Helen Kirkum saw off competition from other UK footwear students to win the title in 2014 and her career development since then has impressed the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers so much, she’s been invited to take her place on the judging panel for this year’s awards, which take place on Thursday 6 June.
“It’s an amazing honour, I’m so excited to be a judge and it means a lot to me,” said Helen, who graduated from the Footwear & Accessories degree five years ago and is now a footwear designer.
“I’m also giving the keynote speech at the awards, so that will give me another opportunity to tell everyone how great the course is at the University of Northampton – it provided me with so much knowledge and breadth of skills which have helped me to stand out of the crowd when I’ve gone for jobs and freelance roles.”
Helen with Jimmy Choo after winning Footwear Student of the Year 2014.
Helen is also keen to stress how important the Cordwainers award has been to her.
“Without the Cordwainers award, I wouldn’t have got to where I am today,” she said. After graduating, I wanted to pursue a Master’s at the Royal College of Art, but I had no way of funding it – until I won the £5,000 prize money, and that was what set me on my path.”
After completing her Master’s in 2016, Helen was snapped up by adidas to work at its German headquarters as an assistant designer on its women’s Originals lifestyle range.
“The skills I learnt at Northampton helped me to get the job and progress so much when I was there,” said Helen. “There are a lot of sneaker designers who don’t have knowledge of patterns and the processes behind shoemaking – I do, and it helped me to stand out.”
Craving more artistic freedom, Helen quit the commercial world of adidas after a year, determined to concentrate on building up her own brand.
She’s now been working from her studio in Hackney for one-and-a-half years, which she combines with freelance roles as a consultant for footwear brands.
One project which has caught the eye of footwear fanatics is Helen’s ‘sneaker deconstruction’, which sees her take second hand trainers apart and use the materials to build completely new, customised styles. You can watch a video of her sneaker deconstruction, below.
Helen has also been keen to pass on her knowledge to current Footwear & Accessories students at the University of Northampton, and has just completed a two-day workshop with them at Waterside Campus.
She said: “It’s been great to pass on my experiences to the students. I was in their position not too long ago, so they can relate to me, and I to them. I just want to do anything I can to help them on their way to a career in the industry.”
Helen with UON Footwear student Charlie Irwin.
Helen and UON Footwear & Accessories students during their two-day workshop.
As one of the Cordwainers judges, she’s been impressed by the all of the students who have been shortlisted for this year’s awards.
And she’s also excited for them, as she knows exactly how big a deal the awards are.
Helen said: “Looking back, I didn’t know what to expect, as it was the first year of the awards. It was so much better than I could have ever imagined. Jimmy Choo was one of the judges, and I had a selfie with him, it was all a bit surreal.
“Then there are all the other amazing industry people at the event, like Guy West, from Jeffery West shoes. Meeting Guy actually led to him offering me a job in Jeffery West’s London store, so the connections you make at the awards can be very valuable.
“Footwear students at Northampton are really lucky to be part of the awards, and I know it will be an experience that will influence their careers after they’ve left uni.”