Interview: Designer Helen Kirkum on Redefining the Sustainable Footwear Movement
British designer and artist Helen Kirkum didn’t always intend to operate in the footwear space, but thankfully she did, because in 2022 she’s a woman who is leading the charge when it comes to sneaker sustainability and reinventing the way that new life can be given to pre-loved beaters. After discovering that footwear could be studied at a university level, Kirkum enrolled at the University of Northampton, the UK’s home of footwear design, later continuing her studies at the Royal College of Art. Mastering the craft of not only making shoes from scratch, Kirkum also became classically trained in how to deconstruct them too.
Having decided to shift into working with sneakers, Kirkum had to be able to source used pairs. This led her to recycling centres, where she quickly realised a major issue: these facilities seriously lacked effective waste management systems! Moving forward, Kirkum began applying her curiosity, utilising post-consumer waste to understand the construction of sneakers. Today, Kirkum is recognised for her truly unique technical know-how and her own imprint, HELEN KIRKUM is world-renowned for its bespoke creations and sustainable deconstructions using both deadstock and recycled materials. Their most recent project featured 30 pairs of bespoke ASICS Gel-1090s, with proceeds being directed to the charity, Right to Play. Sneaker Freaker's managing editor Audrey Bugeja spoke to Kirkum on design fundamentals, the importance of sustainability in footwear and of course, her advice for the next generation of designers.
Your education at University of Northampton and the Royal College of Art sound interesting. How important are having design fundamentals to you?
I find them really important. Also, from an outside perspective, when you look at my work you can see that I kind of have that classical training in a way – I know how to build a shoe, I know how to make a pattern, I know how to construct the shoe. So I think that those fundamentals really help me to be completely free and expressive because I have the groundwork of how a shoe should be made. From that I can work out how it could be made. It also allows my patterns to be quite unusual. They're always changing and are very unique. Being able to bring all the craziness into a shoe that people can understand, I think is really important. When I graduated from RCA, one thing I always used to say about my work was that I wanted to create something that people recognise, but that they aren't used to seeing.
How do you achieve this? Where does branding come into the mix?
I try to take the hierarchy of brands completely out of my work. So when I deconstruct all the pieces, I really look at them as shapes and components. I don't look at them like, "Oh, here's a solution!" It's much more about the shapes and the textures and materials. And I think that allows the pieces to be quite playful, because I'm not getting to the end of the design and thinking, "Oh, I better stick a bit of branding on there." It's utilising all the components basically as a raw material. That kind of naivety helps to make my aesthetic something that people instantly recognise.
You approach your work quite organically, yet confidently.
I feel confident. If you'd asked me a few years ago, maybe pre-pandemic, I was approaching things like, "Here's a project, just keep going." But the pandemic also gave me a second to step back a little bit and think about what I’m trying to achieve with this brand. Like what is this business? I'm much more confident and sure now that what I’m doing is necessary, and that it's kind of revolutionary.
What silhouettes and materials do you enjoy working with?
I'm always working with post-consumer waste and collecting things from recycling centres. I find it so interesting because you find the most interesting sneakers and shapes in designs that might not necessarily be branded product. It might not be the most famous silhouette, it might be a sort of non-branded shoe, or a child's shoe or something like that. I always love finding random shoes that you wouldn't expect, and again that comes back to that sort of playfulness. Like how can I take this shoe that no one's ever thought about, and make it into something that is a unique piece of art. So those are my favourite ones to find.
You're essentially deconstructing and reconstructing in a very unique way. What's your initial focus when you've got a design in mind and are ready to tackle a product?
Literally just get a scalpel and cut it up. It's kind of straightforward. We try to preserve all the pieces. So we try not to cut through anything and just try and keep all the pieces exactly as they were, because I really like the idea of creating this story line that connects everyone right from the first person that ever designed that random non-brand shoe, to the people that made it, to the person that wore it to our studio, to the person that eventually buys the shoes. So it's a really nice connection, by preserving the shape of the pieces and any marks and memories that are embedded on the material, then you get this really beautiful story about its history.
And, who's the person on the other end purchasing your designs?
