Clean, Mean, Kicks Machine
Sneakers as we know and love them today were created in the early 1900’s. This year is the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Converse All Star’s. The Converse Rubber Shoe Company created the All Star in 1917, a few years later they were rebranded as Chuck Taylor’s. Chuck was the first sportsman to have a sneaker named after himself and at the time it is unlikely he ever imagined they would grow into such a huge global icon for generations to come.
I believe in looking after my belongings and keeping them for as long as is humanly possible. I don’t like things to be wasted, mistreated and needlessly thrown away. While I realise that fashion is a consumerist driven monster and I have more sneakers than I actually need. I justify this by the theory that I really do look after them and by having many pairs of sneakers, all their lives are prolonged. If I only had one pair at a time, they would inevitably wear out and meet their demise, so by having many pairs, the load is shared and those faves from years gone by still shine to see another day. Any addict will try to justify their addiction though huh?
So, getting down to business. The most important aspect of sneaker longevity is a regular cleaning regime.
I use three standard household products throughout the different areas of a sneaker. I don’t doubt there are a plethora of specialised shoe cleaning products that one could order online or get from a shoe specialist. However, I don’t think this is necessary and it’s almost certainly more expensive than the easily attainable items I use from the supermarket.
Sard wonder soap in bar format is a great product, it’s my go to in the laundry for all sorts of textile stains, marks and situations. It is also available in a few different sprays or sticks but they have NOTHING on the bar. The best thing about Sard is that it is incredibly effective whilst being very gentle. The bar produces a thick moisture rich foam which is perfect for lathering and really getting beyond the surface of the textile.
Next up is Jif cream, it’s the complete opposite of Sard. Jif is incredibly harsh and basically takes a layer off the surface (despite what their website says about it being gentle). Therefore, it's important to be very careful and controlled regarding where and how we use it. Especially on our favourite kicks that we want to be pearly white and sparkle bright! The last thing we want to achieve in our quest to regain that sparkle is to remove any colour or detailing.
Lastly, I use a general multi-purpose spray (current brand is Earth Choice). It’s gentle and safe to use on any surfaces we encounter in our sneaker cleaning.
I like to have two sponges on hand, one to apply the cleaning products with and another that stays pretty product free to wipe off soap and dirt residue once cleaned. If you’re not at the sink and want to sit elsewhere to do a few pairs at once, I would suggest getting two buckets, each about a quarter full of warm water. One is for the soapy sponge and the other is for the cleaner sponge.
Check out the diagrams below to learn the names of the sneaker parts that I’m going to refer to.
Let’s start with bumper/foxing/midsole, depending on whether the rubber sole is vulcanised or not it will have a slightly different anatomy. Either way, it’s the area that joins the outer sole and the upper together. This area is the bit the gets most noticeably dirty and is also commonly white. Which is not a good combo in itself really is it? Come on, the odds are stacked against us.
Rubber soles vary in genetics and all have their pro’s and con’s, it’s really dependant on personal preference and end use. All Star’s and Vans are vulcanised, the process for this involves baking the sneakers at a high temperature. Because of this the upper will be made of something that isn’t going to melt, like canvas or leather. But this isn’t an article on vulcanised rubber soles so back to the cleaning.
For the bumper/foxing/midsole I start with the Sard bar to see what we’re dealing with. Take your product sponge, wet it and wring it out, then give the corner a good rub over the bar. Now place your sneaker holding hand into the shoe, this is the easiest way to hold it, for me it is my left hand as I'm right handed. With the other hand, the cleaning hand, grab your sponge and in short strokes rub back and forth around the bumper/foxing/midsole.
If the Sard is going to do the job it will happen quite quickly. If it cleans up nicely then proceed to wiping off the dirt and soap with the clean moist sponge, rinse and repeat a couple of times.
Something to note is that the vulcanised soles usually have a more textured finish and over time dirt will become trapped in the tiny grooves. A remedy for this is to use a clean, stiff bristle shoe brush and rub it over the Sard bar, then really work the soapy bristles into the grooves. Wipe it down afterwards with your moist sponge. You can even get the sponge quite wet and squeeze the water over the area to flush out the soap and dirt (do this over the sink/bucket of course).
