D.C.'s Shoe? An oral history of the District's obsession with New Balance sneakers
What comes to mind when you think of the shoe brand New Balance? If you're from D.C., you might reflect on your first pair, or the big imprint the shoe brand has had on the city's culture. Now, a new documentary from a local filmmaker is exploring that decades-long obsession between the District and its signature shoe.
D.C. native and sneaker enthusiast Jacob Garibay is the mind behind DC's Shoe: The Origin of New Balance in Washington DC — which is premiering at The Village Cafe in Union Market Friday. In the 11-minute film, Garibay talks with several D.C. natives across generations who have a distinct connection to the brand and history of the shoe.
Garibay launched the documentary project in 2021, starting with a callout on Twitter and Instagramrequesting people send in photos of them wearing New Balance sneakers over the years. The response exceeded his expectations; he received hundreds of submissions from D.C.-area residents across all ages.
New Balance takes the '80s
Historically, New Balance sneakers have been typecast as being an ugly dad shoe, something people mow their lawns in. But to folks native to Washington D.C., New Balance sneakers have been a staple of D.C. culture and street style dating back to the early 80's.
In 1982, New Balance was the first shoe brand to release a sneaker for the retail price of $100: their 990 model. At the time, competitors such as Nike and Adidas' most expensive shoes sold for between $60 to $80. Paying $100 for sneakers was unheard of.
But the hefty price tag and nice style of the New Balance 990 model attracted the attention of street culture in the 80s. "It started on the block. where everybody would hang out with your homies, and a lot of other shoes weren't comfortable, your feet (would) start hurting after a while," D.C. native and filmmaker Karim Mowatt says during an interview in DC's Shoe. "So with a pair of New Balance you was good, you could wear a pair of New Balance all day. But after a while it became straight fashion because it was expensive, and they were pretty. So we didn't wear it for comfort anymore, it became fashion."
The go-to shoe for go-gos
Go-go culture was also essential to the spread of New Balance's popularity within the region. In the late '80's and early '90's, go-go events were at their height. People from all corners of the region would flock to the Capitol Centre, The Black Hole, Masonic Temple, and The Reeves Center to see acts such as Chuck Brown, Rare Essence, Junkyard Band, E.U and Sugar Bear, and many more.
A staple part of attending a go-go was getting your picture taken at the photo booth, what was affectionately known as "getting flicked up." Thousands of photos from go-go booths show teenagers and adults of all ages huddled together in groups with their friends, striking their best poses. Many of the people in these photos are donning New Balance sneakers to make their fashion statements. (Look toward the bottom of the images — many of which are included in Garibay's documentary — to see the flash creating the telltale pop of light off the reflective New Balance logo.)
Also among the photo submissions were family portraits, photos from early childhood, photos from go-go events of the '80's, '90's, 2000's, and photos shot as recently as 2021. While sorting through the submissions, Garibay noticed a few things.
"A common trend I realized is that people would send pictures of themselves and then their parents as well, which was pretty cool. It was multi-generational," says Garibay. "Something that I realized growing up, there were people of all races wearing New Balance. In the pictures you have Black, Hispanic, White, Asian people, it was pretty cool to see."
As the shoes became a central part of go-go fashion, New Balances became more than a way for hustlers to flex their wealth in comfort. They became a staple fashion item within Washington D.C., no matter who you were — one that the youth that made them popular did not abandon for years. They passed down the tradition, buying New Balance sneakers for their own kids in the '90's and 2000's. I experienced this personally, when my dad gifted me my first pair of clean light gray New Balances as a child.
Documenting D.C.'s NB phenomenon
With DC's Shoe, Garibay set out to share the first-person accounts of several D.C. natives with connections to the brand, and utilizes photos to illustrate their memories. The film's biggest get may be Parviz Mizrahi, the owner of Prince & Princess clothing store on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown.
Prince & Princess has been a staple boutique since the '80's, and was the store where many people purchased their first pairs of New Balances. Mizrahi started carrying various styles of New Balances in 1983 after he saw that other stores were only carrying a few kinds of the shoes, he says in the documentary. To this day, when you walk into Prince & Princess, you're likely looking at one of the largest selections of New Balances in the D.C. area.
Mizrahi says in the film the 995, 996, and 1400's were the most popular during his early years — and no matter the model, the brand's distinct grey colorway was by far the best seller.
"Every O.G. and oldhead in D.C. knows about Prince & Princess. He probably didn't understand the impact that he was going to have on the patrons of not only D.C. but the world," Garibay says. "If it wasn't for him opting to carry New Balance, who knows if we would even be having this conversation."
The documentary talks with several other D.C. natives, including Mowatt, the filmmaker; rapper Paco Panama, and Malik Jarett, the founder and designer of the popular D.C.-bred clothing line, EAT, which stands for Elevate All The Time. Jarret himself collaborated with the New Balance brand multiple times over the years, releasing a signature 990v3, 990v4, and 990v5 shoe, one of which he shows off below on Instagram.
Those shoes, released in 2018 and 2019, are some of the latest examples of New Balance's continued influence over the D.C. region, and one of the first steps in New Balance actually acknowledging the area's historical relationship to their brand. Retailers such as DTLR and designers such as DMV bred June Sanders, with his D.C. flag-adorned New Balance design, have also helped establish this cultural connection on a national level.
The great debate
Of course, the documentary also touches on one of the most debated topics around any cultural phenomenon: who actually gets the credit for starting it. As his social posts picked up steam, Garibay saw exactly that conversation cropping up in the comments.
"You had people from Baltimore and New York and Philly commenting," says Garibay. "I'm sure people everywhere were wearing New Balance." But D.C.'s history with the shoes was also undeniable.
"We also have photographic evidence from hundreds, if not thousands of people who grew up in the '80s, '90s, and all you saw was New Balance in every go-go picture," Garibay says.
Garibay's motivation for creating this documentary was not to claim bragging rights, but to celebrate the rich culture of D.C. "To me, it was more so about being able to tell the story and create that dialogue. My intention was never to make it about who started it first, but obviously part of me knew that the conversation would eventually arise."
Preserving a legacy
The point of the documentary is to preserve that history and culture. As the city continues to experience gentrification and displacement of native residents, the stakes of that preservation could not be higher, Garibay says. Even though the shoes have had staying power in D.C. for four decades, their importance in the city moving forward isn't a given.
"If you really think about the grand scheme of things, how different demographics are moving into the city, with the redevelopment of the city in general, you're bound to lose certain stories or certain aspects of the city," Garibay says. "So D.C. for sure is going to lose some of what makes it itself; whether it be sneakers, food, fashion, or history, and that's why I think it's important to tell the story so that it gets out at some point, it's documented."
D.C.'s Shoe: The Origin of New Balance in Washington D.C. will screen Friday at The Village Cafe near Union Market at 7 p.m. (RSVP required.) There will be multiple viewings and the evening will conclude with a panel discussion. Recommended attire for the event? Your favorite pair of New Balance sneakers.
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