As part of the global launch for the New Balance Real Ale Pack, we had the opportunity to interview some of the New Balance Team, so of course, we were going to take them up on this. It's not every day that you get the chance to do this, so it was a no brainer.
These guys have an absolute wealth of knowledge and are all but happy to share it with us, so this interview is quite long and in depth, but we thoroughly enjoyed being part of it, and all of the responses to the questions are particularly excellent.
I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as we did giving it.
Interviewers: TL – Thomas Lindie, AS – Arkadiusz Skolak, and RS – Rob Stewart.
Interviewees: MG – Mark Godfrey, CH – Chris Hodgson, AO – Andy Okolowicz, and TH – Tom Henshaw.
So first of all, who are you, and what are your roles at New Balance?
Mark Godfrey – Senior Footwear Designer
Chris Hodgson – Senior Footwear Developer
Andy Okolowicz – Factory Manager
Tom Henshaw – EMEA Lifestyle Marketing Manager
AS - Could you describe the design process? How long does it roughly take from initial concept to release?
CH – It can be 18 months before the launch.
MG – So all 2016 product is in the can and done, and we’re already moving on. So that’s how far ahead we work because it takes that much time to design it, source everything, commercialise it, and then make it in the factory, market it, everything else.
TH – We’re getting sales samples to the sales team, who then have to go out and sell it, and showcase it, and then take in the orders, and then deal with the orders at the factory level to produce the product. So by the time it’s in the consumers’ hands, can be 18 months to 2 years.
AO – And also, we launch in all markets at the same time where possible, and for us to manufacture in the factory, and get them to Japan, and places like China, so that can sometimes take 7 to 8 weeks.
TH – And we have to ship on boats, occasionally we air freight but we try and avoid it because of the costs of air freighting. In terms of coordinating a release of a collaboration shoe, where we’re trying to hit a few key stores with the same launch date, and then we have to air freight in order to make that happen. Logistics is a huge challenge on those projects.
CH – We actually make the product to launch in order of the furthest distance away first, so basically, if anyone is going to be short of shoes, then it’s actually our UK customer base, because by that time we’ve made all the Japanese shoes, and they’re somewhere en route, all the shoes for China are somewhere between here and China, and the last people who have shoes made are the UK. So, if for any reason we’ve had a large amount of rejects, we have to wait for replacement raw materials to come in from Asia, soles in particular which take 90 days typically between ordering and delivery, and then we have to make them after that. So it’s quite strange that our closest market is the one who most likely will not get all their shoes.
TL – So you guys are doing the hardwork, and then are left at the end of it with nothing to show for it?
TH – But it’s all about the job satisfaction
CH – You have to keep telling yourself that it is all about the job satisfaction, honest.
TL – Do they do the same vice versa? So anything made in Asia, do they account for you guys first, or anyone else first?
AO – I’m not too sure actually.
MG – I think it all ships to the different regions at the same time, the same launch date typically.
AS – Do you remember a shoe that you didn’t like at the project stage, but it was looking great when finally manufactured?
TH – I think it’s always impossible to tell.
CH – We’ve had lots of shoes that look good on paper, then when we make it first time round, they don’t look good, for whatever reason.
AO – I tell you what was good, the veg tan….
CH – You told me you’d sack me if we did that!
AO – We did a veg tan many many years ago, and we had a lot of trouble manufacturing and developing, and we weren’t sure about it all the way through but actually when we made it, it actually was incredibly good.
MG – Even with the Real Ale first protos we did, where we tried to do a coloured edge in a pig skin which we’d never really done before, and it just didn’t really work out, and we were like, “oh is this really gonna work?”, and we ended up changing it for the better I think. But quite often with the first prototype, you kind of want to try something else, you want to try push it a little bit, make it more interesting, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
CH – Quite often we get a shoe that looks good on paper and looks as though it really ought to turn out well, and then when we make it, you actually make the shoe and then it turns out to be too heavy, and that’s something we run across quite a lot.
TH – That’s also why we’ll never let any collaborator or a project sign off on just a CAD, we need a confirmed prototype when everyone’s seen the sample and signed off on it because we’ve had conversations with collaborators who want to make a last minute change and they say “let’s just do it off the CAD and we’re happy to go into production”, but we won’t sign that off because we just know it’s too much of a risk until you can see a confirmed prototype and we know everyone’s going to be happy with it.
AS – So they cannot do everything that they want?
CH – Definitely not! For a couple of reasons, one is, quite often the tagline is “we’d really like to do this because it’s never been done before”, and quite often there’s a lot of very good reasons why it’s never been done before, and will still never be done.
MG – Some collaborators, they just change their mind. From round to round, they just change their mind. Shoes can swing massively, so that’s a big one where designs change but I think internally, we try to stick to an idea and try to stay with it if we can because we know it causes problems for the factory otherwise.
