New Balance has officially unveiled its highly-anticipated “Conversations Amongst Us Collection,” which was creatively directed by none other than designer and culture curator Joe Freshgoods. For this specific collaboration, “JFG” founder Joe Robinson directly collaborated with an all-Black product team at New Balance known as The Black Soles. This team of Black creatives includes Associate Product Managers and Designers, Jordan Johnson and Kevin Trotman to drive forward an intentionally designed collection. This collection follows the unisex release of New Balance x Joe Freshgoods MADE in USA 990v3, which was known as the “Outside Clothes” installation that paid homage to the childhood nostalgia of playing outside during the summertime.

The campaign video, which was circulated around both brands’ social media accounts, features NBA athlete Kawhi Leonard and pays tribute to a Black man’s nod, which served as “a gesture encapsulating how Black men have communicated with one another for centuries,” according to a press release sent to ESSENCE. Officially launched on April 15, the collection is available on newbalance.com and focuses on lifestyle silhouettes of the 2002R  ($130.00) and 550 ($120.00). The collection includes, but is not limited to, graphic tees, a fleece hoodie, crewneck, and pants, with suggested retail pricing ranging between $40.00 and $85.00.

This week, Joe Freshgoods announced another New Balance collaboration, for the New Balance 9060 “Inside Voices” installation, which will be dropping in two weeks. According to HYPEBEAST, Joe Freshgoods has been dropping hints at the 9060 collaboration since the top of 2022, but now fans of the designer and brand can indulge in the suede overlay and “JFG” branding in just a few short weeks. The “Inside Voices” collaboration will hit the shelves in May 2022, featuring multiple sets of shoelaces in red, sail, and white, and subtle green accents on the ankle collar and tongue.

Following the launch of the New Balance collaboration with Joe Fresh Goods, ESSENCE caught up with Kevin Trotman, Associate Product Manager – Global Collaborations & Energy, and Jordan Johnson, Associate Product Manager & Designer – Global Collaborations & Energy. Dive into the conversation to learn more about how the opportunity to collaborate came about, how they each played a role in the product rollout and more exciting news from the New Balance team.

ESSENCE: First thing’s first, how did the collaboration between Joe Freshgoods and New Balance come about?

Kevin Trotman: The inception of the relationship really started back in 2019 when we went out to ComplexCon, and he was in Chicago. We were just walking around the venue, and Joe’s booth was absolutely ridiculous; there was a line wrapped around like three times. It was obvious he had a ridiculous presence in Chicago, but I think his day one fans were there, too. We saw something there. We had to plan something for All-Star Weekend that following year and as it was in Chicago, we thought Joe would be a great partner. We ended up meeting with him [at the] end of 2019.

We did his first [No Emotions Are Emotions] 992 project in a ridiculously short timeline. It literally took probably about five months, when usually, at that time anyway, it was taking around eight to 12 months to confirm a made-in-USA product. The inception of Kawhi and Joe’s relationship started then too because we did the Kawhi’s to go along with that collection. That’s kind of how it really started and obviously, these past couple of years, the relationship has grown and [is] definitely not stopping.

ESSENCE: What role did each of you play in this collaboration?

Jordan Johnson: I’m speaking for Kev first because I was like the Robin to his Batman in this instance because he was the main product manager. [Kevin] led everything from setting up the codes in our system to giving us the creative direction behind where we wanted to go model-wise, mix-wise, how many pairs we wanted to do, and what made sense from the business standpoint. I played the designer role this time. I am a product manager right now, and I’m an associate product manager on the global collaborations team. I work on Tokyo Design Studio products, as well as some of our individual collaborators, like Jaden Smith and Storm Reid. I’ve designed the Black History Month collection for the past three years since its inception in 2020, and this is actually the first year of our Black Experience collection. It’s kind of taking on a new identity and theme.

In terms of storytelling and making sure everything fits with what Joe Freshgoods was doing, my job was to make sure that our story connected to what we were doing in the past with this collection and as Black Soles, but also making sure it made sense with what Joe Freshgoods was doing with his other New Balance collaborations. We knew at the end of the day, that although this wasn’t a Joe Freshgoods traditional collaboration, this is an inline product pushed by the inline team. Joe Freshgoods was the creative director on top of it. Our job was really to make sure that everything seamlessly went together, and make sure that our stories were aligned with what Joe wanted to tell as well.

