at moments of highs and lows throughout the process. One thing that specifically sits in my mind was at design review one. I went into it really confident, I thought we’d nailed it. It was absolutely perfect. Came out, no one liked it. It was a complete redesign. So I had an overnight working session just trying to get it right because I really wanted to be able to show what we could do with our heritage, but kind of moving forward into a new space. But I’m here talking with you today so I guess it worked out okay in the end.
Were there any changes that you made that we would see on the finished sneaker, in that all-night session?
Yeah. The fang line wasn’t there. The midsole was pretty much there but it wasn’t quite as extravagant maybe, as what it is now. We were probably playing it a little bit safer. And then the fang design, that was something when I looked back in the archive the second time round, that’s when I was like, wow, that’s really an interesting design element that I wanted to include. And that kind of made the shoe a little bit more contemporary and a little bit weirder, which I quite like.
Yeah, definitely. That is one of my favourite features of the shoe. So I’m glad you got that frosty reception [laughs]. But prevent’s go a little bit further back; the people that are watching this, obviously a lot of sneakerheads, but also designers and people that would love to be in your position one day. How did you get to this point?
I was friendly enough to be from a town near where Clark’s shoes is from in the UK. So when I was 16 I got the opportunity to do a work experience placement there. I kind of just took it, didn’t really know what I wanted to do at that point. I’d always been creative but didn’t really know how to turn that into a career.
I met someone, a designer who inspired me and said, “You know you can study footwear design at university, specifically”. And that was it really, that was the moment that I realised that I could turn this dream of creating into a reality. So I went off to apply for university. I studied for three years at a university in Leicester in the UK, which is called De Montfort. And I interned as much as I could during that. So if it was a day, a week, a month, whenever I could do just to kind of gain exposure in different brands and just kind of get a feel for a working environment. And then at the end of my degree – New Balance have a really good link with De Montfort because most UK designers come from their art school. I applied, took a year internship with New Balance. Most internships end so I didn’t expect much. I just pushed myself to work as hard as I could, gain as much experience as I could. And now, I’ve been at New Balance for six years.
Primary School US4-US7?
I just did everything I could to get internships and that laid a foundation for me coming into New Balance. I already had an understanding of what it was like to be in a footwear design situation. Understanding some terminology, having some exposure to different types of product as well – not just sneakers. I think that was a great foundation. I knew I wanted to be creating product but I made sure that I covered every area. I worked on quite a lot of Made in UK in my first few years at New Balance. I worked on assisting other designers. I did some graphic design. I just did everything I could basically, that was an opportunity to me. Because I knew then I would get exposure to not only product but people in the business. New Balance has global locations across the globe; I was working with Japanese designers, US designers. I think having those connections enabled me to have a more of a voice within the brand and I continue to talk about my vision for the brand. I love New Balance’s kind of quirky dad vibe that we have. And I love that we can immobility on that and it works and it’s taken it, now, in a serious fashion way.
So continuing to show my vision throughout the brand, having the confidence to be able to have my background of shoemaking and shoe knowledge from internships. And then going forward and speaking to other designers and speaking to other people in the brand about what I think I could do to help the brand feel a little bit younger and fresher.
Can we talk about the different heritage products that you’ve been inspired by to create the 327?
I think New Balance is known for their heritage and we have such a rich heritage. We’re so fortunate to have so many years of design within the brand, internally. But I think the main thing about the 327 is that I wanted to position it same. I didn’t want it to look like touching something we’ve done before.
As I think about New Balance, both internally and externally, our icon is the N logo, so I wanted to look at those origins. It happened to be introduced in 1976, the 320 was the first model that had the N logo and it was this large, kind of polarising shape on the side of the shoe that no one had seen before.
