Taken from Issue 13 of Highsnobiety’s Print Magazine. Pick up a copy here.
You need to know Helen Kirkum. The recent Royal College of Art (RCA) graduate and International Talent Support 2016 accessories award winner has caught all the right eyes with her footwear made from pieces of recycled sneakers. Her decidedly non-reverential collection stood out in a world where everyone's racing to make a slightly cheaper white sneaker.
We're sure you know a thing or three about sneakers; You wouldn't be reading this magazine if you didn't. The world of sneakers is a jumbled- up place, full of dad shoes, hiking sneakers and Hender Scheme/Common Projects ripoffs. While everyone is trying to add the tiniest of spins on existing silhouettes, Kirkum went the other way, creating what appeared to be patchwork sneakers for her RCA Masters collection. At first, Kirkum was trying to bridge the shoe world with the trainer world
"Someone will look at a Church’s shoe or Jeffrey West and be like ‘they’re so beautifully made,’ and they’ll spend lots of money on it,” says Kirkum. “But with trainers you don’t understand the process of making them and they have this otherworldliness to them, where they appear out of these factories all white and shiny. You just can’t really relate the two [stages] and that was something I wanted to try and change.”
Helen Kirkum’s interest in footwear started as a 17-year-old. “When I was doing my A-Levels I went to graduate fashion week and I saw the footwear course by University of Northampton, and I said ‘oh my god, I’ve never even thought that you can design shoes.’” She soon settled on a course in Northampton and the collection she created as part of her BA was a prototype of her RCA Masters collection that’s garnered so much attention. Mixing her growing sportswear sensibilities with the traditional methods of Northampton shoemaking, she created a collection, entitled “the mess collector.” The collection was “a mix of shoes and bags that grew from the idea of accidentally on purpose making a mess. The shoes and accessories became a hybrid between sportswear and formalwear, using mesh and neoprene fabrics alongside hand-painted and embossed leathers. From here, I was interested in doing trainers because we’d never done them in Northampton before.”
So when Kirkum came to the Royal College of Art, she studied MA Footwear, Accessories and Millinery. The collection she created was born from wanting to look at the planned obsolesce of sneakers. So, she decided to make the entire collection from trainers that had been sent to recycling centers. “It’s the idea that we buy trainers to just wear for two years until they’re completely worn out, then we just throw them away and get a new pair,” she says. Her collection aimed to “create a different vision of newness. You still see these shoes and go ‘oh, they’re quite cool,’ but they’re not bright white and shiny off the shelf – that’s something I was really interested in.”
To create this different vision of newness she collected trainers from recycling centers in London. “The first place I went into, I just asked for a bag of trainers and wasn’t really specific about it. And they literally just gave me a massive bag of old running trainers, just loads of different things. I also asked for all the odd trainers. When people recycle their shoes, if they become separated in the sorting process, then the odd shoes become totally useless for recycling centers. So I decided to keep the odd ones because I thought ‘they can’t use them so I might as well have them.’ That’s where the starting point [for the collection] came from.”
The shoes she created weren’t based on any one existing trainer, but rather, in her own words “created like a collage.” “All the pieces I unpicked into component parts. So I tried not to tear anything, break anything. I really wanted it to be the exact shape of the pieces before [I took them apart].” These component parts are then wrapped around a trainer last, piece by piece. The end result was the collage effect Kirkum referred to, “But the pattern was really organic so, because everything is built from underneath, I ended up with all these weird shapes and top-lines.”
While the end result may look slightly reminiscent of a twisted take on a running sneaker, this was entirely unplanned. “It didn’t come from that starting point,” Kirkum says. “When I collected all the pieces I had no idea about color, I just collected a mass of bits. I then ended up with all these, essentially, Tesco food bags filled with blue bits, silver bits, white bits, red bits, white laces, colored laces, fabric labels, leather labels – all these different categories and that was the way I just had to sort it in the end.”
Kirkum actively avoided asking for specific types of sneakers to avoid any kind of creative restrictions. “I wanted to just see what the recycling centers had and work with that.” The knitted component of the collection was created by Jacob Patterson, a Knitwear MA at RCA. “In this sense we followed a trend, because there’s so much knitting happening in sneakers right now. But we wanted to create this idea of something [based on] another traditional craft and how we could combine the two to make something really modern.”
For the soles, Kirkum wanted to showcase the fact that the shoes had been built from the ground up, so she created a clear rubber sole using the RCA’s facilities.
The collection she created during the MA course was done alongside a dissertation she wrote about how the trainer has now become an acceptable form of footwear in everyday life. “You can wear them to work, it’s not for purpose or sportswear anymore, it’s for something different. That’s another avenue I wanted to go down – saying that these shoes aren’t for going running.” In fact Kirkum outright calls them a ‘fashion sneaker.’ Although some brands still keep up the pretense that all their shoes are meant for performance, no one in their right mind will play ball in a pair of Jordan 3s. And you wouldn’t dare actually perform track and field in a pair of Air Max 90s. When we bring up how sportswear brands now have a lifestyle side acknowledging this, Kirkum says “all the shoes are still influenced from the performance side, but they’re made with everybody [in mind].”
“I know my stuff was quite interesting but I was just doing it, in the studio till midnight, sewing a shoe on a sewing machine... And then I got to the show, suddenly everyone was going mad for it.”
While she had everybody in mind, she still didn’t quite anticipate the reaction she received. “I was quite shocked by the amount of interest that I had from the show,” Kirkum says. “I know my stuff was quite interesting but I was just doing it, in the studio till midnight, sewing a shoe on a sewing machine and you’re in this bubble at uni. And then I got to the show, suddenly everyone was going mad for it. I had so many emails and private messages on Instagram saying ‘I’d love to buy some shoes,’ and I was like ‘oh, I think I’ve done something quite nice that people actually like!’ So I was quite surprised.”
