THE ‘N’

New Balance’s ‘N’ application might be one of my favourite pieces of branding. I know a few folks who don’t bother with the brand on the basis that the ‘N’ looks ugly to them, but that’s because they’re idiots. Introduced circa 1976 (I’ve seen 320s with the uglier logo-free look as well as the ‘N’) when the brand recruited branding guru Terry Heckler (his Heckler Associates company defined the Starbucks brand too) who argued against protestations that it looked too Nike with, “That’s good, they’re making more money than us. We’ll sell twice as much.” Fair point.

Execs at a newly-christened Nike were concerned that their swoosh would fail because despite the sense of motion it conveyed, it had no performance benefits — adidas’s 3-Stripes, PUMA’s Formstripe and Onitsuka’s Tiger Stripes were all reputed to add extra support to the upper as well as make their mark. I know that’s not actually true for Onitsuka, and I doubt it is for the other two either, but it’s a nice story. The ‘N’ is a recognizable stamp, plain and simple (I actually had a go at cutting one out in the factory earlier in the year and managed to embed the cutter two inches into the cutting board), but when it’s made of Scotchlite, it’s arguably one of the truly functional sneaker logos. I can’t get enough of the reaction when light hits them.

Alongside the phenomenal pricetags ($130 for a 1300 in 1985, $160 for a 1500 in 1988), the ‘N’ is what piqued my interest in New Balance. Saucony, Mizuno and Brooks never quite had the killer application to sway me from the big two, but Heckler’s work paid dividends. I recently dug out the ‘Enduring Performance: The New Balance Story’ book from 2006 and realised that I shouldn’t have written it off at the time for lacking an exhaustive model list, because there’s some great material in there. I’m liking the new UK A/W 2011 catalogue too, with a Flimby-made soft leather cover, complete with an ‘N’ attached. The content’s decent too.

(DIGRESSION ALERT)

On a deeply unrelated note, thoroughly enjoyed Jerzy Skolimowski’s ‘Essential Killing.’ I was concerned that the symbolism and allegorical nature of it might make it as intolerable as Nicholas Winding Refn’s ‘Valhalla Rising’, but at fear of trivializing the topic at hand, it played out like a Guardian reader rendition of ‘First Blood.’ I’ve only dipped into some of Jerzy’s earlier work, but I wasn’t aware that he was the man behind the amazing 1977 Brit-horror oddity, ‘The Shout’ with Alan Bates up to no good using his Aboriginal shouting powers.

Of course, the posters promoting ‘Essential Killing’ as some sort of proper action film means it’s guaranteed to spit out screwfaced punters who went it expecting some heroic bloodshed. I was raised on ‘Pathfinder’ and ‘Quest for Fire’ and I expected more survivalist fun along the same lines. It wasn’t much like that either. I distinctly recall Ken Loach’s ‘My Name is Joe’ being promoted as a pulse-pounding thriller too. It wasn’t, but I respect arthouse cinema getting all misleading and grindhouse on us every once in a while.

Where the film truly excels is in its appearance — it looks like the best video lookbook ever made. Prince Vince legging it around the woods with a beard? The lack of smiles? The bloodstains on a while military snow suit? The flash of Guantanamo orange beneath the black overalls at the start of the Gallo’s escape and initial attempt at disguise? I hope it sets trends. At the very least, the barefoot in snow style would cull a few mindless followers via pneumonia and frostbite amputation.

8 thoughts on “THE ‘N’

  1. i have a distant/close relationship to/with new balance…(i dig them because my initials are NB…yeah, i’m still in grade 6). but truth be told: i don’t really know them.
    somehow they have always remained as an after thought in the ‘running shoe’ part of my brain. the documentary “just for kicks” (lisa leone & thibaut de longeville) somehow expresses my relationship to running shoes best and new balance was only mentioned at the end, when the credits began…so…

  2. I think they’re one of the purest of all the brands when it comes to heritage. The grey or navy palettes are a detox when it comes to sports footwear, and in their day these shoes were the top-end super-expensive performance pieces on the shelves.

  3. yes i agree that in their day they were top end performance pieces (from what i heard)
    but since i participated in sports when i was younger i wore adidas running shoes for sports (they never touched the payment!!!) and the nike canvas running shoes (the prefect ones remember?!) for the street…that is what i feel i know. my impression, my memory re: NB were that they for serious adults only who jogged?? never really that accessible and that is why i have a close/distant relationship with them…
    i heard that they are huge in the UK…they are only just starting to be worn here, as street-wear by the hipsters…

  4. VALHALLA RISING was brilliant compared to ESSENTIAL KILLING!!

    I was actually pissed off with Jerzy after that flick. Seriously seemed like a cop out and a confused film. At first you thought it was some black comedy then it tries to become serious… then some survival shit… then fuckin ENDS?! Yeah looked good… but as a work with a message I think I missed it completely…

    While Refn’s was a bad ass tour de force of nu-age barbarianism… Conan with more insight into what mighta been going on in their minds.

    Gots to say it was the camera work that made me watch ESSENTIAL KILLING till the credits. OTherwise it woulda got an early ‘stop’

    1. I think I need to watch Valhalla again…my attention left the building after 30 minutes, whereas the general bad luck of Gallo’s character (and the running time) kept me watching Essential Killing until the end. I approached Jerzy’s film expecting what I saw, but I guess I anticipated Refn does Conan in a Pusher style. I drew comparisons because both were “arthouse action” with crazy misleading promo materials in the Evening Standard.

      1. Totally agree that Essential Killing’s poster is “guaranteed to spit out screwfaced punters”. I liked Valhalla Rising okay but, to me, Essential Killing was vastly superior. Conceptually, I can’t think of any other film like it in the way that it is a kind of engineered blank slate so that the person watching can fill in the blanks in very different ways depending on who they are.
        It felt to me like there was concept and intention to everything in the movie and lots of symbolism without being heavyhanded about it (unlike Valhalla Rising). I think it had it’s own kind of pacing and structure but worked really well within that. As you mentioned, the clothing changes through the phases and also how each encounter made the moral question more complicated rather than reinforcing a pattern was really different: he made a split second choice given the opportunity with the soldiers at the crash site (and Gallo was effective in wordlessly conveying his internal conflict – reminding me of Kieslowski’s Short Film About Killing) then the logger who he needed to kill if he wanted to escape, then the fisherman who he didn’t need to, and then the woman on the bike where it was conflicted – and I thought it was brilliant that it is up to the viewer to guess if she is dead or not.
        It left me with a lot more to think about than Valhalla Rising did and Vincent Gallo much more fully occupied his role.

  5. oh yeah also the running time of ESSENTIAL KILLING hahaha … CREDITS ALREADY?! WTF?!? HAHAHHAHA

    The colours of VALHALLA RISING were also great. Do find a HQ version of it and not some 700mb download! ha

    1. I hadn’t noticed parallels between that film and a Short Film About Killing, but you’re right.

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