Helen Kirkum wants to level up your old Yeezys

By Farah Shafiq

4 minute read

Sneakerheads will likely be familiar with Helen Kirkum, creator of incredible limited-edition patchworks that transform worn sneakers into works of art.

However, the designer doesn’t count herself as one of those dedicated to the hype. She’s more than happy in a no-fuss pair of beaters, usually Converse or adidas Sambas, which eventually end up in her old box of stuff to cut up. 

“I’ve never been a sneakerhead and I’ve never had a good knowledge of the history of sneakers, so I’ve definitely come at it from a very artistic perspective,” she says, speaking to me from her studio in east London. “I have to approach everything I do with a certain level of naivety, so I can work with the shoes in a more playful way. But obviously, the more I carry on, the more I learn about sneaker culture. So, it’s getting a bit harder.” 

So, why then did she decide to focus her creativity on sneakers – more specifically upcycled ones? “Initially, I asked my friends to give me their old trainers and they were reluctant,” she says. “They had such an affinity with them even though they were battered or broken, and I became really interested in that idea… Basically, the reason I landed on recycled sneakers is because I needed some old sneakers to cut up and no one would give me any!” 

No one, that is, apart from Traid – a huge warehouse in Wembley, where she fills up suitcases full of old shoes every couple of months, before taking them back to the studio to deconstruct.  

“The first time I went to Traid’s recycling centre, I saw the mass of products and donations they get,” Kirkum says. “They have these bins full of odd shoes – you definitely have to dig through because it’s not just sneakers in there, you’ve got slippers, you’ve got crocs… 

“For me, it feels like a resource that I can actually utilise; I’m not taking pairs that people might wear, I’m taking the dregs and seeing what I can do with them. When I saw that, it got me hooked, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.” 

Kirkum’s enthusiasm for reviving and reinterpreting the old has got several others hooked, too. She’s collaborated with top fashion names, from Gucci to Takashi Murakami to Bethany Williams – and now, she’s designed two pairs exclusively for Lymited

Below, she shares the process of making those sneakers, plus some of her coolest commissions and her message for a more sustainable fashion future. 

On the making of the Lymited x Helen Kirkum sneakers

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Top: Helen Kirkum, Bespoke Upcycled Sneakers. Above: "I build the shoe like a collage or a puzzle, putting all these little pieces together," says Kirkum; photography courtesy of Helen Kirkum

On the making of the Lymited x Helen Kirkum sneakers

Making the sneakers for Lymited was really fun. The material was essentially the inspiration – I used more colour than usual, as colourful elements are more limited in stock. I had these really nice mustard pieces that I knew would be lovely, so I explored what would go with them. 

I don’t design from a sketch, it’s more of an organic process. The shape of the shoe is always the same – I have the patterns of the upper, the collar, the tongue etc. – but the way that the pieces are laid out is up to me. Sometimes that can be quite daunting! 

First, I separate everything into usable parts. Often with donated sneakers, the soles might be in perfect condition, but they’ll have a hole in the upper or the toe, or vice versa. So, there’s always a lot of time involved in the deconstruction, working out which parts I can use. All of the internal elements, everything that’s touching your foot basically, is new material. 

Then, I build the shoe like a collage or a puzzle, putting all these little pieces together. It’s quite an artistic process, because it’s really about creating the feeling of the shoe. I try to work in a free-spirited way to keep that energy within the sneakers. 

I’m really excited to see who ends up buying the sneakers I’ve made for Lymited, and the journey that the shoes go on from there. 

On the joy of the process

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"Something that's come from a hyped sneaker is just as important to me as something that's come from a child's shoe from Traid," says Kirkum; photography courtesy of Helen Kirkum

On the joy of the process

I love all the processing, I really am a maker and I love the physicality of making the shoe. The most enjoyable part is when I’m designing, working with the materials and trying to create this bespoke piece that no one else is going to have in the world. It’s a one-of-one piece. That’s definitely the most joyful bit to do. 

I also love the first time I stretch the upper over the shoe and see it as a proper sneaker. It stops looking like a piece of material and looks like a real shoe. When you last a shoe, you work on it upside down, so you only see what you’re doing on the sole. Turning the shoe over, you’re like, “Oof, that is a good shoe.” Every shoe is different, so you always get that excitement. 

On cool commissions

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"I love the first time I stretch the upper over the shoe and see it as a proper sneaker," says Kirkum; photography courtesy of Helen Kirkum

On cool commissions

I did such a cool made-to-order recently. A client of mine sent me four pairs of his sneakers and they were all very reputable and hyped: Off-White, Travis Scott, Comme des Garçons. We put them into one shoe and made this great amalgamation, all without feeling attached to the value of the branding. 

Something that’s come from a hyped sneaker is just as important to me as something that’s come from a child’s shoe from Traid. 

For example, a couple of years ago I did a pair of sneakers for Takashi Murakami for ComplexCon. They had pink tongues from a little girl’s sneaker that I got from Traid, and on the inside lining was written in biro ‘Megan R’. I just thought it’s so amazing that part of little Megan R’s shoes are now being worn by Takashi Murakami. I love that story of how we can connect people through products, especially recycled products.

On the future of responsible fashion

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"Making a product that you recognise but that you're not used to seeing. That's what I try to do," says Kirkum, pictured here in her east London studio; photography by Francis Augusto

On the future of responsible fashion

I’ve been really fortunate to collaborate with so many amazing brands. Now, I’m looking to collaborate with people who share a similar story and message in terms of sustainability. We have this great community of London-based designers all working towards the same thing, and I think working together helps to solidify our message and make some really meaningful pieces. 

Working with recycled products, I’ve become so aware of this state of overconsumption and planned obsolescence within the industry, so I think that’s definitely got to shift. For smaller brands, it’s easier to pivot and pick up on what you need to do to change; for the bigger brands there are a lot more logistics involved. So, I think any brands that are working towards being more sustainable are moving in the right direction. 

We’re already seeing a massive resurgence of vintage, which is going to get more and more popular. Not only vintage, but the type of work that I’m doing – we’re seeing more designers take real waste materials and make them into desirable products again. I hope there’s going to be more of that in the future. 

I think we’ll also see more consumers taking back ownership of what they wear and how they interact with their products. Not everyone might want to purchase a made-to-order from me, but they might send me a DM saying, ‘I was going to throw away my old Converse, but instead I cut them up and made something else out of them.’ For me, that’s such a success, because it’s giving people the inspiration to realise they don’t necessarily need something new to put their own identity on a piece. 

The idea of upcycling has been elevated to the extent that now you wouldn’t even know some products come from recycled materials. Personally though, I love to make it super obvious. My work is all about showcasing those authentic stories. Making a product that you recognise but that you’re not used to seeing. That’s what I try to do.

Helen Kirkum’s bespoke upcycled sneakers, made exclusively for Lymited, are available here (in the red colourway) and here (in the mustard colourway). 

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