It's a mixture of people, to be honest, our clients are really varied and also worldwide, which is really amazing. I'm always so excited when somebody contacts me on the other side of the world and they love what I do. We have different audiences because people are interested in different things. Some people are really interested in the utilising of waste and material quality. Some people are really interested in the uniqueness and the fact that it's like the only shoe that exists in the world. Some sneakerheads want to just send their favourite sneakers and make it into a one of a kind piece. So you get a real variety.
Let's talk sustainability. What's the importance to you?
It's such a ginormous topic which can seem really overwhelming, but to me, and especially in footwear and in the sneaker industry, my personal experience with it is coming from a traditional background, making brogues and dress shoes. I worked in a shop called Jeffery West. I kind of grew up in the footwear industry around this world of repairing, caring for products and also with dress shoes at the end of life, you resole them. And that's just like, so normal – your sole wears out, you stick a new sole on, you can do that up to three times usually. In the sneaker industry, that idea just did not exist at all. And so that was one of my first things that I started poking into and seeing what I could find. It just surprised me – I don't know why it did – but the sneaker industry is so driven by newness that at the end of life of a product, you just throw it away, and that's the end of that.
So I think that the end of life and the post-consumer waste was what I got really interested in and what we focus on as a studio now, because it's a topic that there isn't really a system in place and it's also extremely hard to tackle. For me, that's our goal to see what we can do with the sneakers at the end of life, how we can change, maybe people's visions and create something new and interesting, that's not created from virgin materials. To celebrate the process of wearing and also encourage people to wear their products and take care of them. That's kind of my angle and that's what I'm doing here.
How do you think we can improve the way consumers approach sustainability?
Obviously when your shoe is completely falling apart, then I think you have kind of taken that shoe almost as far as it can go in terms of product longevity. And getting them to that point is at the moment in the current state of, how we recycle products, how the sneaker industry is functioning, that's almost as far as you can go and that's the best that you can do in that situation.
A lot of it is education and systems, people need to understand: where can they recycle their shoes, how can they do that and is it possible? If people are buying something that's new, being able to understand what the materials are. I think just to be a lot more straightforward and open with people to say, "This is what material is in this shoe." And then the consumer can almost make a decision.
That's what I try and do. I just say what it is and then you can decide whether you want to buy it or not. Just being a lot more transparent as a brand is just such a key step towards just giving consumers and clients a bit more ownership of being able to make those sort of decisions. Just make less stuff as well.
Have there been any barriers that you faced being a female designer in the footwear industry?
It's so interesting because I think a few years ago, again, I would've been like, "No, everyone just loves my work and it's great." But the more I think about it, the more you realise, "Oh, actually maybe that situation wasn't fair or that was something different." The main thing I feel specifically in my experience with the sneaker industry is that sometimes it can come across as a bit of a ‘boy’s club’. When you are maybe not the most outgoing person, it can be hard to inject yourself into that space. I've definitely had experiences where you are in a room and you are maybe not acknowledged or you are not included into the conversation because people kind of underestimate you.
I used to be like, "I just let my work speak for itself." And I used to not really put myself in front of the work that much. But now more and more, I realise how important it is to do that. To show what I'm doing as a female creative in this space – that is very male dominated – is something to be really excited about and proud of. So I think the female sneaker community is growing and getting stronger and stronger. There's a lot of groups, especially on Instagram like Women in Sneakers and Sneakers by Women and the Imprint that are really empowering women. Not just designers, but also product developers, marketing managers, all the people around the edge of the product, to just talk about what they're doing is really exciting.
It's always really important to empower and inspire one another. When it comes to your journey in footwear design, what advice do you have for the current and next generation of designers?
I've realised the importance of trusting your gut and following those little instinctive kinds of nudges. Sometimes we try and overthink things so much. And when we see people that have successful businesses or are doing well, you think that they just immediately got there, but they didn't, it is a marathon and it is a lot of small decisions that get you to where you are.
My other main piece of advice to students is always to be enthusiastic about people's work. Because I think what I've found is, people always say to you, "Build a network." And you think, "What is a network? How do I build a network?" And it's essentially your friends and people that are interested in what you are doing and people who you are interested in. And I think just being enthusiastic about other people's work and being kind is such a genuine way to build your authentic network.
For a collection of in-depth interviews and features, head over to <Platform> – an inclusive space created by Sneaker Freaker, which aims to champion the women who are breaking barriers and are helping to shape the sneaker and streetwear industry.
To see more of Helen Kirkum's work, visit her website here.