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While NYFW Searches for What’s “Hot,” New Balance Is on the Hunt for What’s “Not”

Fashion Week is all about the latest trends, but New Balance has its sights set on finding what’s “not” instead of what’s “hot.”

During New York Fashion Week, the Boston-based athletic footwear and apparel player will be handing out free pairs of its sneakers to pedestrians who buck style trends, using a new proprietary algorithm developed in concert with VML Marketing, according to a report from Fast Company.

Dubbed “Be the Exception,” the initiative is designed to identify consumers who best represent New Balance’s brand values as “the rebel of the sportswear industry,” Fast Company wrote. Then, the next step is to simply connect with those who have the most notable individual style and create de facto brand ambassadors by giving them free pairs of New Balance shoes. All of this will be accomplished using artificial intelligence-powered algorithms, machine learning and traditional data gathering.

New Balance and VML will look at data gathered by a team of computer scientists who took photos of street style in the city over the past several weeks. This data will then be compared with outfits seen by other strategically placed cameras during Fashion Week. Once the algorithm has determined an outfit is sufficiently “New Balance,” a brand representative will attempt to track that person down and hand over a brand-new pair of New Balance Fresh Foam Cruz Nubuck sneakers.

“The idea is to celebrate people who go left when everybody else is going right,” Allie Tsavdarides, New Balance’s director of global marketing, said to Fast Company. “And it’s a way to (hand out our) products to these people who already reflect what we stand for as a brand.”

New Balance prides itself on “challenging the status quo” and, earlier in the year, doubled down on that theme with a new brand slogan: “Fearlessly Independent Since 1906.” That’s why the brand’s first task was identifying the trends that were the most popular—and then teaching an AI to avoid them. To do this, the New Balance and VML science team are using an open-source software called TensorFlow, a program AI researchers can use to create neural networks. By feeding their data into the network, they hope to identify trends based on overall styles, color palettes, patterns and more. However, the AI will not target specific individuals.

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“We’re not trying to re-create Minority Report here,” Craig Elimeliah, executive director of creative technology at VML, joked to Fast Company. “We’re not identifying actual people, just the trends in aggregate.”

Elimeliah’s statement is backed up by the assertion that the technology won’t be collecting any facial recognition data or other information that might be used to track individuals for illicit purposes. Instead, New Balance suggests this technology might simply become a valuable marketing tool to help find the right consumers to target. Elimeliah thinks the real value may be in creating a whole new way to objectively identify style trends that the human eye isn’t equipped to notice.

“We really want the computers to do their job,” Elimeliah said. “Who knows exactly what they will identify as exceptions to trends? We can’t wait to find out.”


Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.