London-based artist and designer, Helen’s artisanship has garnered international acclaim and it is her ability to tell stories through her designs that sets her work apart. Each pair of sneakers she makes is unique, weaving together the memories of the components that make it, allowing the owner to own something inherently personal and one-of-a-kind.
She is widely considered a pioneer of the hacked and deconstructed aesthetic within the sneaker industry, and in the vanguard of the sustainable footwear movement.
Through her practice, Helen challenges us to rethink the meaning of consumption and the way we interact with the products we own.
// YOUR WORD FOR 2021
// WHAT HAVE YOU SEEN ONLINE/INSTAGRAM /TIKTOK / TWITTER THAT HAS STOPPED YOU SCROLLING?
@ConceptKicks they are always posting really interesting sneakers. The other day I saw the ACNE patchwork boots that stopped me from scrolling for a hot second.
// GIVE US A WHISTLE STOP TOUR OF YOUR CAREER TO DATE
I graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2016 with an MA in Footwear Design. Straight after I worked at adidas for the Women’s Originals team for a year, I worked on loads of amazing projects, including the Sambarose. Next I worked in the Alexander Wang team for a little bit. That was really exciting.
After I left there I started doing consultancy, I consulted for Yeezy for a year across Calabasas and the UK.
I then started my own brand and also started doing a little bit more consultancy for brands, such as BYREDO – helping them make their byproduct sneaker and The Salvagers working on their manifesto sneaker.
I then moved on to more of my own projects. I started working on collaborations with brands. I collaborated on a piece for Takashi Murakami for Complex Con, Sneakers for Breakfast, which was an incredible experience.
Next was the Timberland Construct 10061 project. After which I started getting some amazing collaborations with Melissa, with Adidas, with Reebok and that has taken me to where I am now.
I am currently focusing on my made-to-order service, where I create made-to-order sneakers for individual clients. Customers can order directly through our website and we create bespoke sneakers that are the only ones to ever exist in the world. We have two silhouettes LEGACY and VOYAGE where the sneakers can be made from their own personal sneakers or from our stock of recycled components.
I would say that is the whistle stop tour to date.
//WHAT DOES 24 HOURS IN YOUR LIFE LOOK LIKE?
It varies every day, really, depending on what I’m doing, but on a typical day, I would get up, have my breakfast, have my coffee and then cycle to the studio. I cycle through Victoria Park to the studio, which is absolutely lovely. When I get here, I usually put on a playlist or the radio, to try and get into the groove a little bit.
Next I’ll check my emails. If my team is in, we will discuss what we’re doing for the day, what needs to be done, where the priorities are. Some days are a lot of admin and, you know, sorting out your business.
Other days are really creative. I try to have as many creative days as possible where I can really work on getting my hands dirty, working on a tactile product, tactile creation, and really push the needle forwards with what I’m doing within the brand.
At the end of the day I cycle back home, chill and sometimes try to forget about the day. Otherwise if there’s something to do, you’ll find me at a gig. I love going to gigs. I love going to see what’s happening in the grunge music scene of London, going to small venues and dive bars, which I’ve definitely missed during the pandemic. It’s nice to get back into that. And if I’m not doing that or seeing friends, I’m probably watching the real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
// WHAT DO YOU DO TO SWITCH OFF OR CHILL?
Watch the real Housewives of Beverly Hills! I do actually love to watch reality TV and trash TV. I think for me, it does really help me switch off and go into a different life.
I also like to go for a walk, a cycle, do yoga, see friends and go to gigs. I think for me, going to gigs just releases a lot of energy and a lot of angst, which is sometimes what you need.
// WHAT HAS BEEN ONE OF YOUR BEST CAREER HIGHLIGHTS?
Oh, God I’ve had so many! I would say recently, we just did our first ever debut presentation at London Fashion Week 2021.
It was the first time we were on schedule and we created an amazing debut show. We showed our new made-to-order collection. We had the amazing LÅPSLEY performing and also doing a DJ set. We had an incredible poet called Phoebe Wagner, who we commissioned specifically for the show, performing her poetry which was really incredible.
We had an amazing immersive projection from Alistair Redding which was a beautiful experience. We had beers from Toast Ale, which is a fantastic sustainable beer company based in London. So it was just a totally immersive experience and showcased what the HELEN KIRKUM brand is all about, what our world consists of.
And I think that was a really beautiful and proud moment. So that’s gotta be a highlight.
// WHAT DO YOU SEE IN YOUR FUTURE?
Lots of shoes. I think the future is really about continuing to change the perception of newness within the industry to keep pushing boundaries on what’s acceptable within recycled and upcycled products, to keep creating artistic pieces and keep putting my vision into the world.
// IF YOU COULD COLLABORATE WITH ONE CREATIVE/BRAND WHO WOULD IT BE?
I feel really lucky to have collaborated with loads of incredible companies. I think I would love to work with someone like Vivienne Westwood to create a kind of world saving sneaker. I think that would be one to tick off the bucket list for sure.
// WHO IS YOUR GREATEST INSPIRATION?
I have loads of different inspirations. I think for me it always comes back to family. I think primarily of my Nana, who taught me to knit and crochet. She was always inspiring me to be creative. And I think that her encouragement was, and still is, a massive inspiration to me. The same goes for the rest of my family, my mum and dad, they’re always inspiring me and encouraging me to go for it. So yeah, got to say family.
// YOUR FAVOURITE SONG OF 2021 SO FAR?
I would have to say ‘Keep Swimming’ by my partner’s band called Lyena. It completely epitomises where we’ve been in the last 18 months, how we felt and how we’ve kept going.
It’s very angsty and British. I think the mentality of keep swimming has just been perfect for this year.
// WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO SAY ABOUT YOU AT THE END OF YOUR CAREER?
She did good in the world.
// WHAT IS THE BIGGEST ADVICE YOU WOULD GIVE TO NEW CREATIVES?
I would say my biggest advice goes back to my Nana Iris. She always used to say to me, ‘You can only do what you think is right at the time.’ That has helped me navigate through my career.
I think so often we think about what we do, the opportunities we have and we worry about what we could have done, what we should have done. If you make every decision thinking at this time, this is the right decision for me, then it helps you to not regret anything. So you can only do what you think is right at the time.
More practical advice. I would say don’t leave your portfolio at any brands, be enthusiastic and be nice to people. Being enthusiastic about other people’s work, being kind and a good person gets you very far in this industry. And it also helps you to live a more joyous life.
// WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO YOU IN YOUR WORLD RIGHT NOW?
The planet is important to me. Everything that I do is driven by this idea to spread awareness about the state of post-consumer waste and what we can do about it.
I will keep driving that forward. So that’s definitely something that’s very important to me. Another thing that’s super important to me is to spread creativity and the joy of creative practice, especially within the UK. Creative subjects get a really hard time and I love to teach and educate students about the joy and the importance of creativity.
Those are my two most important social and political issues.
Also see the HELEN KIRKUM & REEBOK COLLAB with 20 handmade pairs on Zig.