Clean Finnish: Get to Know Karhu, Finland’s Footwear Frontrunners
You may know them as one of hottest up-and-coming brands in the sneaker game, but Karhu have actually been making running shoes for over a century. Starting out in 1916 in a small workshop in Helsinki, Finland, the company has made the transition from local sporting goods supplier, to a flourishing producer of some of the game’s best heritage-inspired lifestyle silhouettes. This Finnish footwear firm certainly has a distinguished history, and there’s more to the ‘Bear’ than that ol’ Three Stripe tale you might’ve heard.
Rewind to 1916. During the First World War, Finnish company Ab Sportartiklar Oy decided to establish a small workshop in downtown Helsinki with the vision of manufacturing quality sporting goods. Sourcing the ubiquitous local birch, the company made the most of the timber’s lightness and flexibility, producing next-level javelins, skis and discuses. Gliding further, and with more efficiency, the products soon became the weapons of choice for a number of local athletes.
Looking to expand their product line-up, the company made a foray into the footwear market in 1917 with the launch of their first running spikes. Among the early endorsers was the first ‘Flying Finn’ Hannes Kolehmainen, who donned the spikes on his way to victory in several heralded footraces in the US.
Prior to their assault on the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games, the company changed their name to Karhu (got to admit, Ab Sportartiklar Oy doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue). Paying homage to their local roots, Karhu is Finnish for ‘bear’, Finland’s national animal. Fittingly, Karhu was named Finland’s official equipment supplier for the 1920 Games.
The success of Finnish track athletes at those Games, particular that of another ‘Flying Finn’ Paavo Nurmi, went a long way to establishing Karhu as one of world’s leading sports equipment manufacturers. After taking out three gold medals in Antwerp, Nurmi backed it up four years later at the 1924 Paris Olympics Games, winning a lazy five gold medals wearing his mysterious pair of white Karhu running spikes.
That Three Stipe Deal
It’s become a somewhat well-told yarn in recent times, but just in case you haven’t been paying attention, here’s a refresher.
In 1952, the Olympic Games made their way to Helsinki. As expected, Karhu athletes made the most of their home-ground advantage, dominating the medal tally yet again. Securing a total of 15 gold, Karhu athletes turned heads, rocking the company’s flagship running spikes decked-out with recognisable three-stripe detailing.
On the flipside, things weren’t going quite as well for German-born brothers Adi and Rudolf Dassler. Ongoing family tension which had festered throughout the Second World War continued to put pressure on their company Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory).
That famed beef drove Rudolf to establish his own company: PUMA. In opposition, Adi renamed their original company to adidas.
Adi spent the next few years crafting a recognisable brand identity, making use of his own parallel three-stripe design in the company’s products. It wasn’t too long before he was referring to his business as ‘the Three-Striped company’.
However, he’d eventually run into a bit of a pickle – Karhu were owners of the official trademark to the three stripes. This would lead to one of the most bizarre trademark deals to ever take place – and a defining moment in sport and sneaker culture.
Following the 1952 Games, Karhu sold their ‘three stripes’ rights to adidas. The cost? Two bottles of whiskey and the equivalent of 1600 Euros. We hope it was good whiskey.
Today, the brand with the three stripes is valued at close to $7 billion.
The ‘M’ Era
Karhu was quick to move on, replacing the three stripes with the now-familiar ‘M’ logo. Standing for ‘Mestari’ – Finnish for ‘champion’ – the ‘M’ became a mainstay in the company’s designs. And given the company’s history of Olympic success, it was a fitting badge.
The 1960s and 1970s proved to be an innovative period for Karhu, most-notably pioneering and patenting the first air-cushioned shoes in 1976. The air-cushioned Champion model became an instant hit with runners worldwide, selling over 1,000,000 pairs across the globe. The tech featured in many of the company’s offerings, including the Karhu Albatross, which now made its way back into the Karhu lifestyle-focussed LEGEND range.
Prior to the patenting of Karhu’s air cushion, a select group of their running team were invited to Oregon in 1975 by American running legend Steve Prefontaine. Keen to show off the new tech, the team brought prototype trainers along with them. Shortly after their trip, a homegrown shoe company in Oregon released its own ground-breaking air-cushioning system, with a suspicious story involving a patent from NASA. You can read into that what you will.
Before too long, most of industry’s big players were aboard the air-cushioned bandwagon, packing their shoes with all kinds of funky air bags and gel pockets. In response, Karhu burst its own bubble, ditching the air cushion in 1986 in favour for their new ‘Fulcrum’ technology, which focussed on ‘moving forward, not up and down’.
Three decades on, the ‘Fulcrum’ technology remains at the core of Karhu’s performance runner designs.
Taking it to the Street
With its history steeped in Olympic success, sports performance footwear will always be part of Karhu’s DNA. However, with an extensive back catalogue, the brand saw a golden opportunity to further explore the ever-lucrative lifestyle space. Thus, the brand’s lifestyle category – Karhu LEGEND – was born.
After opening their first concept store in Helsinki back in 2014, it wasn’t long before we saw Karhu’s first big-name colab – the Sneakersnstuff x Moomin x Karhu Pack. Keen to flex their hometown heritage, Finnish cartoon critters – the Moomins – were patterned across Karhu’s classic Albatross silhouette, creating a light-hearted, colourful offering for sneakerheads and fans of the show alike.
Recognising the consumer’s thirst for simple and well-constructed 90s steez, the Aria, Fusion 2.0, and Synchron Classic have now become the backbone of Karhu’s LEGEND line-up. The brand’s clean lines, earthy colourways, and unique lacing approach have garnered a new wave of admirers in the sneaker world, including a certain Mr. West, who caused quite the furore when he was spotted rocking a pair of Fusion 2.0 ‘Mount Pallas’ back in 2017. Recent collaborations with Concepts and Patta have further elevated Karhu’s streetwise reputation.
The retro runner game clearly has a new contender – it just happens to be over 100 years old. And, with the re-emergence of 1996's Legacy OG, it’s safe to say the ‘Bear’ has well-and-truly come out of hibernation.