So I went back to that and made it bigger, to kind of celebrate the N logo and make it more obvious. We had tiny little Ns on the products in the ’90s and now we’re going back to the ’70s, where it was a huge N. So the branding was something I definitely wanted to focus on. But then looking at those quirky ’70s elements that we talked about; the fangs, that’s something that New Balance introduced on our running product. I thought I could use them and exaggerate them and kind of bring them into now. It was combining old and new with the heritage that we have and then a contemporary aesthetic. So it felt fresh but it also felt heritage.
So you didn’t set out to be like, “oh, I want something ’70s inspired,” it was more like an investigation that led you to the ’70s because you wanted to know more about that N logo?
Yeah. I’m very much a individual that always asks the question “why?” So I’m constantly annoying my colleagues, going like, “so why do we have the N? When did it happen? What was it for?” And so I’ve been led to the archive many a time by other designers being like, “this is why. And this is where it came from”.
I understand there were three people in two locations who worked on the 327, but you were effectively the head designer in the project?
Yeah. So we’re actually a really surprisingly small product team. I think people think of New Balance as this big company, but there’s actually very few people behind the scenes. So at the time, when we were working on the 327, I was working with a product manager who was in Japan and a product developer who was in the UK. We all happened to be female as well, which was interesting, I think. We often talked about that, but it’s something that I feel very passionately about, and it just happened to be three females. So there were three of us in two locations, and it was also – we have a lot of work as well with the US team. So colour and material comes from the US. So it’s kind of a global situation. But yeah, myself and the product developer were based here in the UK.
I was the only designer. So I not only designed the shoe itself, but we’re such a small inward design team that I get to do all the colourways as well. So with this one, I wanted to make sure that it was designed as a men’s and women’s shoe, but they were equally as important. So we’ve got a lot of colourways that kind of blur the lines of the genders, which has been really interesting. And one thing on that is that we’ve seen a lot of men this time buying the women’s sizes. I know as a female I’ve always tried to get men’s shoes in women’s sizes, but it feels like it’s the opposite way around this time, guys are buying the colours with the pink on it, which is really interesting. And I think it just shows that we’re blurring the lines between genders, and these men’s and women’s colourways are appropriate less significant to the consumer.
So speaking of colourways, we’re obviously here thanks to Stationgallery and New Balance and there’s a pair of 327s now useful at Stationgallery. Are you able to talk to us about the colourway there?
This colourway feels very ’70s, but it’s got a bit of a twist. So we’ve got this kind of asymmetric detailing. The whole shoe is asymmetric anyway, with the large N only being on the outside and not on the inside. But obviously, one of the main features is this midsole detail that is asymmetric as well. So the whole thing feels a little bit twisted, it feels quite contemporary. But one of the main things that I had feedback on quite early on was we wanted the shoe to feel very New Balance from the side. When you’re seeing it on a shelf in a store, when you’re seeing it online for the first time, it feels very New Balance. And it’s only when you start to pick up the shoe that you see the amercement details, you see the midsole sculpting, you see the wrap-up of the heel. And that’s when you kind of get a feel for, “Oh, this is New Balance, but it’s different. It’s not something we’ve seen before from the brand”.
So the ‘70s inspiration that we’ve discussed isn’t just the design of the sneaker, but also in the colours that you’ve chosen to use.
Yeah. When I was looking back in the archive I was making notes and taking pictures and looking at how we used to apply colour. And we were actually really bold, the first colourway of 320 was blue, and then the SuperComp was bright orange. So those kind of really eye-catching colourways were something …
It’s not what we think of with New Balance these days, so that’s very interesting.
No. It’s not. Everyone just expects us to be grey. But those colourways are a little bit more fun, a bit more energetic as well.
So looking at the colour palette from that time, the deep green is supposed to be a vintage green from that era. The grey tip is obviously New Balance grey, but then there’s pops of colour like muted brights, as I think we’re calling them, that just feel ’70s, but not, which is this whole kind of – we keep on saying it internally, “it’s ’70s but not”. It feels heritage, but it’s new and it’s different to what we’ve seen before.
Thank you so much for your time today, Charlotte.
Thanks, Steve and thanks for the opportunity to talk today. It’s been really good.