helen kirkum

On the Up: Helen Kirkum's Upcycled Shoes Are Deconstructing Sneaker Culture

Welcome to On the Up, our feature series where we talk with designers who are making sustainable strides in the fashion industry through upcycling. They'll explain their process, share a few tips, and hopefully inspire you to repurpose your own wares.

The average sneaker consists of about a dozen major parts, an intricate fusion of components designed to enhance the performance of the shoe and its wearer in a multitude of athletic scenarios. An outsole with treads for traction and grip, a midsole for shock absorption, an insole to cradle the foot. Rubber and cotton, polyester, and EVA foam all work together to enable sprinting, jumping, pivoting, and blocking better than any oxford ever could.

Since their invention over a century ago, sneakers have evolved beyond the gym and into a transcendent footwear staple, as quotidian on the schoolyard as the runway or the boardroom. Today, the global sneaker market is valued at approximately $79 billion and projected to reach over $100 billion by 2026, but as demand booms, landfills and donation centers also swell with a relentless stream of unwanted pairs, discarded not because of a depreciation of usability but of symbolic value. Over the last decade, a culture has grown around sneakers that blends manufactured hype, competitive consumption, and planned obsolescence to toxic results. Despite strides made in bridging the canyon between sustainability and the sneaker industry, what happens to these shoes beyond customer checkout is still largely neglected and the array of materials used render them nearly impossible to recycle.

This is Helen Kirkum's starting block. "I make new sneakers from old ones," she explains to me over video chat, calling from the London studio where she runs a bespoke reworked sneaker operation. In simplest terms, this is true, but it's deeper than that; her sculptural collages effectively reframe "newness" itself. A childhood spent personalizing her hand-me-downs led Kirkum to study fashion design at London’s Royal College of Art, and a debate with a technician over what constitutes a "real shoe" piqued her interest in sneakers' conceptual power. She breaks down iconic shoes and reassembles them with little regard for brand insignia or projected resale value. In doing this, her practice is at once a celebration and desecration of the sneaker, equal parts art and functional footwear. With it, she hopes to unsettle the way we interact with the things we buy and own.

helen kirkum

Design by Tiana Crispino

There's a real sense of play in your work, which makes me curious about what you were like as a kid. Did you do a lot of deconstructing things and putting them back together then, too?

Yeah, definitely. I've always been interested in the construction of things, working out how things are made, and also seeing if you can challenge that. When I was little, I had loads of Converse, and I used to wear, like, a red one and a green one, or change the laces, or draw all over them, or paint on them. I always had this relationship with putting my own identity into things, being playful with them, and also taking a bit of ownership away from the brands, in a way, and putting my own stamp on them.

My mum used to make clothes, and I would go to craft fairs with her. I think that definitely influenced my relationship with clothes at an early age because I saw the work and the time that went into making them. I never saw them as this throw-away item. I saw it as something crafted by somebody's hands. Also, I'm the youngest. I have an older sister and got so many hand-me-downs, so I was always trying to find my own identity through found things or hand-me-downs or things that were made for me.

Why do you think you gravitated toward shoes in particular?

I actually didn't realize that footwear was something that you could study at first. I studied it at university, BA and MA, and I originally wanted to do fashion, but then I kind of stumbled across footwear. When I was growing up, I went through so many different paths: Oh, I want to be a fine artist. I want to be a textile designer. I want to be a product designer. I want to be an architect. All these different things. And then, when I discovered footwear, I felt like it was all these paths in one object.

There's something that feels very punk to me about your work. The way you de-brand the sneakers, and even if the brands are still visible, the act of integrating market competitors together into the same object, as sometimes happens with your work, still feels very subversive to me. Is that something you're conscious of as you create?

Definitely. When I first started looking at recycled products, I realized that when you collect these shoes from recycling centers, the branding is almost secondary to the livelihood of the product. When I deconstruct a shoe, I'm looking at the pieces, I'm looking at the shapes, and I'm looking at it like a collage. The branding becomes a little bit devoid and what's more important are the shapes and the feeling of the material. I think that also comes from me not really being a sneakerhead. I was never really a super sneakerhead growing up, and I think the more I get into this industry and learn about sneakers, I kind of have to take a step back from it in a way, and not get too bogged down with the meaning of it.

The taxonomy of sneaker culture.

Yeah, otherwise it can easily become too precious for me to be able to cut up.

How long does the process usually take for one pair of sneakers?

