NEWARK, NJ — The oh-no moment came for T. Strong, CEO of Dirty Soles Footwear Group, when the factories in China that produce the shoes she manufactures stopped shipping her company’s product due to COVID-19 quarantine orders.
That was January, and by the time the virus began wreaking havoc on New Jersey and New York two months later, it no longer mattered that Dirty Soles’ merchandise was on a different continent. Malls were closed, vendors were not putting in orders and no one was getting paid.
“We still have quite a few goods that are still stuck (in China) and we haven’t been able to get them,” she said. “From a financial perspective, we went from ‘Yay!’ to ‘Boo, oh my god.’ It was traumatic. Everything started in 2020 with the crazy.”
T. Strong — one-third of the Dirty Soles team comprised of herself, co-founder and husband Cory, and their eldest son — recounts the heart-in-her-stomach experience felt by most local business owners as she overlooks its outcome: Studio Sole, a freshly opened, black-owned sneaker consignment shop and academy quite unlike any other business in Newark.
The new Sussex Street storefront, guarded by a chameleon named Taco, is a major pivot from Dirty Soles’ previous incarnation, which was operated out of the family’s Halsey Street duplex. Both veterans of the corporate fashion world, the couple’s business focused on manufacturing, sales, marketing, business development, social media and influencer marketing and shoe design.
Now, community members can shop for footwear, art and clothing and interact directly with the industry through comprehensive shoe manufacturing and design courses. From marketing to the basics of drawing, the Strongs are seeking to provide the knowledge people need to get involved in the fashion world.
Studio Sole is hardly a Color Me Mine for sneakers — students are given technical concepts and information used by industry professionals.
“A lot of people think that it’s only designing a shoe that makes the class, or that goes into the shoe. So before we even get to the design process, we teach the anatomy of a shoe, the anatomy of a foot,” Cory Strong said. “Different color schemes, palettes, logos and logo placement, all of these are thoughts that should be developed as you design.”
The class concept came from a partnership planned between Dirty Soles and Newark Public Schools, which would have resulted in an afterschool program if it weren’t for COVID-19. While Dirty Soles plans to roll out the program for NPS students as soon as possible, they made their own space in the meantime for people of all ages to take advantage of the same curriculum.
T. Strong said partners like local artists and industry professionals will come in to speak as part of the course offerings.
“We want to make sure that our students, whether their kids or adults, understand that they don’t have to just be a designer,” she said. “You can be the person who handles the production, you can be the accountant that’s with the company. Most people get stuck at the designer piece because it seems exciting.
A $10,000 small business grant from the City of Newark and a $27,000 Paycheck Protection Program allowed them to make the “very scary” shift during an uncertain time, all while launching the nonprofit arm of Dirty Soles to reinvest in the community. The funding has held the business over a nearly four-month period without earnings, the Strongs said.
Prior to Studio Sole’s opening, Dirty Soles would hold footwear giveaways for Newark’s homeless and underserved families. The Dirty Soles Foundation will provide funds to cover the cost of classes for some Studio Sole students and continue to provide footwear to those in need around Newark.
“We want people to know that in order to make any sort of change, your soles have to be dirty,” T. Strong said. “I don’t know if you’re in the community doing the work if you’re not walking the walk, and this store is the physical manifestation of that.
Under pressure that has sent many small businesses to the graveyard, the Strongs have done what entrepreneurs do best: reimagine what things can be and run with it. T. Strong likens the present reopening period as a kind of renaissance for her businesses and has even put out feelers to open another Studio Sole at Newark Liberty Airport’s Terminal One, which will complete construction in late 2021.
Eventually, the Strongs would like to purchase machinery to make sample runs of students’ shoe designs in-house, which would make them the only Blacked-owned company with production capabilities.
“I feel purpose-filled, and this space in itself, because we have so much here that focuses on not just the sneakers and not just us as Dirty Soles, it really is more about the community,” T. Strong said.