Trotman: We’ve been trying to communicate to people that it’s not a collaboration. It was an internally led project that Joe Freshgoods creative directed. Myself, Jordan, also Jamal Murray who designed the apparel, also Cordell Jordan, who worked on the Kawhi II, designed that shoe. It was really us putting the concepts forward and getting Joe Fresh’s stamp of approval and any feedback that he had, which was great. He really let us run with a lot of the project, which is dope. It was a brand moment, led by people that worked for the brand, and Joe was creatively directing it.

ESSENCE: What were some of the major inspirations behind the design, the creative direction, and the marketing strategy?

Johnson: I feel like the process was very easy. Joe is one of those gifted people in terms of [knowing] what’s going to work before it comes to fruition, and he knows how people need to be communicated to in order for it to make sense and feel authentic. That’s literally everything we were wanting with this collection. We felt like we were able to implement it with our collections before, but really using Joe as that amplifier that we needed to make sure that the story got told on a broader level, and just brought that authenticity to everything, made it really imperative to have him a part of it.

In terms of how he works, we would pretty much bring certain concepts to him. Kev knows I was in my head about so many other directions that we could have gone with this theme because it’s such a broad story that we’re telling in terms of where you can go from inspiration point to color, to material. It’s really a limitless base. A lot of designers take a lot overzealous about certain opportunities like that, whereas I thrive with a little bit more direction and barriers around what the objective is. Thankfully, Joe was able to provide those directions and barriers. When I was casting this wide net and bringing everything to the table like, “Yo, we can do whatever we want,” but just coming with like seven ideas, Joe’s being able to pinpoint, “Okay, now that’s what is going to work. That right there, that story, that color palette, those materials, that makes a lot of sense for us. So let’s go with that.” He was able to keep me out of my head and make sure things always went smoothly with his direction. It’s super easy working with Joe.

ESSENCE: Why is it so important for large brands such as New Balance to highlight, collaborate with, and partner with Black-owned brands, designers, and curators?

Trotman: I think it’s extremely important solely for the fact that it’s not a secret that people of color, especially Black people, are the trendsetters when it comes to fashion and culture in general. A lot of what we dictate is cool, ends up being cool. From a macro perspective, having people internally at the brand that understand the industry in that sense and that scene, we were able to gain the trust of internal employees to let us really run with some of these ideas. At the end of the day, we’re really trying to tell authentic stories and by collaborating with someone like Joe, the premise of his storytelling is telling the Black experience.

With Conversations Amongst Us, Jordan says it’s a pretty broad topic but there are so many different ways that you can use, not only just that title but this time period, this moment in history. This collection will live for a really long time because you can talk about it in so many different ways. It really goes back to the whole idea of us being able to have a conversation and speak about things that we really want to talk about that have been weighing on us. Being able to tap into these storytellers that tell these authentic stories that can be curated extremely well is something that speaks volumes to who we are as a people, and we feel like Joe and collaborators like himself are perfect for that role.

Johnson: To piggyback off that, I’m going to take this from what James Winter told us during our talk in Atlanta. What we’ve created now, especially putting in that groundwork for the first two years from 2020 to where we are now with this capsule, this collection, this team that we started with, with the support of New Balance and all of our SLT members we are able to have the support behind us, but we’re able to now have this complete capsule. The program is an initiative in which we own and get to tell our own narrative through in a corporate space. Every time I tell someone how we are operating within Black Soles and this capsule that we do every year, it’s astonishing to people for us to have that freedom and liberation. The more that we prove successful with our capsules and collections like we have with Joe Freshgoods, it only furthers our independence and freedom to create internally under this umbrella with the same passion that we initially started it with. The more we do, the more powerful and impactful this program becomes. It’s amazing.

ESSENCE: What other collaborations and projects can we expect in the near future from New Balance and Black Soles?

Trotman: You’ll see us working with a lot of the same players that we’ve been working with and just expanding those relationships. You’re still going to see us work with Joe Freshgoods, you’re still going to see us work with Aimé Leon Dore, and you’ll still see us work with Salehe Bembury. Obviously, we have the Stone Island relationship as well. There’ll be more products coming out with that. There are some big ones that we obviously have to keep under wrap but for the most part, you’re going to see us going bigger with some of our partners, for sure, and another few brands that we’re really excited about that are coming down the pipeline as well.

Johnson: As well as a bigger focus in terms of speaking to the diversity standpoint, trying to find more people of color, collaborators, and more women collaborators as well. You see some things released recently with brands like GANNI. With some more women-based and women-focused projects, we feel are really important for our space as well. We’re really focusing on diversifying our portfolio in terms of who we work with as the intention always was from the beginning with brands like Aimé Leon Dore, but just for everything to feel authentic and purposeful and fit under the New Balance umbrella. That’s always our focus.

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