Karhu: How the Finnish Bear Laced a Legacy
Karhu continue to bare their claws in 2019, the Helsinki-based brand drawing inspiration from their long history of Olympic success to welcome their latest member of the LEGEND family: the Legacy 96 OG. Sneaker Freaker linked up with Remko Nouws, Global Lifestyle Manager, to chat about vintage silhouettes, modern sneaker tech, and how a fire in Helsinki sparked a hunt to find Karhu’s Grails from the archive.
Tell us about your role at Karhu, and what changes you’ve seen over your time with the brand?
At Karhu, I am globally responsible for LEGEND, Karhu’s Lifestyle category, which includes product, PR and marketing. In the beginning, it was important to position ourselves on a premium retail level, and make sure that we consistently kept working with our partners. We were fortunate to get support from almost all stores we approached. We also stayed loyal to this distribution strategy, which gave them confidence in us.
A clear product identity helped us to grow steadily and healthily over the last couple of years. The aim is to stay true to ourselves, receive global recognition, and work with great retailers worldwide. We want to grow together and build the base for Karhu’s next 100+ years as a sports and lifestyle brand.
How does Helsinki continue to influence the Karhu brand aesthetically?
Not only Helsinki, but Finland in general is a huge influence. Its DNA is deeply rooted in Karhu. Finland is known for its beautiful nature, design, and rich sports history. Every season we are bringing Finnish concepts based on those three elements. Concepts like running, cross country skiing, rally racing, and different kinds of outdoor activities are all directly linked to both Finland and Karhu’s brand history. The colourways and material mix are inspired by these themes.
'Finland in general is a huge influence. Its DNA is deeply rooted in Karhu.'
The Karhu offices experienced a tragic fire in Helsinki during the 1950s. Can you tell us a little about sourcing some of the vintage silhouettes that were lost in the fire? Are you continuing to look for athletes with some of the earlier models?
There is not a lot known about this tragic event, but what we do know is that there was nothing left, so all that we have now is found by our previous marketing manager, who really loves to search for vintage Karhu products. A lot was found in old sports shops, but we also had a lot donated by old employees and athletes like cross-country ski champion Harri Kirvesniemi.
Shoes, clothing, and old catalogues are now back with us, and the search continues. From time to time people walk into our Helsinki store and bring us old products and all kinds of Karhu memorabilia. To us this is very special and proves that Karhu is in the hearts of the Finns! Of course, we are aware that we will never have an archive the way we had it in the past, but the archive is growing and we keep collecting. It’s something I am enjoying as well.
How do the early Olympic successes help contemporary storytelling for Karhu? How were you looking to tell the story of the Karhu brand with the Karhu Legacy 96 OG?
When we turned 100 years in 2016, we honoured Finland’s most famous runner, Paavo Nurmi with a special Synchron Classic, one of the most iconic archival Karhu silhouettes. Nurmi is still the track and field athlete with the most Olympic gold medals, leaving Usain Bolt and Carl Lewis behind him. These stories are about honouring our athletes. We want to honour our heritage with the Karhu Legacy 96 OG. We want to celebrate Karhu being long-lasting, memorable and measurable as a sports brand. You can also see it in the photoshoot with photographer Bram Spaan. In a subtle and artistic way, we are showcasing the link between the shoe and the brand’s running heritage by using old catalogue photos.
How important is the running and track legacy for the Karhu brand today?
Running has been the most important category for Karhu. Our technologies – like Air Cushion, the Synchron Lacing System, Module Control, Ortix, and Fulcrum – have been pushing the brand through running. The history with regards to all these famous Finnish runners and coaches also helps us to tell the story on the performance running side. We actually just did a running camp in Finland, which was led by famous Finnish coach, Kari Sinkkonen.
‘Fulcrum’ technology is at the core of Karhu’s identity. The technology focuses on ‘moving forward, not up and down’. How did the Fulcrum technology push the Karhu brand forward?
The Fulcrum technology was developed in 1986 in order to help runners in a more efficient way. This meant that it was not about bouncing but moving forward. Previous to the Fulcrum technology, Karhu was using the Air Cushion system, but in Finland we realised that the actual movement of the feet of runners needed something different in order to get the best out of its potential. The simplicity of the function and the design of the Fulcrum element helped Karhu to establish itself by having a unique point of view in the industry.
'We want to celebrate Karhu being long-lasting, memorable and measurable as a sports brand.'
The feet of more than 100,000 runners were scanned using Fleet Feet’s 3D platform to build the Ikoni Ortix. How are you looking to utilise this technology in the future?
The Fleet Feet 3D platform just reached over 100,000 3D scans, and Karhu is using this data to create its performance shoes. The shoes are based on the data of the feet of actual runners, and this became the starting point in the development of our shoes. In the future, we are also going to introduce shoes with different volumes for different types of feet, to have more options for the consumers.
Karhu have collaborated with iconic labels like colette and Concepts. What do collaborations mean for the brand? Who would you love to link up with in the future?
We need to build a brand that can stand on its own two feet, so collaborations have not been a focus for us. We do not want to be known as a brand that only sells when a collaboration is launched, and until now this has worked for us. However, from time to time, we do work with partners to tell stories and excite Karhu fans. If we can tell stories or launch new products together with interesting partners, then it is a nice extra!
What other retros can we expect from Karhu?
As we mentioned, we are about to launch a new silhouette, the Legacy 96 OG. The Legacy 96 OG is quite unusual, it has a specific side panel, which makes the shoe very interesting. It also features Karhu’s Air Cushion technology. We are also bringing back the Karhu Trampas, a running (training) silhouette from the 1960s, but more on this in the near future. For both the Legacy 96 OG and Trampas we have collaborative projects in the works.
What’s the next evolution for the Karhu brand?
Karhu was not only known for road running, but also for our outdoor category. In the second half of 2020, we will bring back our first heritage-inspired outdoor shoe. Even though it is a shoe from the archive, it will be developed with technical aspects. It will have heritage design features with updated functionality. We are really excited about it! We have also been working on a performance shoe which features our Synchron lacing system, the Karhu Synchron Ortix. It will be launched this year in our performance range, but it will also get a lifestyle introduction in 2020.