Helen Kirkum Studio is rethinking sneaker services
Aiming to praise the processes of making and wearing all her creations, London-based Helen Kirkum brought to life her eponymous studio in 2019.
Founded on the fundamentals of rescuing sneakers to create pieces that raise awareness of post-consumer waste, the designer uses recycled and deadstock materials to create artisanal, handmade, authentic pieces.
“I always come back to the idea that I am trying to create something we recognize but that we are not used to seeing. We all know what sneakers are, their impact as signifiers of status, identity, and culture, but we definitely don't know much about how they are made, what they are made of, or who makes them. So, we thought we'd have a go at changing that.”
Their one-of-a-kind sneakers celebrate beauty and originality while challenging us to rethink the way we consume and interact with the goods we own.
“My work pioneering this space has always been about challenging newness. We create something beautiful, a hype object within the sneaker world that is fabricated from discarded pieces, and so obviously celebrate the nuances of the handmade.”
With the intent of giving meaning to the designs, the shoes are put together to express what is dear to the creative: playful individuality, spontaneous and conscious creativity, and process-driven craft. This makes each pair produced inherently unique – as they weave together the histories of the upcycled materials that make them.
“Working with discarded sneakers you get a variety of leathers, suedes, and synthetics to work with, which can be difficult as everything has different thicknesses and stretches. Suede also ages a lot more severely, so it can be difficult to rework, but in the end, you get a really beautiful mix of colors, aging, and textures that makes each pair completely unique to each client.”
Considered a pioneer of the hacked and deconstructed aesthetic within the industry, Kirkum is at the forefront of the sustainable footwear movement, and her unexpected and unconventional designs have already caught the attention of some distinguished brands like Takashi Murakami, Yeezy, and Timberland.
Check below our shared thoughts with the designer. 💡
Since your work stands out in such an ephemeral market, what can you tell about being a pioneer in this kind of upcycling leather craftsmanship?
It's hard. Working with recycled materials always has so many challenges. Sneaker culture is driven by newness. When I first started working with this idea, back in 2015, all sneakers appeared so white and shiny on the shelf and seemed completely devoid of any essence of handmadeness. So, my work pioneering this space has always been about challenging newness, can we create something beautiful, a hype object within the sneaker world that is fabricated from discarded pieces and so obviously celebrating the nuances of the handmade.
Your unique designs tell stories, giving a new purpose to surplus and unusual ideas. What stories have impacted your creative background and what are your main visual references?
I first stumbled across the idea of using recycled sneakers as a primary material when I was studying my MA at The Royal College of Art. I wanted some old sneakers to cut up to see how they were made, but no one would give me them. I realized then that we all have a personal story connected to our sneakers, even when they are completely falling apart. This realization impacted my practice from then on. How can we cherish the marks on each pair to honor the memories it holds? This is especially true with leather, as it takes on so much character as it ages. The visual references always come from the material. If a client sends me their favorite sneakers, a pair from a special occasion, or maybe their childhood pair that no longer fits them, I use the shapes, lines, and texture to influence how the design plays out. It is a textural collage of their life in those shoes.
How did it all come together resulting in an internationally acclaimed label based on conscious creativity and process-driven craft?
I took it one step at a time I guess, (no pun intended). Through studying traditional footwear at The University of Northampton, I fell in love with repair and craft. Then, exploring sneaker design at RCA, I found our emotional connection to shoes. That led me to search for an alternative material, which ended up being discarded odd sneakers at Traid. My graduate collection in 2016 had an industry-wide impact, showcasing a completely new take on what sneakers could be. All these steps nudged me in this direction and told me not only that my process and ideas were valid, but also that they were necessary and that I can use my creativity as a force of change and good in this world. I always come back to the idea that I am trying to create something we recognize but that we are not used to seeing. We all know what sneakers are, and their impact as signifiers of status, identity, and culture, but we definitely don't know much about how they are made, what they are made of, or who makes them. So, we thought we'd have a go at changing that.
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