New sneakers never stay that way. No matter how many pairs we purchase and keep on ice, eventually we're going to wear them, and eventually they're going to get dirty. Because no matter how hard we try to keep them clean, things happen. We're bound to have a smidgen of pico de gallo fall out of our taco and stain our white laces, or scuff our Air Max 93s as we walk home from the bar at 2 a.m.
Our lives aren't neat. No matter how obsessive we are about our sneakers or gingerly we walk around, no sneaker stays clean forever. We can easily forget about these filthy and shamed sneakers and just buy a new pair. Turn those grails into beaters. Or we can chose not to give up and bring them back to life.
We usually don't want to put in the effort of cleaning an old pair of kicks, but there's something cathartic in the experience of unlacing a dirtied gem, throwing on an album you forgot about, and freeing the sneaker from its grimy present. You could, of course, take a pack of Jason Markk Quick Wipes and wash away all the sins you've committed against your once-prized sneaker, but what's the fun in that? That's a shortcut to bringing the mesh, suede, leather, and rubber back to life.
The laces need to be placed in a hot, steamy bath of OxiClean. No matter how clean a sneaker is it's not fresh with distraught shoestrings. It's best to let them sit in the soapy solution overnight, because there's no replacement for the original laces on a sneaker. You can go to the store and buy a new pair, but they'll never be the same—they're too wide, too stiff, or too white. They might not even knot the same way.
But getting the laces treated is just the beginning. There's so much care that needs to be taken in order to clean the upper and midsole of a sneaker. I've used a pencil eraser to push around dirt on microsuede. I've scrubbed a midsole too hard and accidentally removed the white paint. There's a balance between refreshing a piece of leather and rendering it completely useless and destroyed. You need the right touch when you're cleaning a sneaker, or you might make a bad situation even worse.
You need the right touch when you're cleaning a sneaker, or you might make a bad situation even worse.
As you work out the dirt, food, or liquid that's wedged between the wrinkles of an upper, though, it feels as if you're releasing the stress burdened upon the sneaker.
I still remember having a pair of "Freshwater" Air Max 95s that were left in my car's backseat and had an iced coffee thrown at them. I thought I had to bury them in a shoebox grave, never to be seen again. But I scrubbed them over and over with a stain remover purchased from the supermarket. I was stressed. I thought there was no way that caffeinated mixture of milk, coffee, and sugar would release itself from the mesh and suede.
But I worked and worked at the 95s day after day—using multiple cleaning solutions, and my due diligence paid off. The 95s were as new as they'd ever be again, and they didn't look like they were submerged in a Dunkin' Donuts anymore. I could wear them again and not feel embarrassed that I had fucked up one of my favorite sneakers. I not only had accomplished something by cleaning them, but I realized there's a peaceful moment in holding a sneaker in your hand, admiring it, and feeling the connection you have beyond being the person who owns them.
We build memories with a sneaker if it's worn enough, and you'll remember getting pizza grease out of a sneaker as much as you recall that fateful evening when it all happened. You'll also feel less afraid about getting your sneakers dirty, because you'll know you can clean them. And that will lead to, you know, actually wearing your sneakers more. Which is what it should be all about.
Matt Welty is an editorial assistant at Complex, and he still has a half-full can of Foot Locker sneaker cleaner somewhere in his apartment. You can follow him on Twitter here.