Designer Helen Kirkum has been thinking a lot about routines. In particular, the way they provide structure to our lives. As she worked on her plans for the forthcoming partnership with ASICS, who’ve always been guided by the philosophy “Sound Mind, Sound Body”, she began to roll the idea over in her mind: “When I started working with ASICS, I was really interested in the idea of running routes and how we create routes in our lives, to give us routine, to make us feel safe, to make us feel grounded,” she explains when we caught up to talk about the collaboration “I love to take that correlation between how we create routes and journeys in our mind and how we create routes in real life.”
The collaboration is the third in ASICS' Crafts For Mind series and follows collections from Berlin-based artist, Dennis Buck, and Amsterdam label KASSL Editions. For the partnership, ASICS asked the London-based designer to create a micro collection of custom GEL-1090 sneakers. The shoes will be sold online by Copenhagen women's sneaker store NAKED CPH and the proceeds donated to Right To Play, a non-profit that protects, educates, and empowers children to rise above adversity using the power of sports and play. Since day one ASICS has advocated for sports as a way to improve mental well-being and chose to support Right To Play for the work that they are doing to help children continue to develop emotionally, socially, and cognitively through sport.
Kirkum’s rendition is designed, like almost anything she does, with the planet in mind. Her creations look like sneaker mosaics, collages made from torn apart uppers, repurposed laces, and recycled soles. It’s no coincidence the word Frankenstein is tossed around in reference to her work—the final product bears a sum-of-its-parts beauty that is hard to look away from.
Her 30-piece ASICS collection takes the classic GEL-1090 silhouette and redefines it in her own terms. No two shoes are alike, yet each features elements that are central to the studio’s design process, like frayed edges, cutouts, overlapping fabrics, and visible stitching. A stray lace borders the upper, calling to mind a runner’s route.
Kirkum first developed her passion for shoes while completing a BA in footwear design at the University of North Hampton. But it wasn’t until finishing a subsequent MA at the Royal College of Art that Kirkum zeroed in on her interest in sneakers. She wanted to cut up and reconfigure sneakers for a project but had a hard time convincing any friends to donate a pair to go under her knife. Everyone she asked refused. “I realized that even when sneakers are kind of falling apart and battered, there's something really special about them because they hold these memories within the material," she shares. Thus began her foray into all things sneaker.
Since graduating, she’s gone on to develop an instantly recognizable trademark style and establish her own studio. The first time I saw Helen Kirkum designs—on Instagram, obviously—I was quick to click. The shoes she makes feel energetic. Each pair is unique, she tells me, and is “really driven by the materiality of the products.” There’s a feeling of both conquering the shoe and being conquered by it at the same time. A Helen Kirkum design does not quietly slink down a sidewalk. “It's really important for me to preserve the integrity of an old piece, to make sure I tell the stories that are embedded in the material, to make sure I showcase the entire component,” she says.
It seems almost logical that ASICS and Kirkum join forces for a project that involves repurposing and reconstructing a sneaker. It’s quite literally her forte. “We worked with dead stock and post-consumer waste to create the products,” she says in reference to the ASICS assignment. “It's been really interesting to combine those two things together and take some stories and memories of materials and also take some deadstock material and give them some personality and livelihood.”
In line with ASIC’s philosophy, Kirkum makes it a priority to care for herself, both physically and spiritually. In the morning she establishes mental frameworks for the day or does yoga. In her free time, she visits galleries or walks around London, goes to music venues, and ventures out in nature to ensure her creativity stays untapped. When she’s in the studio, she vacillates between “grungy, aggressive punk tunes” to feel “angsty and inspired” and classical music to help her focus and feel uplifted.
In many ways, Kirkum and ASICS feel perfectly aligned. Her team hand-made everything in their studio and utilized the running route that became so central to her thinking as a leading graphic element. Kirkum admires the brand’s Japanese heritage and commitment to quality and jokes that it perhaps even works against her process: “I remember when I first started working with ASICS, one of the things I mentioned is that their shoes are really hard to deconstruct and I think that is almost a credit to their beautiful craftsmanship.”