The collection went down a storm during London Collections Men and then also at International Talent Support 2016, where Kirkum won the accessories award. When we met Kirkum, she’d just arrived back from Trieste. “The accessories category stretched across everything from millinery to bags, footwear and artifacts, so Kirkum faced a tough time. There’s 10 accessories finalists, 10 jewelry finalists, 10 artwork finalists and 10 fashion finalists from all over the world. “It was so open, you just had no idea who was gonna win. I didn’t envy the judges. I wondered, ‘How the hell are they gonna choose?’ But it was really good in the end. I won. [It was] so exciting, I couldn’t believe it.”
If you need an idea of the scope of the International Talent Support award, the jury that chose Helen Kirkum included Demna Gvasalia, Lotta Volkova, Sarah Mower, Giovanni Pungetti (the CEO of Maison Margiela) and Marie-Claire Daveu of Kering, among many, many others. To say it’s a big deal is an understatement. But one person who wasn’t shocked was Flora McClean, Helen Kirkum’s tutor during her time at RCA. “I really enjoy Helen’s work as, in its early stages, it was playful and had many different textures,” McClean said. “I like her graphic eye. She is a very clever woman who also has a sense of fun in design.”
When we asked about what makes her work so special, McClean replied, “She has come up with an idea that is both sustainable and extremely cool. This is very hard to do. This isn’t just another eco project! She has made some very desirable objects from dismantled trainers. She’s been working like a painter or artist making assemblage pieces. She is very thoughtful and chooses the pieces carefully, so the process takes a lot of brain power.”
It’s telling that McClean referred to Kirkum’s work as “like a painter or artist” and Kirkum herself referred to her trainers as a collage. Would she see some of her work as art? “Each sneaker is a collage, completely bespoke to the next,” says Kirkum. “As I build the shoe from the component parts I have collected, they take on a new life as artifacts, with memories embedded inside them. The landscapes and juxtaposition of textures become an evaluation of process and ownership. The work reflects a structure of feeling between art and commerciality; they become as much a sculpture as they are a sneaker.”
So if the collection is based around confronting planned obsolesce, how does Kirkum deal with the juxtaposition of creating while not wanting to add to society’s waste? “It is important as a designer to act around a branch of sustainability,” she says. “I am interested in reuse, so looking directly at how to reuse existing materials, trying to optimize these materials and use as few new materials as possible. I don’t believe a zero-waste business is instant, it is an ongoing process, but I think once you can create a sustainable system for one part of your process, you can begin working on the next one. For me, this work was built partly to highlight issues with recycling shoes, but also to try and alter our vision of newness, in an attempt to create an alternative system.”
For young designers, especially young British designers, having any kind of eye on commerciality is seen in a dim light. But in a world where the rent doesn’t stop because you’re artistic, we could never blame a designer for wanting to create something that might one day end up being a business. When asked, Kirkum says that “my work is formed from commerce and it rebels against it. I need hyper-commerciality to exist for my work to have meaning, yet my work invites you to think about a structure of circulation post commerciality.”
She adds that commercial awareness is vital as a young designer. “You [need to] understand the market you are hoping to place yourself within, and to know what has come before you. But I also think naivety can fuel newness. I am quite a novice within the world of sneaker culture; yet I think this innocence drove me to play with my experiences of sneakers and in that sense, create something unique.”
And despite Kirkum’s desire to make trainers, she does still count herself as a novice in the world of sneaker culture. “I’ve never been a sneakerhead, I’ve never been super into following what everybody’s doing. And I think, in a way, my collection does reflect that. It’s a different approach to footwear and trainers. Maybe if I followed all the brands correctly, I would’ve made something quite different.”
In this manner it’s almost the anti-Hender Scheme. Rather than be a brand which relies on slavish devotion to sneaker icons, this one (literally) rips it up and starts again. Does she think her collection would be more reverent if she’d been a deep lover of sneaker culture? “Yeah, maybe. When I first started doing trainers I was quite worried, because there’s this massive industry of sneakerheads and I thought, ‘I’m just gonna get eaten up’ and when people find out I don’t know the specific styles, they’re just gonna disregard me. But then I realized that, actually, this was a reaction to that [sneakerhead culture].”
Ironically, her collection has already garnered a reaction in the sneakerhead community, as she’s now working at adidas in the women’s footwear division of the Originals team.
As part of the International Talent Support scheme, Kirkum has to create another collection, so we asked what that’d look like. “I think it’s gonna be quite interesting to see what happens next. I’ve had a few ideas already about how I could move it forward. The key things are still to work with recycled materials, but I want to try and push into something that’s slightly more – some of the collection is quite conceptual, so maybe make something that’s bridging a little bit more. Something that people can see themselves wearing every day, rather than a statement shoe. So I’d like to try and push things that way a little bit, but still definitely using the recycled materials.”
As for the distant future, Helen Kirkum would like to open her own studio, creating bespoke shoes for people. It’s something her tutor agrees with her on. As for right now, Kirkum is dealing with a whirlwind of events. “Yeah, it’s just absolutely mad. It’s so funny because yesterday, on my FB timeline, it said that two years ago today it was my graduation for my BA in Northampton. If anyone had told me after I’d graduated from my BA that I would’ve been accepted into RCA, finished my MA at RCA, just won the ITS, and going to work at adidas, I would just be, like, ‘What?’ I wouldn’t have believed them.”