It depends. From start to end, I allocate myself, like, a week and a half to do an entire pair. It could be spent on pattern-making. It could be consulting with clients, making sure I know what they want, getting all the colors right. Or if we're collecting shoes from Traid, which is the recycling center that I work with, I only collect odd shoes, the ones that they can't do anything with, so that adds another layer to the process because I have to work out how to make a full pair from those odd sneakers. Then, it's cleaning them, deconstructing them, reconstructing it all. And because the process is like a collage, sometimes I can add loads of pieces really quickly, and sometimes I have to stare at it for hours or days and come back to it and think, Oh no, I'm going to move that. And I'm going to move that. So it's really this kind of artistic process, like painting almost, which makes it hard to put a timeline on, but obviously, I've tried to.

Helen Kirkum

Helen Kirkum / Design by Tiana Crispino

I'm fascinated by the pairs where you completely Frankenstein one sole from multiple shoes.

All the upper and soles are all made from recycled components. People will throw away their sneakers, and it'll either be because the top bit maybe got a hole or the sole is worn, but quite often it's not both. The other thing is when people recycle their sneakers, if you don't tie the laces together, the shoes get separated. So people might donate shoes with the intention that they're given to charity, to be worn again, but if they haven't secured them, they can get separated in the sorting process and become useless. Sometimes those odd ones are actually in very good condition, but they just got separated. They become lonely, and then I take them.

Wow. How did you learn that? Just by visiting the recycling center?

Yeah, when I was studying my master's degree, another thing I noticed was when I started asking people for their old sneakers to cut up, nobody would give them to me, and I realized that even I wouldn't cut up my own sneakers. We have this affinity to shoes, particularly, that we don't have to most other items of clothing. Even when they're worn and falling apart, we don't really want to part with them. That's why I went to Traid. And when I got there, they were like, Oh yeah, we have this single shoe bin. You can take shoes from there. They had these ginormous bins full of single shoes. They're sorting everything so quickly that they can't be like, Oh, I saw an Air Max five minutes ago. If it's gone, it's gone. And I was just like, This is the resource.

Because the only next step for those things is what? A landfill? Or they're burned?

Yeah, or sometimes they do get ground down to make a tarmac or to make inserts for padding and stuff like that.

Right. But even that means a considerable amount of energy is used to break the materials down.

Yeah, and quite a lot of my work is also about the idea of showcasing the system and the process through the object itself. I think it's so beautiful when you can see all these pieces with memories embedded in the material, and I haven't tried to disguise that. I haven't tried to change it. Instead, I really want to showcase that and present a different idea of newness.

Your work seems to be a long meditation on value, how we have agency in the process of ascribing objects with value.

Yeah, I didn't really realize that I was even exploring that for a long time, but everything always comes back to our personal interaction with products for me, especially sneakers. A sneaker is a vessel. It has no purpose without us, right? It's only when it's put on a body that it becomes meaningful. But in sneaker culture, there's so much focus on preserving sneakers and not wearing them, keeping them box fresh. I wanted to see if I could present an idea that people still desired, that was still pulling people in, but wasn't the obvious definition of what a sneaker should be or could be.

My background from my BA was more traditional footwear. I also worked in a shoe shop called Jeffery-West, and we did a lot of resoles. In traditional footwear, it's completely standard to bring a shoe back, take the sole off, and put a new one on. You can do that up to three times to prolong the livelihood of your shoes, but in sneaker culture, I just felt like that didn't exist at all. So I wanted to see if I could present a version of that in the sneaker world. And I just carried on doing that for five years.

helen kirkum

Design by Tiana Crispino

I think for a while now upcycling has been building momentum, but it's still relatively confined to clothing versus footwear. Why do you think that footwear upcycling has been slower to uptake?

I mean, I might be biased, but I'd probably say it's slightly more complicated. There are so many parts. Even industrial recycling doesn't really exist so much for footwear as it does for cotton or linen or denim or whatever. It can be a bit overwhelming as well. Whereas if you take something like a denim jacket, it's a bit more like, Oh, I'll put a patch on it or paint on the back. It seems more accessible in a way. But I do think there's a lot more footwear upcycling happening, and especially customizers are doing incredible things, so there's definitely a market for it.

For people who are interested in having a more participatory relationship with their wardrobes. where would you suggest that they start?

I do this sneaker sculpture workshop, which is basically where people make sneakers out of waste material that they find in their house, and the whole concept of that workshop is about empowering people who maybe think, I can't design, I don't know how to make a shoe. And kind of saying back to them, Look at what you have around you. There are so many resources that you can use for inspiration. You don't have to be the best drawer. It's just about making things spontaneously.

I think if you have something that you're not precious about, just be playful with things. For example, something like painting or drawing on a product is a really easy way to start because you're not actually cutting it. With shoes specifically, it's easy to do something simple like change the laces or maybe cut a bit of branding off or something like that. I think just have a go, and you can't really go wrong. But if you do have shoes that you feel like are in good condition, that maybe you want to part with but you don't want to alter yourself, definitely make sure you tie the laces together if you take them to a recycling center.

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