For the latest in our series introducing the Design District community, we talk to a pioneering designer bringing new life to old sneakers.

By creating highly covetable kicks out of castoffs and deadstock, Helen Kirkum has carved out a singular path for herself in the world of sneaker design. Saved from landfill, old footwear is methodically dissected by Helen and her team to create a library of scraps from which to assemble one-of-a-kind wonders. Whether built using materials sourced from clothing charity Traid or a client's own well-worn collection, the resulting shoe is always as unique as its new owner. 

Design District (DD): Hello Helen, welcome to the neighbourhood. To start with, please could you tell us a bit about your background and how you established yourself in the bespoke trainer business?

Helen Kirkum (HK): I graduated from The Royal College of Art in 2016 where I focused on creating trainers from old sneakers collected from recycling centres. I gained a lot of publicity for being a pioneer of the hacked and deconstructed aesthetic, with many brands and publications picking up on what I was doing.

From there I went on to design women’s sneakers at Adidas Originals and to consult for Yeezy. I continued my own work around recycling and post-consumer waste, setting up a studio and doing more independent projects until eventually I was able to work on that full-time. 

Our studio at Design District is HK studio 3.0 and it’s the biggest and best yet. We now focus primarily on made-to-order sneakers, as well as brand collaborations that shed light on post-consumer waste and inspire change. 

DD: How would you describe Helen Kirkum Studio to someone coming across it for the first time?

HK: We celebrate the processes of wearing and making in our products. Utilising recycled and deadstock materials, we create bespoke sneakers artistically crafted for an individual experience. We collaborate with brands worldwide to bring our playful perspective and sustainable message to their products. We also love to spread our signature design-through-making ethos in talks and workshops, promoting the value of spontaneous and tactile creativity.

DD: Tell us about a career highlight.

HK: I have been fortunate to have many highlights in my relatively short career so far. Although each project is special in its own way, I think the Adidas Campus x HELEN KIRKUM project was a real full-circle moment. Having my own collaborative project after only a year working in-house was a really special moment. There’s a documentary around that project that you can watch on Vimeo.


DD: And a major setback?

HK: The pandemic hit just after I had launched my made-to-order service, so it was really challenging going from extreme highs to extreme lows. I was also still working on everything solo at that point, so after the first lockdown I slowly started to build my team. Now it's so exciting to be coming out the other side with a fantastic team, a gorgeous new space and our vision focused on what we want to achieve in the next few years. 


DD: Looking back, is there anything you would’ve done differently?

HK: My grandma always used to say to me, ‘you can only do what you think is right at the time,’ so I try not to look back with too many regrets. I think in my early days (and still now) I faced a lot of copying, with major fashion labels taking my designs and commercialising them. I never really challenged that and instead blamed myself for putting my work out there and not following through. Being more outspoken is something I am working on, but in reality I think that experience has always been one of the key driving forces that keeps me pushing my work.

DD: What advice would you give to other creatives starting out in the industry?

HK: What is different about you is your biggest asset. For so long I tried to fit into the sneaker world and felt like an outsider. If you can recognise that your hobbies, interests and passions make up the incredible melting pot that is you — that these are the things making your work and design unique and important — it will help you to stay focused when doubt creeps in. 


DD:  Is there another footwear designer who's really exciting you right now?

HK: Our fellow Design District pal Mr. Bailey (founder of Conceptkicks), is doing some incredible things in design. His work and mine couldn’t be more different but I always admire his futuristic silhouettes and ability to pull all his references into a pair of sneakers.

DD: Why have you chosen Design District? 

HK: The space is incredible. When I first saw our building I thought it looked like a cutting mat, so of course it had to be mine. I love that this space is designed by Mole Architects with sustainability in mind. 


DD: What’s your favourite thing about your new space?

HK: These windows!


DD: And about the district?

HK: The sense of community is really special. I am excited for summer to see it thriving! 


DD: What’s next for Helen Kirkum Studio?

HK: Our goal is to reimagine the British footwear industry using post-consumer waste as a precious material. It’s a big dream but we are moving towards it! 


DD: Where can people find out more about Helen Kirkum Studio?

HK: For any press enquiries, please contact: [email protected]