Behold the New Balance 990 running shoe. Or better yet, don’t — which is probably what the 990 would prefer, anyway.
Square as a pan of brownies, plain as a prison dinner, the 990 — that gray doorstop of sensible American footwear — has built a 33-year career by offering no hint of personality. Deliberately mundane, endearingly dorky, it is that rare piece of fashion that seems to go out of its way to remain unnoticed.
But on the eve of a rare high-profile public appearance — a spokeswoman for Boston-based New Balance confirms that the 990 will be making a cameo in the upcoming Steve Jobs biopic, set for an October release — let us pause to consider this unlikeliest of icons.
Has a piece of footwear ever so discreetly infiltrated the American wardrobe?
A quick stroll through popular culture reveals the extent of its reach. Apple cofounder Jobs, perhaps the world’s most revered computer nerd, helped put the shoe on the map, wearing it frequently during company presentations. Ben Affleck donned a pair to play middle-aged schlub Nick Dunne in the 2014 film “Gone Girl,” a guy who loses his New York magazine job, moves to suburban Missouri and, apparently, buys himself a pair of 990s — before his wife turns up missing.
The 990 has made a foray into national politics, where it seems to enjoy bipartisan support. President Obama, a Democrat not known for adventurous sartorial choices, has owned a pair — custom-made with his name adorning the sides. So has Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who according to the Associated Press wore a variation of the shoe while running the Firecracker 5K in Little Rock, Ark., back in 2004.
You can find it throughout greater Boston, on the feet of the weekend tourists unfolding their maps over on Boylston Street, and the middle-aged father moving his kid into Harvard’s Kirkland House on a recent Saturday, a rug tucked under one arm, a box under the other, wearing his in that all-American-dad kind of way: with shorts and white socks.
Here it is right now, as a matter of fact, anchoring the outfit of 81-year-old Fred Reis, who, as I write this, has just wandered into the Boston Public Library’s Bates Hall wearing a well-worn version of the shoe.
What is it about that shoe, anyway? you ask, catching up to him in the hallway.
Reis, who owns four pairs, pauses to consider the question.
“I guess I can’t give you a good answer,” he says, finally.
For its part, New Balance credits the shoe’s ubiquity to its timeless simplicity, its made-in-the-USA reputation and carefully crafted quality.
“The layperson may look at it and say, ‘It’s just a gray shoe,’ ” explains Jen Lynch, a senior product manager with the company. “But there’s so much more to it than that.”
Maybe, but it’s not always easy to tell.
‘The layperson may look at it and say, “It’s just a gray shoe.’’ But there’s so much more to it than that.’Jen Lynch, New Balance senior product manager
On the vast wall of athletic shoes inside City Sports in Chestnut Hill, the 990 is barely noticeable amid the flash and fluorescence of today’s most popular running footwear. From its color (gray, the same as fog and sidewalks) to its existential ambiguity (Is it a running shoe? A dress shoe? A casual loafer?), the shoe seems to boast no distinguishable characteristics. It lacks the attitude of Converse’s Chuck Taylor All Star, the stateliness of Sperry’s Top-Sider boat shoe, and the wholesome perfection of an all-white pair of Keds.
Its sensible reputation has grown so pervasive, in fact, that it has occasionally found itself the butt of jokes. “Saturday Night Live” tackled the 990 a couple years back (“New Balance: Shoes made for running, but worn by chubby white guys in their late 30s to early 40s”). And at the website Stuff White People Like, the gray New Balance sneaker checks in at No. 96, behind rugby and graduate school but ahead of scarves and Frisbee sports. White people, the site tells us, have long been known to discard their foot-based fads almost as quickly as they adopt them: Uggs, Birkenstocks, Crocs.
“There is, however, one exception,” the site notes. “New Balance running shoes.”
Even on the occasions it has reason to let its hair down a bit, to get a little crazy, the 990 comes across stiffer than a new pair of Levi’s. When it debuted in 1982, it came with a marketing slogan: “On a scale of 1000, this shoe is a 990.”
You see that? It left itself room for improvement.
And yet, as the years have gone by, as flashier models have come and inevitably gone, the 990 marches on — with no signs of slowing.
Though New Balance declines to provide sales figures, senior product manager Eric Vassall acknowledged recently that the 990’s current iteration, the 990v3, is among the company’s top sellers. And while multiple variations and even customizable options are now available, the gray version, which retails for around $155, is easily the most popular. The company is slated to release a new edition of the 990 next spring, with an advance release set for the Washington D.C./Baltimore area.
All of which makes you wonder whether you might be missing something. Maybe we’ve got the 990 figured all wrong. Maybe there’s a method to its mundane-ness. Maybe the 990 knows exactly what it’s doing. Maybe it always has.
Look closely. There, on the side of the shoe, the letter “N” stitched inconspicuously into the suede — tilted just a bit, knowingly.
Like a wink.Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.