It was a fortuitous paint spill that led 21-year-old Cameron Helm from his studies at the San Francisco Art Institute to his current gig as an up-and-coming fashion designer in L.A.
"I was working on a canvas series in the studio, and paint was dripping on my shoes," says Helm. "I started to like the look of the shoes a lot more than the canvas, so I took them off and started painting them."
Not long afterward, people began commissioning him to paint their shoes,
In the last year, he's made quick work of attracting clients such as singer Rufus Wainwright, NBA player Russell Westbrook and other A-listers looking for the next under-the-radar luxury.
Helm is "a brilliant example of what's happening in L.A…. He's both an artist and a designer, and he has personality. I think he also has a distinctive style that's instantly recognizable," says Cameron Silver, fashion consultant and co-founder of Decades vintage boutique in West Hollywood, who has become a mentor to the young designer.
Fashion and art are increasingly melding in L.A.'s thriving cultural scene, with local designers such as
Typically dressed in a paint-splattered black blazer with coordinating painted brogues, Helm is a walking billboard for his soon-to-be-launched spring line, which consists of four men's styles and six for women, starting at $250 (cameronhelm.com).
"It's all really been word of mouth," Helm says. "People would recommend me to celebrities, and I would create something specific for an event.
"For Rufus Wainwright, I did a suit and shoe for his tour, after I met his stylist at a magazine opening. I did shoes for
Originally, Helm was hand-painting all the shoes himself, and it took an average of one day to complete each pair. But as production demands increased, he realized he needed to rethink his business plan.
"We decided to take the original paintings that I've done, scan them to replicate them digitally, and then print them onto canvas intermixed with leather."
Production has moved from Los Angeles to a century-old Portuguese factory that handcrafts footwear for fashion brands Generic Man, A.P.C. and United Arrow.
Helm also has several collaborations in the works, including hand-painted iPhone cases ($100) for the nonprofit L.A. arts group LAXArt; a clutch ($1,850) for the L.A.-based Perrin Paris Haute Couture Capitale Clutch Collection, a capsule line of one-of-a-kind handbags created by various designers that launches this month; and a line of paint-splattered leather motorcycle jackets ($1,600-$2,600) with Parisian brand Nour Hammour.
And on Dec. 5, L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art will hold a special event with the designer, featuring 12 pairs of one-of-a-kind shoes from his original collection. The designer will sign the shoes ($325-$350) at the sale; the proceeds will go to the
Helm also takes individual orders to custom paint anything and everything, including
T-shirts, dresses, jackets, belts and handbags. He's even been asked to paint a white pit bull-Lab mix dog but has so far resisted, although he hasn't ruled it out.
"We're thinking of doing it for a photo shoot," he says (with nontoxic, pet-safe paint, of course).