Helen Kirkum is not your ordinary footwear designer, her unique collage approach to the craft and use of upcycled materials has pushed her into the artist bracket. This artistic flare fused with her fierce work ethic and footwear design education has led her to an impressive client list which includes big names such as; Reebok, Byredo, Takashi Murakami, Complex Con, Timberland and Melissa just to name a few.
We met up with Helen at her East London studio during her hectic work schedule having just flown back from NYC after working with Adidas to create a very limited version of the iconic Campus 80 trainer as part of the recent Makerslab project which allowed 3 designers to add their spin on the iconic 3 striped silhouette. The re-worked Adidas Campus 80 featured elements key to Helen’s style and she described the trainer being ‘Made by exaggerating, deconstructing and hacking the processes of designing, developing and manufacturing’ with each design detail being inspired by her own learnings, the factory and the people.
Has footwear design always been your dream career?
Um thats a difficult one. Since I discovered footwear was even a thing you could do as a career I was hooked, but for a long time I didn’t even realise you could even study footwear design, let alone make a career out of. I originally wanted to do fine art, or architecture, or fashion, then I discovered the University of Northampton footwear course! I found that footwear combined all the things I was interested in into one small object, and it seemed perfect for me.
Each of your footwear designs are very detailed and intricate, how do you begin each design and what are the mental steps in your process?
I try and let the process influence me, and not get too caught up on the final product, which is extremely hard to do. Everything stems from the materiality of the pieces I am using, the shapes, marks and memories embedded into them, they lead the design to where it ends up. I really don’t have a step by step process to be honest, it's more sporadic and spontaneous, which is why I consider it as a collage, it is built in the moment.
Who/what are your design inspirations?
I am inspired by so many things, often daily happenings and day to day existence. London is a great melting pot of inspiration, I am always snapping or drawing peoples shoes on the tube as well as observing how people wear things. Design wise I am inspired a lot by dadaisms reaction to society through art, found object and collage. Greats such as Vivienne Westwood, Margiela, Raf Simons of course, but also my peers inspire me a lot, such as Bethany Williams, Duran Lantink, Matthew Needham, EELLS, Congregation design, and movements such as Fashion Revolution. We are in this moment together creating an alternative system and ethos, so I find having those creatives around me inspires me so much to do more and do better.
"I really don’t have a step by step process to be honest, it's more sporadic and spontaneous, which is why I consider it as a collage, it is built in the moment."
You have a very distinct style when it comes to footwear design, the raw patch work technique recreates a complex interlocking puzzle which embodies the handmade aesthetic. How did you develop this style of work?
By cutting sneakers up and putting them together again. Haha. I think in this moment we are craving something very tactile, something that gives us an experience and a feeling, and that’s what I have always tried and emote in my sneakers. The handmade aesthetic is almost a byproduct of the process, the way I mix and match pieces together becomes very raw and has an energy to it which gives you this spontaneous look. Its hard to say how it started, I used to think I developed this style at RCA, but actually when I look back it's always been apparent in my work.
Where do you source the trainers and shoes for your projects?
I work with recycling centres across London to take the products which they cannot use! Or for my Made to Order service clients sometimes send me their old sneaker collections and they become the raw materials I use for their new sneakers.
You’ve worked with some big names in the footwear industry with Reebok, Timberland and Adidas to name a few, what have you learnt from working with these companies? And has it affected the way you work?
I have learnt so much! I have been so fortunate to work with incredible brands, all on such different and unique projects. As well as learning how larger brands, factories and systems operate, I think I have learnt so much about myself and the reasons for my work, what’s important to me. I often work alone, so it has been testing at times to relay information to large teams, to delegate responsibility or compromise on certain things, but it has been so incredible to work with such amazing people all over the world.
We’ve recently seen many trainer companies become a lot more environmentally aware and upcycling old trainers is a key aspect of your work. What are your thoughts on sustainability in the current Footwear industry from a designer’s standpoint?
It needs to shift, and fast. There are so many amazing technologies, materials and processes now that are starting to emerge that can really be implemented quite painlessly into the industry, so those shifts need to start to happen. I think what consumers are craving for is honesty, if brands can be open about where they need to improve and tell the consumer where they are changing and how then it gives us more awareness and the opportunity to create a more informed decision about what we buy, how we wear products and how we look after them. We can also make changes by choosing to buy less, repair and look after our possessions.
You recently produced a custom re-worked Adidas Campus 80 as part of the Makers Lab project with Adidas. From what I’ve read it was the first time ever Adidas has opened its factory doors to the public. What was it like working with the skilled staff and being able to use all of Adidas’ specialised equipment?
It was such an incredible experience. The Adidas team were so amazing and really open to all our ideas! As I mentioned, I usually work alone, so being able to work with skilled specialists on pattern cutting, material sourcing and everything in between was really a dream! There is a great documentary about the entire process on youtube if you have half an hour to spare :)
What advice would you have for others who might want to pursue a career in footwear design?
Work hard and be nice to people. Building a network of friends and mentors around you is so vital, especially if you are freelance or working alone. One thing I have found throughout my very short career so far is being a good person and being kind and enthusiastic is one of the best things you can be. It's not necessarily the fastest course of action, but it's the one I follow.
What’s next for Helen Kirkum Studio?
I need to go to the studio right now as have just got far too into these questions, haha. I have some big plans for 2020, I am hoping to keep growing my made to order service and keep pushing sustainable initiatives forward and lets see if we can’t rock the boat a little bit more ;)