If the Shoe Fits, Wear it: Helen Kirkum’s Sustainable Sneakers

By Teen Blogger: Nina
Social Media Link: @Carolinaatani

The modern Cinderella doesn’t lose her shoes, she makes them.

Our Cinderella takes the name of Helen Kirkum, an artist and designer based in London who achieved international fame by transforming old, abandoned sneakers to new, unique pairs radiating individuality and personality. In a world where we are all obsessed with trends, latest collections and new out-of-the-box pieces, she truly stands out as an innovative and sustainable creator who is an example to follow for all the big footwear enterprises.

Kirkum was always fascinated by shoes as fashion pieces. First, she studied footwear design at The University of Northampton where she learnt how to make traditional shoes. After having learnt how to create, she followed her more experimental route and, like many great artists, started to destroy to build something even greater. This was the focus of her Master of Arts at the Royal College of Art where she explored “unmaking” shoes along with construction techniques and materials. It was at that time that she began to focus on sneakers.

Her story with sneakers started in a large clothing recycling center in London, Traid, where thousands of donated shoes lie, many missing their pair. Kirkum entered the store looking for materials for her next footwear project and found herself in front of this gigantic pile which instantly sparked her imagination. She decided that these abandoned sneakers would serve as raw material: “From that point forward, it just didn’t make sense for me to make things out of new materials when there was so much surplus just waiting to be used,” she says. So it was settled: she would create new sneakers from old ones.

Whilst now she enjoys great success, her creations even appearing in exhibitions, Kirkum explains that not everyone thought her project was an incredible idea. “I actually faced some resistance to the way that I was creating products.”, she states, “My tutors wanted me to use old trainers as inspiration to make something new. I had so many intense conversations about how the old shoes are the point — that is the work, using old shoes.”

It appears that her entourage failed to understand why she would choose to make (or re-make) sneakers in particular. This part of the story is very interesting and tells us a lot about our human behavior and attachment to objects we enjoy, such as our sneakers. Kirkum narrates how she started to ask around, friends and family, for their old sneakers to cut up and work on. She found that nobody wanted to give them to her. “I realized that people had this connection to sneakers that they didn't have to other items of clothes. At that point, I started going down this rabbit hole of our human relationship with products, specifically sneakers. That was what got me interested in them.”

I am no expert in shoe psychology, but I do know that many of us are used to giving away old T-Shirts, sweaters or even jeans, but for some reason more reluctant when it comes to shoes. I would say that we have a different relationship with our shoes than we have with other items. Shoes, especially sneakers, are items that last for years, that we wear every day and that we picked with care. Kirkum was able to find an item that holds a personal and deep sentimental connection with its owner, which is what inspired her to make tailored and one-of-a-kind pieces.

Aside from personality, storytelling, and craft, there’s also a sustainable aspect to what Helen Kirkum Studio does. In fact, studies show that the footwear industry is one of the sectors that pollutes more readily, being responsible for around 1.4% of emissions. For reference, air travel is responsible for 2.5% and considering the footwear industry is expanding, we can expect that number to grow higher every day. Therefore, businesses like Kirkum’s are so important: by making shoes out of old ones she recycles the materials instead of using new ones and so helps to reduce the carbon footprint. “Ever since I was little, I've always thought I would save the world one day, so I'm still working towards that, I guess! I'm in a better position than it was ten years ago to do it.”

On her website we can see that she proposes two main options: the legacy pair and the voyage pair. The former is when the clients themselves send shoes to Kirkum (from 2 to 6 pairs) which she then uses to make new unique ones. The latter however consists of her using rescued pairs from Traid to make the sneakers. She fondly says that when people send over their shoes (and sometimes even in the ones she sources) there are many personalized sections with splatters of colours, doodles, writings or drawings. “Those panel pieces are always amazing because you can take, utilize and showcase them in a new product.”

Another big part of her work is collaborations. Yes! Helen Kirkum collaborated with many outstanding designers to create one-off pairs of shoes unique in their style and very different from the next pair. For instance, her latest collaboration is with Reebok, a UK fitness, footwear and clothing brand, which resulted in the creation of 20 pairs of cool and futuristic-looking sneakers made from old samples the brand couldn’t sell. She also collaborated with Adidas and her future is looking brighter than ever as many other brands take inspiration from her work and hope to collaborate.

Helen Kirkum was able to break through the mold of “new is always better” (when the sneakers had to be ‘perfect’) and was able to put the spotlight on her creations. Her patchworked, deconstructed aesthetic is now a recognized trademark that places Kirkum at the forefront of the sustainable footwear movement and establishes her as a role model for all footwear industries. When asked about the future she states: “I would love to see that we can create a system where we develop circular products and create a system for all the products that already exist and find a way to utilize them effectively and not just burn them.”

I have no doubt that if young designers follow Helen Kirkum’s lead, the fashion industry will be a more sustainable (while always fashionable!) environment. So keep an eye out.

Helen Kirkum

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/helenkirkumstudio/

Website: https://www.helenkirkum.com/projects#collaborations

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