Shoes worth wearing, are worth repairing
Vincent Tao’s Sneaker Pharm brings a second life to treasured trainers

Words: Leanne Cloudsdale

Photography: Jordan Bunker

“Energy is not free. Resources on this planet are finite.” Wise words from Vincent Tao. Former solicitor and founder of Sneaker Pharm, he’s on a mission to change attitudes towards the disposability mindset that pervades sneaker-culture. Leaning casually against the custom-built stainless steel cleaning unit at his headquarters in Manchester, northern England, Vincent has shifted his focus from statute books to scrubbing brushes – all in the name of sustainability.

Based on the ground floor of a handsome grade II listed Victorian townhouse in the heart of the city centre, the Sneaker Pharm premises are a bright, airy space that feels part shoe graveyard, part footwear factory. Wall-to-wall shelves hold hundreds of pairs of trainers in various states of disrepair. Different brands, sizes and stories, they sit waiting for Vincent’s magic treatment to help bring them back to life.

Unlike formal shoes, those designed specifically for sports (or streetwear) are made, primarily for performance and comfort. Alongside the status appeal of specific brands and models, comes the ‘box-fresh syndrome’, whereby the appearance of newness is both protected and celebrated. This is where Vincent’s expertise comes into play – providing a dedicated cleaning and repair service for well-loved casual footwear that stops them being jettisoned into the bin, and ultimately landfill.

Gesturing towards the latest customer drop-offs, he says, “Sneaker Pharm aims to educate the consumer about the alternative. More often than not, there’s no need to buy a brand-new pair of trainers if you can extend their life cycle. When you consider that (approximately) 24 billion pairs of shoes are manufactured each year, you start to wonder where they end up when they’re deemed not fit-for-purpose anymore. What happens to the materials? To all that wasted energy? More information needs to be shared about the actual composition of what we buy. Foam sole units, for example, are usually made from EVA [ethylene vinyl acetate – a copolymer made of hydrocarbons whose production emits greenhouse gasses]. Whether it’s the feeding of animals for leather uppers, the watering of crops for cotton, harmful gasses or the impact of global shipping, it’s so important that we understand the true costs and try to increase the duration of wear. Sometimes, a really good clean is all you need to change your outlook.”

Vincent studied business before majoring in law at university. The son of a restaurateur, his family had stressed the need for a good education, and suggested that being an accountant, doctor or solicitor were their most desired career paths for him. He explains, “My grandparents were immigrants who came to the UK from Hong Kong with nothing. Both worked long hours for very little – it was stressful and physical work. Understandably, after this experience they wanted the best for me, so pushed me away from the hospitality industry in which they worked. I followed their guidance and worked as a solicitor for five years before taking stock and deciding to take the risk of starting my own business.

“When I told the family about my plans to start Sneaker Pharm, there was some resistance at first. For some Chinese people, there’s a belief that handling (or wearing) the clothing or footwear of someone who isn’t related (or deceased) can bring bad luck. There was worry that I might take on the soul of the customer when cleaning, or mending their trainers, which mainly stems from perceived cleanliness and superstition – and a fear of taking on any negative energy that might have been attached to them, or that person. This aside, I think I managed to reassure them that skills I’d learnt from being a solicitor were transferable; whether that’s regulations around taxation, company registration, trademarking, planning. All of that came in useful when I launched in 2019.”

The first Sneaker Pharm outpost was a repurposed shipping container. Determined to make sure that even the humblest of establishments radiated the ethos of buying less, but better, Vincent installed the 606 Universal Shelving System inside the 8ft by 10ft premises. Laughing, he said, “It might have seemed ridiculous to put Vitsœ furniture inside something that was always going to be temporary, but I was adamant that if I was really doing ‘this’ I had to make sure everything inside the unit was a true representation of me. From a young age I’d had contact with products designed by Dieter Rams. Growing up, my Braun alarm clock and electric toothbrush were the two items I saw, and used, every morning and evening without fail. You could say his work was ingrained in me! The modularity and inherent sustainability of 606 sold it for me. I knew it would travel well and grow with me and the changing needs of the business. In addition to being totally practical and very nice to look at every day, it helped communicate so much about the Sneaker Pharm brand. It sent a signal, you might say.”

Recently, the service Vincent provides has extended far beyond a sneaker pampering session. As more traditional ‘cobblers’ close their doors for good, he’s been travelling the country buying their equipment and training himself how to make use of second-hand machinery to expand the service he can provide to customers. With a proud grin he describes how, “I feel like I’m carrying the torch from a dying industry into a whole new realm. I want to pioneer the niche and help evolve and define a new wave of specialists taking care of the shoes we wear. Each time a pair gets brought in, it activates a section of my brain called ‘battling the shoe’. I love the challenge of making something look like new again, and if learning new reconstruction techniques using old machinery means people are less likely to throw sneakers away, it’s worth it. You usually tend to value something more if you have to work for it anyway.” Very true. And as the saying goes, ‘shoes worth wearing, are worth repairing’.

Sneaker Pharm
28 Dale Street,
Northern Quarter,
M1 1FY

Tuesday to Saturday
12:00 – 20:00
12:00 – 19:00