The Sneaker Revolutionary
London-based designer Helen Kirkum gives new life to old sneakers, inculcating values of sustainability through her designs, allowing the owner to own something inherently personal and one-of-a-kind.
By Sindhu Nair
According to the World Footwear Yearbook, over 24 billion pairs of shoes are produced annually (primarily under exploitative conditions) with sneakers accounting for the largest share. Sneaker production is exceptionally carbon-intensive, accounting for 1.4% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, which is significant given that air travel is responsible for 2.5% of all emissions. What is the sneaker industry doing about this humongous concern? Nothing ground-breaking according to Tansy Hoskins in her book, Foot Work: “The footwear industry is at least 10 years behind the rest of fashion in terms of human rights and environmental standards.”
While SCALE has written about sneaker brands that try to mitigate the effects of their own over-production, London-based designers like Helen Kirkum take us on a different path altogether.
Helen Kirkum creates bespoke sneakers, from old abandoned sneakers, each one special with memories of their own, a personalised version of what you own. Someone who believes strongly in the power of design, Helen puts her heart into each product. She says, “For me, design is so personal and so deeply rooted in who I am, so I definitely connect most with the design that comes from the soul.”
Helen not just creates, she also wants to instill the message of sustainability by adding a wow factor to the sneaker you own and thus open up the act of recycling as not just a one-off act of being responsible for the environment. Through her workshops, Helen instills these messages and for this, she is considered a pioneer of the deconstructed aesthetic within the sneaker industry, and a vanguard of the sustainable footwear movement. She recently interacted with the fashion faculty and students of the Fashion Design department at VCUarts Qatar through their newly introduced Eco Lux Lab.
Helen and her team utilise recycled and deadstock materials, creating bespoke sneakers artistically crafted for individual experiences. She says, “the connection that people have to their sneakers even when they are completely worn out interested me in our relationship with our old sneakers. That’s how I began looking into recycled materials.”
Helen’s expertise in the shoe-making craft took a whole new level after her education in the shoe-craft (a degree from the University of Northampton and then an MA at the Royal College of Art), enhanced by her experience at the Grenson factory.
She says, “I studied and have been making shoes for around 10 years now, so my journey and story has always been in footwear. I love the challenge of footwear, it has to be practical and wearable, so building creative and conceptual designs into those parameters is something I always find a great challenge, but also really rewarding.”
But what really changed her mindset was her visits to the TRAID warehouse when suddenly she was faced with the big picture of the waste materials at hand.
“Visiting TRAID, the recycling centre in London to see how they operate and how many donations they get daily, and then when I realised the abundance of donations they have and specifically the donations they have that they can’t use because they are poor quality or too damaged, and I realised this was a material that I had to utilise.”
The process to sustainable creation is never simple, says Helen, as she explains the process of collection of old sneakers, “To start with I was using any shoes, but now I have found a balance between collecting the best sneakers for my work from the recycling centres, as well as continuing to utilise their waste. I only collect odd sneakers from recycling centres, as they can’t be reused, so I really try to only use the real waste materials that can’t be used in another way.”
This was not an easy path at all, says Helen as she was helping to pioneer a movement in footwear design and highlight issues around over-production and post-consumer waste. “It is sometimes hard to make sure your points are coming across effectively to your audience,” she says. She won the ITS accessories award and ITS Vogue Talents award back in 2016, and though she wasn’t ready for the exposure that followed, the exposure led to many exciting collaborations.
Helen Kirkum recently came together with Reebok to reimagine the Zig. Following their Sole Fury collaboration, this one-off release has just 20 unique pairs, each one handmade from repurposed Reebok sneakers by Helen in her East London studio. The exclusive collaboration will be launched on February 25th at 15:00 p.m. (GMT) on helenkirkumzig.com.
We ask her about collaborations and future plans.
SCALE: Do you think you would have reached this level of recognition if not for the collaborations? Do you see the fashion world getting disassociated from the world of big names and brands to follow sustainable small brands? Is creating any new product sustainable?
Helen: I have been really fortunate to collaborate with some incredible brands and artists, so I think any collaboration helps to showcase your work to a new audience and to people that may not have discovered you otherwise. I think there are loads of incredible sustainable brands that are creating amazing footwear products, I wouldn’t say it is so disconnected, I think it is up to us as consumers to make those conscious choices between one brand and another and to choose products that align with our values.
SCALE: Which are the collaborations that have really helped put the focus on the sustainable aspect?
Helen: I worked with the incredible designer Bethany Williams at the beginning of 2020 to create three pairs of Adidas Superstars from her scrap materials. Teaming with Bethany allowed us both to put our energy into highlighting the waste. Bethany already works with waste materials, so utilising her scraps made an even more holistic approach to the collection. I also worked with recent Central St Martens graduate Matthew Needham on his incredible collection. Once again, this collaboration was an opportunity for us to really utilise the flexibility in recycled sneaker waste and showcase it in some new silhouettes.
SCALE: What was your experience with students in Qatar?
Helen: I love teaching students all over the world. My ‘Sneaker Sculptures’ Workshop allows students to be free and expressive with their designs and create something they would have never thought to design on paper. We always have some incredible results and it is amazing to see participants’ thought processes and design journeys!
SCALE: How does one balance commercial viability to being sustainable? How do you achieve it?
Helen: Sustainability is such a massive topic that can be approached from so many angles, so I think it is important to acknowledge when brands are moving in the right direction and making positive changes. I think small brands have the ability to pivot quickly and implement sustainable changes such as made to order, or pre-order models. I also think we have a responsibility as a consumer to make choices where possible and buy into those sustainable brands and products.