Sole Mates: Helen Kirkum and the Nike Air Max 90

The designer’s deconstructed and reconstructed sneakers celebrate the human touch.

Footwear 
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In a world obsessed with keeping hyped sneakers box-fresh, Helen Kirkum disrupts with her hand-made, one-off masterpieces. From her London-based studio, Kirkum takes some of the industry’s most-loved sneakers apart, and upcycles our wasteful habits into new pairs that subvert conventional trends. For her, sneakers are less about name brands and cosigns and more about personality and what they mean to you. 

This is what makes her special. At Helen Kirkum Studio, some of your favorite pairs (including the Off-White™ x Nike Air Jordan 1 OG that you see on the designer’s home page) are turned into something completely new, as a vessel for self-expression, worn and loved by people who wear and love their sneakers. It’s an authentic experience that champions craftsmanship, celebrates individuality, and puts the subject of making back into sneaker production. 

Aside from personality, storytelling, and craft, there’s also a sustainable aspect to what Helen Kirkum Studio does which is, yet again, just another reason why the decorated designer is a beacon of hope for the footwear industry (which as we know, is one of the biggest culprits for harming our planet). 

Everything Kirkum touches has a signature look and feel, and in many ways, her approach can be likened to the cult impact of the Nike Air Max 90. You can recognize and appreciate an AM90 from a mile away, and the same can be said for Kirkum’s work. To understand more about her craft and the importance of her work, as well as how she came to love sneakers (specifically the AM90), HYPEBEAST sat down with Helen Kirkum for our latest installment of Sole Mates

HYPEBEAST: What got you into sneakers?

Helen Kirkum: It’s quite an interesting story because I was into traditional footwear to start with. I studied in Northampton and I did brogues, dress shoes, and I think it was my personal style that got me into sneakers. I wanted to discover how they were made because I didn’t know — because I’d always done traditional shoes. Then I started to look more into sneakers, and that led me onto a path of deconstruction and reconstruction. That’s why a lot of my work has a tactile and handmade feel because I come from a place of that kind of traditional footwear. 

So by cutting sneakers up and rebuilding them, that’s how you understood how they were made?

I wanted to get sneakers to cut up because I knew the pattern was different. I remember a technician of mine, when I told him I wanted to do sneakers he said “You don’t want to do sneakers because they’re not a real shoe.” I’ve always been interested in those concepts as what constitutes a real shoe and why that would come up in that context. When I started unpicking them and playing with the proportions and construction, I learned so many interesting things about the shoes themselves, and that was it really. 

What differences did you notice?

In traditional shoes, the concept of repair and mending is really grounded. You’d always get your shoes resoled but in the sneaker industry that didn’t really exist when I started this process. I was interested in if I could create a sneaker that was so visibly tactile and handmade that you had no choice but to be confronted by the idea that it was made by a person, because sometimes sneakers appear on the shelves bright and shiny (in some perfect context), and they become devoid of making. So I really wanted to bring that element to sneaker culture. 

I wanted to propose an idea of something worn, something second-hand, as something new and beautiful and challenge this idea of newness and always wanting the next thing that’s quite apparent in sneaker culture.

Have you ever wanted to put your product ideology into a bigger-scale production?

When I started I was adamant that the sneakers had to be produced in this way. The concept of something being made-to-order makes it exclusive and really personal, and I actually offer a service where people can send in old sneakers and I’ll make them a new shoe out of all their old sneakers, so they have stories embedded into the material. That element is so personal that it has to be a one-of-one production. 

However, collaborating with brands is another way that I can make my work more accessible, which is good.

As a designer, what makes you gravitate towards the Nike Air Max 90?

My first experience with the Air Max 90: I remember my older sister had a pair, they were white and were just so beaten up and not white at all. I remember thinking she was the pinnacle of this cool girl with those shoes. Without realizing it, it’s always been there in my life as an important shoe. When I first started getting into sneakers (because I was never a sneakerhead) my partner bought me a pair of Air Max 1s, and that was my first pair of “Oh I have cool shoes.” I’ve had a relationship with the Air Max family, which has been nice. 

It’s a shoe I know well and whenever I sort through and find one at a recycling center, I always think it’s going to be a good one to cut up. 

“You’ll always find something good when you cut up a shoe.”

[As for my work] the Air Max 90 has such great proportions and the most satisfying thing to cut up is those key components on the back and sides. Getting a scalpel in there and running along the stitching is just so satisfying. The pieces always come off really nicely, they’re well made and it has a lot of beautiful components that are also iconic, so what’s cool is that you take those shapes away from the AM90 and put them somewhere else, but people still recognize the origins of the product — that’s something that’s important to my work. 

What do you find when you cut up an AM90?

I love exposing the inside of a shoe, and you can show the glue, the foam, the reinforcements, all of the things people don’t realize go into a shoe. I think, particularly when you start to take it apart, you can still almost see the ghost of the shoe even when all the layers are off. Something like that is inspiring. 

I use the zigzag stitch a lot within my work and the reason I first started using it was that when you take a shoe apart, a lot of layers are buttered together with that zigzag. I wanted to show that process that nobody ever sees by putting it on the outside of a sneaker. 

You’ll always find something good when you cut up a shoe. 

Was that the first sneaker you cut up, or was it something else?

It wasn’t my first, but it was one of the first that I made a full shoe [from]. Usually, when I work, I create shoes by taking loads of different bits from loads of different shoes and making them into one, but I actually created a shoe where I just cut up the AM90 and put it back together in a reconstructed format. That was the first time I ever worked with just one shoe and making just one shoe. 

The first one I ever did was a mismatch of lots of different things. I work with a recycling center called Traid and I get whatever I’m given from them, and that’s what I used to start with. 

The word “sustainable” has a jaded reputation in the sneaker industry. Would you say what you do is sustainable?

With my work, I always try to just say it how it is, and I’m always trying to improve on everything that I’m doing. I take uppers from recycling centers and break them down and then make them into new uppers, so that’s where the recycled element comes from. But I’m also doing really small production, it’s all made to order, there’s no waste in that aspect. 

There are always things you can improve and work on, so I try to showcase the brand and what I do and then let people decide how they want to interact with it. 

Could the sneaker industry learn something from you?

What I try to do is shine a light on some of the issues that we have in terms of over-production and all the mass of sneakers that we have in recycling centers. I started it because I went to recycling centers and thought, “There’s so much stuff here it’s ridiculous, I need to utilize the materials instead of using a new material.” In that sense, it’s almost posing a question or shining a light on that situation, showing that there is a way around it and this is something that more people can do. 

In general the more artists and designers that are coming up and showing sustainable processes and different ways of working however that is, the more young designers that push that message the more others have to listen to what we’re saying.

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