Helen Kirkum’s Inaugural Birkenstock Residency Blends Tradition with Cutting-Edge Design

The British footwear designer speaks with Hypebeast on becoming Birkenstock’s first artist-in-residence at its brand-new community space in East London.

Footwear 
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British designer Helen Kirkum is much more than just a creative. Kirkum crosses the limits of innovation with her unique upcycling practices, which have seen her breathe new life into well-trodden footwear through her 1-of-1 patchwork technique.

The BFC NEWGEN recipient has entered 2024 with renewed purpose courtesy of Birkenstock, becoming the brand’s first artist-in-residence as part of the BIRKENSTOCK STUDIO: WALK WITH ME initiative.

Taking place in the brand’s new space in Dray Walk Gallery, East London, the initiative is a free program of events and workshops through which the brand connects and collaborates with London’s creative community. Kirkum and Birkenstock have been inviting the public to immerse themselves in her craft, which consists of deconstructing shoes and challenging traditional production strategies with a cherished outlook on “craft, product, and value.”

Embodying Birkenstock’s own ethos of acute attention to detail and hard-wearing design, Kirkum has become the inaugural resident at BIRKENSTOCK STUDIO’s WALK WITH ME space in Dray Walk Gallery, where she has been offering hands-on, open-source workshops helping others get to grips with reworking old Birkenstock models into one-off pieces, giving an insight into her innovative process.

The German brand’s 250-year heritage has become synonymous with individuality and durability that reflect its wearer’s way of living. While harnessing its history, Kirkum will lead creative workshops with a step-by-step approach that brings her community together under one roof.

After successfully closing her recent London Fashion Week presentation, Kirkum sits down with Hypebeast for an exclusive tell-all about the importance of community, her personal struggles in the creative scene, and her pioneering partnership with Birkenstock.

BIRKENSTOCK STUDIO: WALK WITH ME has opened its doors at Dray Walk Gallery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL. Sign up for your chance to attend the workshops here.

Hypebeast: Why did you choose to partner with Birkenstock, and how did that relationship come about?

Helen Kirkum: “I actually got invited to Birkenstock’s HQ in Cologne last year. I felt like their brand and mine had a lot in common. When you think of Birkenstock, for me, it feels comfy, and it feels slow – like a comfort blanket. When I think of my friends and my relationship with Birkenstock, it’s so easygoing – it’s like this shoe that just exists in your life and doesn’t shout for attention.

Birkenstock cares a lot about its products and material quality, as well as the longevity of materials and crafting pieces that will last for a long time. The energy of longevity and care and the fact that they make everything in Germany, so they have this family feeling around their business and create products very kindly. It naturally felt like it aligned well with what I do. The partnership is quite exciting for me because it’s a different silhouette from what I usually work on, so it feels like a perfect canvas to play around with.”

How does it feel to be the first artist-in-residence and to be able to play around with such a storied shoe?

“It’s really exciting. It feels like the start of something new and exciting together. It definitely feels like a very authentic space to be in. What we’re trying to do makes sense and doesn’t feel forced, which I think is a bonus because sometimes, it doesn’t always feel that way. I’m based in North Greenwich, our studios are here, and we’re not very front facing – we have this studio, and we’re all in here working every day. It’s really nice to be in a space that feels open, and now we can invite our community in to see us in action.”

There’s a real family connection running throughout Birkenstock that really resonates with you as well. What is the Walk With Me film all about?

“With Walk With Me, we saw all these people working in the factories. I mean, I just love factories. I’m kind of obsessed with factories, and I think that even how they did it showcases all the noise of the factory and everything. It’s so beautiful, and it really showcases how many hands are always touching all the products.

With our shoes and what we try and create here at the studio, it is a similar feeling, and I want it to feel very hand-crafted. I want you to know that there was love put into the product, and there was a thought process behind it. A lot of the time, especially within sneaker culture, things can feel a bit devoid of meaning. Something that feels quite tactile and feels like you can understand how somebody made it is really exciting.

Even in that Dray Walk space, going in and being able to see the leather and the tools and things like that – that’s really what we wanted to bring to the space to show a behind-the-scenes look at how we make our shoes.”

What are your thoughts on what Birkenstock is doing with the Dray Walk space in particular?

“It feels like the natural thing to do. With a brand like Birkenstock, the shoe speaks for itself in so many ways. The people who adopt that shoe or Birkenstock in their lives have come from so many different walks of life, and it is adopted a lot within the creative community. It’s comfy and easy, and I think having that space – those kinds of facilitates where all these creatives come together – feels really natural. What’s important for me in that space, or what I want to try to bring across, is an amiable and authentic community feeling. I think it can feel quite lonely, especially these days in the creative community. So, to have a space where everyone can come together and share ideas feels quite refreshing.

With the workshops I’m running within the space over the next few weeks, I have started every workshop so far by asking everyone what their name is and what brought them to the space. Many times, you go to a workshop, and you leave and think, ‘Oh, that person that I spoke to was so nice, and I have no idea who they are.’ I’m trying to create these workshops that feel genuine like people can genuinely connect and meet other people that have similar interests. I hope the space will become a place where people can build on those connections.”

What would you say are your biggest challenges with what you’re trying to do, and what are you striving against?

“There are many challenges – especially being a small business based in the UK has its challenges in the first place. I’m trying to build ethical products. I care a lot about people, and I want to make sure our team and our factories are well supported. Our materials are the best quality materials, and caring deeply about all those things definitely comes at a cost. When you’re trying to build a small brand with so many values, sometimes it can take longer to grow in that sense. The trajectory of building that story behind the brand and ensuring that everything comes across is a slow burn. It also feels like it’s the way that the industry has to go, and I think that I’m on the right path. Using these materials and creating products with a great deal of care is important, and I believe that things will slowly shift in my favor.”

“What’s important for me in that space, or what I want to try to bring across, is an amiable and authentic community feeling.”

What other things are you passionate about or that inspire your work?

“So much of it is inspired by the process. Our Palimpsest sneaker, which is our signature shoe, is all made from waste sneakers and post-consumer waste that have come to the end of their lifespan. We’ve collected them from recycling centers, and the way we source all those old shoes, we find so much inspiration in them. So much of our design language is created from the waste materials that we source, and that always helps us to stay very authentic and original because we are inspired by the materials that we collect.

Similarly, with the Birkenstock workshops, we’re using offcuts from the factory as all raw materials. We’ve been presented with these materials and used them as the parameters that always help me to be more creative. When you’re given a random scrap of material that’s in a weird shape, and you do something with it, I find that more freeing than if someone gave me a new roll of fabric.”

If there’s one thing that you want people to take away from your workshops with Birkenstock, what would it be?

“I hate the word sustainability, but I think sometimes people feel like using end-of-life materials can be limiting; I actually think it is really freeing, and I think that the more people can embrace using pre-existing materials to inspire them to make something new, the more success we’ll have in the future. It’s just about seeing the potential in using materials rather than seeing it as something that’s not worth looking at.”

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