TRAID: Your reimagined trainers are extraordinary, like pieces of collage. What’s your background and what inspired you to make shoes from reclaimed rather than new materials?
Helen Kirkum: Thank you! I studied footwear design at The University of Northampton and then did an MA at the Royal College of Art, so this gave me a real mix of footwear experience. At Northampton I learnt how to make traditional shoes and brogues and worked in the Grenson factory, then at RCA I began to get a lot more experimental and started “unmaking” shoes and exploring construction techniques and materials.
I wanted to make sneakers because I had no idea how they were made, so collected some old ones to take apart and have a look at. I realised people have a connection to their sneakers even when they are completely worn out, and this interested me in our relationship with our old sneakers. Thats how I began looking into recycled materials! Then once I visited the Traid warehouse I saw the issue first hand and thought there must be a way I can utilise this material.
TRAID: You visited TRAID’s warehouse in 2015 to source reclaimed materials for your MA collection. What was the sourcing process like and how did you incorporate the materials you found?
Helen Kirkum: I loved visiting TRAID so much, we actually came the first time as part of a trip at RCA, I think it was for textiles students but I asked if I could join and came along. I saw the process and the amazing work that everything does in the warehouse and was really intrigued by these objects that tell stories about peoples lives. When I source shoes at Traid I only take the odd sneakers, sometimes odd shoes get into the recycling bins or donors don’t attach the shoes together when they recycle which causes them to get lost and mixed up. SO TIE YOUR LACES TOGETHER if you recycle your sneakers! I sort through all the odd sneakers and shoes that are sorted by the traid warehouse team and take the ones that are suitable for my work. Once I have the sneakers I clean them and break them down into their component pieces and use them to build my new sneakers.
TRAID: Your shoes are an example of sustainable production, however, the footwear industry has a terrible track record when it comes to sustainability, worker’s rights and animal rights. What should be done about the reality of shoe production?
Helen Kirkum: I think a lot of things are changing in the industry and there are many brands adapting the way they work or moving to more sustainable production. I think as consumers there is two main things we can do, one is to research and make a more informed choice about what we buy. The second is to treat the things we own with more care and love to improve the longevity of our products. Invest in sneaker care products, or take your sneakers to a cobbler. Many cobblers are starting to repair sneakers now if you have a hole in the upper. The most frustrating thing for me is when I collect recycled sneakers and many of them are in perfect condition but just have a hole in the toe!
TRAID: Rooted in clever corporate marketing, and present across youth and music culture, there remains a big allure around trainers which are new and ‘box fresh’. They are objects to have rather than subjects of wear and tear – which raises all sorts of issues around unsustainabilty and overconsumption. How do you think we can disrupt the idea that new is best? Can use, reuse and sustainability be revered instead?
Helen Kirkum: Totally! With my work I try to create something that tells a story of human agency and materials, every sneaker is completely unique, so that in itself becomes collectable. I also show a different mindset and approach to sneakers, to be creative, to personalise and to play with what you own. So many of my followers message me with work they have created inspired by my designs. Shoes they were going to throw away but decided to keep and paint or patch and wear again. Instilling this mindsets is a really important part of my work.
There are many designers, makers and customisers, myself included, that are creating one off sneaker products for individual clients by customising or adapting what they already own, or by creating a bespoke commission. This process is not quick, there is a turn around time for that sort of craft and uniqueness that consumers are starting to understand. Something personal, and something you want to wear. I think this is the future of sneaker collecting.
TRAID: In 2020 you had planned to work with young people on an education project. While this has been delayed due to Covid-19 can you tell us more about this?
I do a lot of work with people of all ages, teaching workshops and seminars, one of which we were hoping to visit TRAID’s warehouse to show children the process! But since unfortunately all my work of this kind has now been cancelled I am looking at other ways I can teach. I have been creating free “sneaker sculpture” workshops on my instagram @helenkirkumstudio to make fun creative sneaker designs during lockdown. These digital workshops have been such a success, I am now looking at other ways I can share knowledge and creativity with my audience online.
Follow Helen on instagram here.
Find out about what our shoes are doing to the world and what you can do about it here.