TH – But also how Chris put it, I think another conversation we had, Chris said “like anything is possible, as long as you’re prepared to pay the costs”. In theory, you can get anything done to a shoe, as long as you’ve got unlimited funds, or you’re prepared to charge whatever you like for the shoe in order for that to happen, but you have to be realistic about what is the commercial reality. So our collaborations are expensive in the market but they can’t get much more expensive otherwise they just won’t move, so there are a number of considerations.
TL – So in the past when you guys have worked with Ventile, Schoeller, and Harris Tweed, does that not even come onto the radar now?
CH – No, no, technically and practically, there’d be nothing to stop us making more Ventile shoes, because Ventile is a material that’s made in the UK. There’s a restricted palette you can use in terms of colour, so you can’t be as adventurous as you want. The Harris Tweed material wouldn’t be a problem, other than the logistics which would no doubt be exactly the same. We could use Schoeller, we wouldn’t want to use the same material that we used last time for sure, but we could use them as a material, but quite often we’ll take a concept of the material and the look of that material and try develop it so that it achieves the technical element that Mark looks for, like it’s waterproof, and it’s breathable. We may not end up buying it from the original source, we may buy it from a source that we’re more comfortable with in terms of the logistics of supply, but we’ll look as close as possible to what Mark envisions.
MG – We’re always looking out for new materials but we don’t mind going back to some of those existing ones, but at the same time we don’t want to retread the same ground. Since they’ve done as well as they have, then it’s become a thing, so it’s nice to keep it in trend.
TL – I think when hanon were doing the Ventile shoes, they had the two shoes which were released, and there was another sample of theirs, as well as another prototype called the ‘Lancaster’ with the Ventile material, rather than as part of their collaboration?
CH – Correct.
TL – I just think it’s interesting seeing all the different materials used on shoes, and it’s one of the things certainly with the past that people regard with New Balance.
MG – We don’t necessarily always make a story out of it, like you can name these suppliers, but we don’t attempt to name a lot of the suppliers. They might be interesting to you, like some of the suede comes from Scotland for example, but we don’t really make a huge deal about it, but it’s all there in the shoe, we just don’t shout about it as much and let it stand alone and speak for itself a lot of the time.
TL – While we’re on the topic of collaborations, it feels like it’s slowed up quite a bit, certainly in comparison to a few years ago, are there any particular reasons?
TH – The practical reason why we can only do a certain amount of UK Made collaborations is the capacity and the challenge of making it, so realistically we’re limited to 2 or 3 projects a year for a UK Made collaboration, and that’s purely down to what’s achievable and what we can produce.
CH – As a byline to that, the way we do our collaborations is slightly different now. We do collaborations for a global market, rather than just the historical collaboration, which would be for a customer, like hanon for example. If we were to do a collaboration with hanon today, that collaboration would be for somewhere between 1000-1200 pairs for global distribution and hanon would have a quantity up front, and then there would be selected marketing opportunities throughout the world as a one hit. The major reason for that I think, in terms of commerciality is, we’ve got smarter like everybody else, and we’d like to make a little bit of money out of this at the same time. We don’t make a lot, but we don’t lose our shirt, which is what we used to do when we did a one off 72 pair speciality hit for someone like Microzine.
TH – This is also the realities of the way the business is growing as well, so the in-line Made in UK product range is an obligation to our customers that the factory has to fulfill, which obviously means that the possibility to do really special bespoke projects maybe isn’t there the way it was a few years ago, but that’s just the reality.
CH – And the line is bigger.
MG – And we’re right on capacity now, so there’s less room for projects, plus we’re fully aware of how many packs and collaborations now that other brands are doing. It seems crazy, so we’d like to think that we do less of them, but hopefully they have a bit more impact.
TH – I think the challenge for us as a brand is not to necessarily take a direct policy to do fewer collaborations, but how do we ensure that when we do collaborations, they remain special in a market that is arguably over saturated with collaborations. So that’s just an ongoing challenge that we have to face.
TL – It’s probably a smart idea from every point of view anyway to do fewer collaborations with the way things are just now.
TH – We want people to be excited it. I think a collaboration is too specific, so a New Balance special project, whether that be a collaboration or just a standalone special story. For example, the 1300JP2, I know it’s a US Made shoe but it’s not a collaboration, it’s very special, it’s very restricted in its distribution. It’s really important that those things are still revered, that they sell out, that they’re talking to the connoisseur consumers that really appreciate and understand it, and get it. Those projects still have to have a lot of value there. A big challenge is that everybody wants to do a collaboration, one of my challenges every week is having to have diplomatic conversations with people who want to do collaborations with New Balance, good people who would be a great partner, who have a lot to say, and a lot to contribute, but if we were to do collaborations with everybody that approached us, it would just devalue the whole thing because you’d have so many out there that they’re no longer special, no longer exciting, and it’s a tough decision to figure out who we work with a which projects go ahead and which don’t. Another thing is man power, the designers have to have enough time to be able to devote to a project.
