Collaging her efforts and experiments as a designer, Royal College of Art MA Footwear graduate Helen Kirkum creates re-mastered sneakers that are embedded with memory and experience. From a purely visual perspective, the forms are a structured, colourful splendour — but read on to discover how shoe design can be used to partake in a social and environmental dialogue around the very industry in which it operates.
“The collection reflects ghosts of efforts, discarded and remastered.”
What drives your practice?
My work is a spontaneous reaction to what’s happening around me; conceptualising our connections with commerce and materiality. My final collection, ‘Our Public Youth’, is a personal reflection of our society; investigating how we seek to identify ourselves in the current climate of hyper commerciality. By looking at thrown out sneakers, I began to develop a story of confusion: one about coming of age in our oversaturated paradigm, hacking and reinventing brand hierarchies to create a new landscape. As my work progressed, the impact of human agency and the condition of the pieces became inherently relevant, as the collection reflects ghosts of efforts, discarded and remastered.
“My designs are an attempt to make a bridge between conceptual and commercial footwear — it is born from commerciality, yet it reacts to it.”
Can you tell me about the approach at the RCA and how it affected your process?
Admittedly I felt really lost at the beginning of my final year: this sense of loss and confusion drove me to collect and disassemble old trainers. It was an exercise of understanding the construction and materiality of footwear as a form, yet as I worked on these, I discovered so much more about the feelings and memories embedded in the pieces. The process became my practice, through excessive experimenting I realised that my work is the process. I could never have understood this without the creative freedom which the RCA has given me.
Equally, the access to amazing facilities and technical staff has really broadened my creativity. My entire year group in FAM (Footwear, Accessories, Millinery) have really experimented, which is vital for our pathways. For me, when I really stepped outside my comfort zone and out of the studio, I found other techniques that elevated my process. In my two years at the RCA I have learnt to trust my instinct, and that has been such a valuable experience.
Prior to studying at the RCA did you gain industry experience and how did this inform your work?
I previously gained work experience in small start up footwear businesses and global footwear brands, so I had a varied knowledge about customer profiling. Establishing consumer profiles for my practice gave me answers as I questioned my development process, and this gave me an awareness of commerce.
My designs are an attempt to make a bridge between conceptual and commercial footwear — it is born from commerciality, yet it reacts to it. Re-evaluating the fast paced construction and production of sneakers, I aim to emphasise the hand of the maker and the beauty of craft, which is lost in the otherworldliness of sneaker manufacturing. It is a meta-modern interpretation of our current landscape, our connections between intensified commerce and social identity.
“The biggest issue is that we don’t need more stuff! It is vital that we shift our attitudes and put our energy into addressing waste, slowing down the production of goods, taking responsibility as designers and consumers.”
Do you understand your work as design or as art?
I sometimes consider my work art, and sometimes design. When I analyse the pieces, and I see the process and the stories of human agency which collaboratively build the shoe, I deem my work art. The shoes are artefacts, they embody efforts, stories and memories. The upper is spontaneous, inspired piece by piece, it can take days, weeks. As I build the collage of pieces, constructing the textures and landscapes around the last, it is art but when I fit the shell of the upper with the internal structure necessary for the shoe and create the sole, it becomes design. Within my practice I understand art to be at the core of the idea and design being defined as the functionality and resolution of the concept.
My designs subvert the norms of footwear construction and design, because the shoe is essentially made inside out and from the bottom up. I tried to challenge the technical properties and traditions of shoemaking and by hacking and remastering discarded sneaker components, the shoes are a curated collage of pieces, in each pair the left and right are entirely different, yet the overall look and feeling is the same. This was the biggest challenge for me; everyone expects two shoes to match, how do you make a pair appear to be both the same when they are completely different?!
How do you feel about your whole experience at the RCA and are you excited to head out into the industry?
The RCA has been an overwhelming ride: an amazing and crazy experience, with the most beautiful and inspiring creatives I could have hoped to meet. The culture and people at the RCA have taught me so much, it was truly an unforgettable experience. I am excited to head into industry, I have so much knowledge to gain and things to learn, but I also feel like I have something valuable to give.
I hope to continue with my own work in the future, but not necessarily as a brand as such, but a practice or residency where I can create one off trainers for interesting people that like what I do. I do not want to disconnect from the physical act of making, so if it takes one month to make a super cool pair of shoes and I work every night in a bar, I would prefer that to churning out designs for the sake of making money.
How would you like the industry to change?
The biggest issue is that we don’t need more stuff! It is vital that we shift our attitudes and put our energy into addressing waste, slowing down the production of goods, taking responsibility as designers and consumers. There is movement towards post-commerciality, as small brands strive to take ownership and revive craftsmanship. I feel that it is not necessary to be all things to all people any more, in this manner; I hope that my practice will appeal to some people.
Words by Lilah Francis
Shoes photography by Namal Lanka
Knitwear by Jacob Patterson
All images courtesy of Helen Kirkum