Standing in front of a towering pile of perfectly wearable single shoes destined for landfill, designer Helen Kirkum had a revelation that would go on to define her career. She began to truly appreciate the immense scale of unnecessary waste created by fast fashion – and how she could turn the industry on its head.
By making innovative and beautiful sneakers out of shoes destined for landfill, Helen is reducing fashion’s environmental impact through redirecting an industrial waste stream into something useful. But more importantly, she’s disrupting the industry and challenging us to rethink how we perceive waste. Helen is proving that through creative thinking, trash can be transformed into treasure.
Helen has recently joined forces with another industry disruptor: Discarded Spirits Co. The award-winning brand at the forefront of the zero-waste spirits and cocktail movement has collaborated with Helen to create three pairs of custom trainers inspired by the waste ingredients within Discarded’s delicious spirits: Sweet Cascara Vermouth, Banana Peel Rum and Grape Skin Vodka.
Helen and Discarded are at the vanguard of the cultural shift towards a more circular society, raising awareness of how much unnecessary waste is produced by the industries we love – such as fashion and hospitality – and how things don’t need to be this way. With insight and imagination, we can recognise the value in things we’ve traditionally thrown away and change our relationship to the things we consume by embracing a zero-waste approach.
At this year’s London Cocktail Week, Discarded presented the Discarded Disco, with delicious cocktails featuring ingredients that local bars and restaurants would have thrown away. Sharing zero-waste techniques and working with the hospitality industry to find creative recycling solutions to reduce their waste is all part of Discarded’s mission to inspire people to play their part in reversing needless waste. Oh, and it can be a lot of fun, too.
As an MA student at the Royal College of Art, Helen was already passionate about sustainability and exploring the idea of creating recycled trainers. In search of the raw materials to bring her ideas to life, she visited a clothing recycling warehouse run by charity TRAID, who have since become her long-term partners. Today, nearly a decade later, Helen is widely respected as the leading innovator in upcycled sneakers and a veteran of sustainable design.
“I was really interested in making sneakers that were really obviously made from waste but making them super desirable to people,” Helen explains. “I’m trying to make really timeless, everyday pieces that don't adhere to the normal trends of the industry. It has been fascinating to explore this question of: ‘Can an industry that’s so driven by newness be excited by something that’s so obviously not?’ I’ve always lived in this kind of paradox world, where I have to be in the industry to work against it.”
300 million pairs of trainers are thrown away every single year in the UK – and many of these end up in one of TRAID’s warehouses. There, any suitable pairs are rescued, sold and the profits invested in projects around the world that support garment workers and other groups who have traditionally not been treated well by the fashion industry. Helen and her team at Helen Kirkum Studio scour the huge collection of shoes TRAID can’t resell, in search of the building blocks that make up each new custom sneaker commission.
Discarded’s operation works on a similar model and was founded with an equally progressive and transformative philosophy. It all began with experiments with cascara, a waste product produced by the coffee industry. Cascara means “husk” or “skin” in Spanish and is the dried skins of coffee cherries. Once the seeds, aka coffee beans, are collected, the skins are usually dried and turned into compost or just thrown away.
Discarded Sweet Cascara Vermouth was launched in 2018, marrying cascara waste with a by-product from the Scottish whisky industry, the excess sherry that remains after seasoning casks. “The concept of taking waste that was otherwise thrown away and turning it into something beautiful, that captured the imagination of bartenders,” explains Calum Fraser, Discarded Brand Ambassador. “Turning trash into treasure and reusing it creatively.”
The Discarded Sweet Cascara Vermouth captured Helen’s imagination, too. She began going through her stacks of deconstructed sneakers, searching for different colours, textures, shapes and accessories that could capture the essence of cascara. The inspirational piece around which the whole shoe was built was the plastic heat-moulded black-to-burgundy mesh from the iconic Nike TNs. Helen matched this with other pieces that reflected the dark colours, the deep reds and aubergine-like purple colours. She layered different textures across the body of the shoe, to reflect the different colours and tones of the cascara berries and the texture of the dried skins.
As people embraced the recycled waste concept behind the Sweet Cascara Vermouth, the team began looking around at other waste streams they could divert into something delicious. The possibilities were immense.
A third of all crops grown worldwide end up wasted, which means the precious resources used to grow them, such as arable land and water are wasted, too. Ending food waste tomorrow would have the same effect as removing every coal powered fire station from the globe.
But while reducing this waste would have a huge positive effect on the environment, that wasn’t the team’s number one goal. “Our priority was changing people’s perception of waste or by-products,” Calum explains. The Discarded team are determined to show what is possible with waste and by-products from the drinks industry. They want to prove that sustainability does not mean sacrifice – it can be beautiful and delicious.
500 million perfectly edible bananas go to waste in the UK each year, which is roughly two million per day. This insight led the team to working with banana peels, which they marry with a base of Caribbean rum that William Grant & Sons use to season barrels for maturing whisky. Launched in 2019, the Discarded Banana Peel Rum has notes of sticky toffee with a fruity balance and a flavour some describe as liquid banana bread.
Taking the Banana Peel Rum as her starting point, Helen tried to inject as many banana characteristics and little bits of humour into the shoes as possible. For example, the tongue is made to look like a banana being unpeeled, while Nike swooshes become bananas and the Jordan logo is placed to mimic the sticker you would find on a banana in the supermarket.
Banana Peel Rum was followed by Discarded Grape Skin Vodka, which uses waste grape skins, stems and seeds from wine-making, which are distilled then combined with Chardonnay wine alcohol leftover from the wine de-alcoholisation process, to produce a luscious, fruit-forward vodka. Launched in 2021, it was awarded at the Vodka Masters 2023. To produce the Grape Skin Vodka sneakers, Helen found a variety of air bubbles to imitate grapes, played with circular elements across the shoes and ran an imitation grape vine up the tongue.
The climate emergency adds a sense of urgency to the need to create innovative and sustainable solutions to waste – in food, in fashion and across our society. But the pioneers embracing this transition, like Helen and Discarded, have found that this also creates exciting new opportunities and possibilities. It encourages us to rethink the value we put on the things we encounter in our daily lives and opens the space for more engaging stories around the things we use and the products we consume.
“As a conscious consumer who cares about the planet and the things that I buy into, there’s something special about knowing the process of making something,” Helen explains. “You feel more connected to something when you know the story behind it and the thought process that went into creating it. Recycled or second-hand material has a livelihood to it, it’s been on a journey. A piece of virgin leather is beautiful, but when material has scrapes, scuffs and scratches, it reveals that it’s had a life before you – it’s a map of different people’s lives. You can’t help but feel more connected to that than something brand new and shiny off a shelf.”
The Helen Kirkum x Discarded sneakers will be available to win through a competition prize drawer on Instagram from 21st November to 5th December. Visit Helen Kirkum Studio & Discarded Spirits for your chance to win a pair of these truly unique sneakers (T&Cs apply).