MG – It takes a lot of time and effort on my behalf, on Chris’ behalf, to develop any of these projects, and that’s why we have so few of them.
CH – They are by the very nature of what they are, even more complicated than developing an in-line product, because you’re going off beam onto something that is very different most of the time.
TH – And every single collaborator will have a different approach to the process, so some guys will be very straightforward to work with, some will be a bit more complex to work with, so you can’t apply a formula for how every collaboration works, because every single project will throw up different challenges and you don’t know what they’re going to be until you start the next project.
AS – Are there any plans to open the next New Balance Factory in Europe?
AO – No, we haven’t actually. I think we’ve still got capacity in our current plant in terms of area. You’ve noticed that we’ve expanded to the larger warehouse but we’ve still got some room to grow. Obviously it needs to be very measured in terms of how we grow, and there are discussions every week and every month about how we grow.
MG – I think it would be more a case of you guys (Flimby Factory) expanding before a new factory was to be built, wouldn’t it?
AO – Yeah, definitely.
MG – A new factory is such a huge investment, and there are no workforces in most places that have any sort of former training in footwear so it would take a huge investment.
AO – I think we could probably do another 150,000 pairs out of our current footprint annually, so we’re ok for now.
RS – Relating to capacity, you’re bringing back the 575, so does that have the capacity to run alongside all the other models, or does a model have to be dropped to fit that in?
MG – I think at least for this coming season it’s an addition to the range, it’s not replacing anything else.
TH – Regardless of capacity, every product has a life cycle as well, and products need to be rested in order to be brought back with some energy behind it and great demand behind it, so it’s not just about production capacity, it’s more about giving products time to breathe, sometimes time out from the line, so that then people can appreciate them. There’s only so many stories you can tell in a season, and if you have too many products and too big a product line, then some of them are going to get neglected, and some of them are going to get overlooked, so it’s kind of bad brand management as much as anything. Also, we have to be aware that when you’re making premium product like Made in USA, or Made in UK product, there’s only a certain demand for that market because it’s very premium and very expensive and it’s in our interests to protect that market by not over saturating it and putting too much product into the market.
TL – So when are you guys going to bring back the 860 or the 1300?
TH – You’re going to have to wait and see. I mean, we’re always looking at the archives, we’re always aware of what people like you guys would like to see, we’re always having a discussion internally, but we can’t obviously disclose too much.
TL – Yeah, I know, it was just tongue in cheek, it’s fine.
MG – You can still buy the 1300 from the US.
TL – It’s ok, I prefer the UK one if I'm honest.
MG – It’s pretty much a US model now, isn’t it?
AO – It is.
CH – That’s the other thing that’s happened, the portfolio of product has been divided so basically, there is a portfolio of historical styles, which will only be made in a certain location, particularly the domestic locations. The domestic manufacturing locations produce entirely individual portfolios of products, so if we want to sell 998’s, we have to buy them from the US, and if the US want to sell 1500’s, they have to buy them from us, you know, they don’t make their own.
TH – There’s a lot of equity in those stories for us as a brand, so it doesn’t always make sense to just suddenly shift production of one model that’s became synonymous with UK manufacturing or US manufacturing. I guess guys like you would understand because you’re kind of experts and purists in the brand, but I guess to the average New Balance consumer, it can get quite confusing.
TL – Yeah, well we’re still essentially the minority at the end of the day.
TH – Yup, a very niche minority, but also a very appreciated minority.
MG – However, there is going to be some very exciting new stuff coming, definitely, both new and old.
TH – Yeah, there is a lot of exciting stuff. And also, as much as consumers at your kind of networks, we understand that it’s important to keep engaging with you guys and doing stuff that you guys are going to appreciate because you’re the connoisseurs and it matters what you guys think. So yeah, there are a lot of interesting things coming forward and I think you guys will be stoked.
AS – The custom program in the US is huge, and it attracts a large amount of UK consumers who are let down by not being able to purchase, are there any plans to launch NB custom program at Flimby, or is it just not a viable option?
AO – We’ve got enough on our plate at the moment, so we definitely won’t be. However, never say never about anything.
TL – Would it ever be an option for New Balance to ship to the UK from their custom program in the US?
TH – The challenges there are to do with logistics, and the duties, and costs, so that’s the problem. Obviously ideally, I think, it’s not just a mean spirited conspiracy to just not ship out of the US, I think there’s just a lot of practical challenges. It’s now called NB1 in the US, and it’s marketed globally, that social media is global, and in an ideal world we’d like to make it global but there are practical obstacles to get over before we come to that stage.
MG – The custom program is still new to the US, and they’re still figuring it out in their own territory, let alone trying to export it out yet, but I’m sure they’re discussing it.
TL/AS/RS – Thank you very much guys.
End of interview.