The first thing Nichole Verdejo does when I walk into her business, Soul Wash (427 Eighth St. SE) is check out my shoes.
“I’m not judgmental,” she tells me later. “I’m assessing what I need to do to get them clean.”
Verdejo opened the first woman owned sneaker laundry in the country—maybe even the world—on Barracks Row last year. Sole Wash offers a range of services, from cleaning and restoration to customization of athletic footwear. Working with sister company The Footage Society (697 S. Washington Blvd, Laurel, MD) they also resell vintage sneakers.
For Verdejo, opening Sole Wash is a chance to return to Capitol Hill in a way that better allows her to express herself. A former auditor with the federal government, she realized the importance of sneakers to youth when her own son entered middle school and she started to buy him more expensive shoes. He was the one who told her about the resale world, but it was a speaker at a PTA meeting who explained the role of sneakers in youth culture, rating them as important as clean clothing and bodily hygiene to social adjustment.
“It provides a level of status when you are going to school, because fashion is such a big thing,” Verdejo said. “They’re like a window on your household. They mean a lot to kids.”
They mean a lot to adults, too. A nice pair of sneakers is an entrée into conversation as well as into the community that appreciates them, transcending boundaries of race, class and religion. They are also a form of self-expression, she said. Wearers use them to express what they think is important, for instance by wearing the sneaker designed by WNBA star Breanna Stewart in collaboration with Puma to show support for women, and women in sports.
But sneakers are also big business for collectors. A typical pair of sneakers can range anywhere from $50 to $250, Verdejo said. But the resale market is a multibillion-dollar industry. A pair of vintage first-edition Air Jordans in pristine condition can fetch up to $4,000 on the resale market.
“Some people wear them; some people just frame them,” she said.
Verdejo is self-taught, learning cleaning and restoration through trial and error with household products, later being mentored by Derek Winje of Raleigh Restorations. These days, she teaches individuals and up and coming businesses how to clean and restore kicks at Sole Wash Academy.
Sole Wash also invests in the community, accepting donated sneakers which are then cleaned-up and redistributed to community members from a table outside the store every Sunday. The sneakers are available to anyone, from those without shoes to someone walking by on the way to brunch who takes an interest. For Verdejo, it’s a way of giving back to the local community and widening the reach of the sneaker culture.
They’ve also partnered with Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) to host a back-to-school sneaker drive. The goal was 100 pairs, and donations are well on the way to beat it already, with shoes arriving here in the District as well as by mail from New York and Hawaii. “The sneaker community stepped up,” Verdejo said.
For Verdejo, who has 200 pairs of sneakers in her Buzzard Point home (and even more in storage) sneakers are a form of self-expression, and a way of connecting. “It’s about love,” she said.
Reach Sole Wash (427 Eighth St. SE) at (202) 847-0950. Learn more by visiting www.Solewash.co or follow them on social media @SoleWash_