Failing the success of the Sard, we move onto the Jif.
Caution: NEVER use Jif on ANY coloured areas of the shoe, especially a PVC or any kind of patent leather. If there is a logo on the back heel avoid this area. Most of the dirt will be around the front half anyway – the splash zone.
Apply a pea sized amount of Jif onto the corner of the sponge at any one time, the closer to the edge of the sponge that you apply it the easier it will be to hold it correctly, thus keeping your eye on the prize, the sole, the entire time.
Bend the sponge over and hold it like in the picture below, this is the best orientation to be able to see the Jif and sole during the process. Again, rub back and forth in short strokes around the bumper/foxing/midsole and the Jif will remove at least 90% of any marks.
At the end of the day some marks are just part of the shoe now but that’s life. Once you are satisfied with the area, take your clean moist sponge and remove the Jif. Give the sponge a good rinse and a final wipe off. I always remove Jif with a downward wiping motion as this will wipe it away from the sneaker upper.
While using the Jif may sound a little scary, it’s really not and nothing is going to get the bumper/foxing/midsole cleaner. I mean feel free to start mixing up baking soda pastes, but I think this is unnecessary personally. If the Jif doesn’t work, then I really don’t know what you have stepped in! Like seriously, where have you been?
In saying that there are some marks/discolouration that slowly occur over time depending on the rubber type and the life the sneaker leads. These will be very hard to remove completely. After all, sneakers don't last forever.
Moving onto the shoe upper, for PVC - so anything that has a plastic, mostly waterproof type of finish and isn’t a fabric - I use the multi-purpose spray. These areas are usually not that bad and most things will just wipe off with a wet cloth. Spray the cleaner onto the sponge, not directly onto the shoe, this is a more controlled approach.
If the upper is canvas/material you can safely get it wet by spot cleaning areas with a pretty wet sponge and some Sard soap. Be sure to rinse the soap and dirt out thoroughly with your well rinsed sponge. This will avoid any watermarks or dirt residue being left in the weave. If it’s a suede, then don’t get the cloth overly wet or soapy and just gently dab any marks off.
If the whole sneaker is FILTHY don’t be afraid to take out the laces and throw the entire thing in a bucket of soapy warm water for a thorough hand wash. This is most effective for shoes with a fabric style upper, like canvas or another woven material. Not much point for something like PVC that hasn’t gotten dirt etc trapped in the weave. PVC is best wiped down.
The laces also go in the bucket, but I take them out so it’s easier to properly clean both the sneaker and the laces.
If I’ve worn sneakers to an outdoor event and it’s been dusty or muddy then I always go straight for the bucket treatment. Keep the temperature pretty lukewarm, approx. 30 degrees Celsius. If it’s a coloured canvas then use cold water, you don’t want any dye to run. Improbable but not impossible.
Once the sneaker is completely wet I use the Sard bar directly on the whole shoe and lather it up, then rinse with clean water and repeat. After you’re satisfied that it is clean enough, do a couple of rinse cycles sloshing the sneaker about in the bucket. Followed by a soft squeeze of the tongue and any other bits you can get a handful of to remove the worst of the water. Then it's outside to dry (or a suitable indoor location where they can drip and it doesn't matter). Stuff them with newspaper if you want to speed up drying or are worried about retaining a particular shape but for the most part I would say unnecessary. I don’t stuff em.
Lastly a side note on canvas, never wear light coloured canvas in the wet, in fact just don’t wear canvas in the wet at all. Light coloured because it will easily get marked with whatever coloured puddle that it meets (probably brown) and at all because who wants to wear wet shoes. Canvas is not in the least bit waterproof, unless treated or it’s a very tightly woven canvas made with waterproof synthetic fibres.
If you have any feedback or want some specific advice on cleaning your beloved kicks just pop a comment down below.
For fun I thought we'd wrap up with a tour of my babies. Special shout out to Mr Seamless for his remix of Migos Slippery track.