So what are the oldest footwear brands still up and running today? Folks may be quick to point out adidas, Converse and Keds, but the selection should also include an underdog champion from way up North: Athletic shoe brand Karhu from Finland has been in business for over 100 years now, with origins dating back to the year 1916. Sneaker heads are well aware of the brand’s lifestyle collection, Karhu Originals, while many of Karhu’s secrets remain under the radar. Like, where did Adolf Dassler really find his Three Stripes? Who first put “air” into athletic shoes? And where does that bear logo come from? Our SNEAKERS History Check has the answers.
1916: Up and Running
Footwear is on the menu right from the start. Established under the name “Ab Sportartiklar” in a small Helsinki workshop in 1916, Karhu’s first product offering – aside from javelins, skis and discuses made from birch – included running shoes and track spikes for enhanced performance out on the tracks.
“You can definitely say that Karhu’s DNA is rooted in running. Ever since the beginnings in 1916, Karhu manufactured running shoes and was a bit lucky also because as Karhu was taking its baby steps as a brand, the Finnish middle- and long-distance runners rose to international recognition. And naturally, they were wearing Karhus,” said Karhu brand manager Jukka Lehtinen.
1920: Make Way for the “Flying Fins”
Look who’s coming to the podium. Finland’s record-breaking marathon runners, internationally known as the “Flying Finns”, established themselves as a force to be reckoned with on the world circuit. Starting with Hannes Kolehmainen, the first “Flying Finn,” athletes such as Ville Ritola, the “Flying Wolf,” dominated races in Europe and the U.S. And guess what? These guys need fast shoes!
In a case of perfect timing, the young upstart brand changed its name to Karhu – the word for “bear” in Finnish – in 1920. And that year would go down in history as the year when the Flying Finns would steal the spotlight at the Antwerp Olympic Games. “If you think about it, it’s pretty awesome that a brand merely four years old in 1920 was equipping all these Olympic medal-winning Finnish athletes. That gave Karhu a good start in the business,” said Jukka Lehtinen.
1924: Official Olympic Team Outfitters
It’s official! Following another “Flying Finns” medal sweep at the Paris Olympics, Karhu was named Finland’s official equipment provider to all Olympic games. This allowed the company to put shoes on the feet of exceptional athletes such as Paavo Nurmi, who bagged nine Olympic gold medals in just eight years.
The announcement deeply impacted Karhu’s product selection. In one fell swoop, running shoes moved from the sidelines of Karhu’s product line-up to center-stage, with full research and development momentum behind improving the designs. “Regarding our company philosophy we always say that Karhu follows the Finnish principles of design simplicity and running purity,” said Jukka Lehtinen.
1930s-1940s: Athlete-Centric Company Culture
Running purity remains at the heart of Karhu’s brand DNA. The company created the blueprint for a sports-focused and athlete-centric business, as the running spirit permeated all levels of the company: While Karhu’s roster of successful athletes provided important feedback on performance features, the sport of running became deeply engrained into company culture on an employee level.
As early as the 1930s, Karhu staff members were encouraged to train during lunch hours – a practice found at today’s Silicon Valley tech companies like Google – while the Flying Finns continued bringing home gold medals by the dozens, establishing Karhu as one of the world’s leading manufacturers of athletic shoes in the 1930s and 1940s.
1952: The Truth About the Three Stripes
Here’s a little-known anecdote involving Bavarian shoe magnate Adolf Dassler, who founded adidas in 1924. Early on in company history, Karhu already implemented three stripes as a signature design element on their shoes. This allegedly attracted Dassler’s attention, who approached the Finns in the early 1950s, “probably at the 1952 summer olympics in Helsinki,” said Jukka Lehtinen.
According to Karhu, the two brands struck a historic deal that would make athletic trademark history: “Adi met the Karhu directors and invited them over to Germany. The result of the trip was that Karhu sold the [three stripes] trademark to adidas for a small sum of money, around €1,600 in today’s terms, plus a couple bottles of good whiskey,” said the brand manager, adding: “That’s how the story goes, although we don’t have proof of the whiskey.”
Early 1950s: A New Logo
Major re-branding effort! In the aftermath of the adidas deal, the German brand would (literally) run with the Three Stripes logo and build an internationally recognized trademark around it.
As a consequence, Karhu found itself in need of a new brand icon. “This lead us to re-design our logo and ever since then, the ‘M’-symbol has been on our footwear. The “M” comes from the word “Mestari,” which is master or champion in Finnish,” said Jukka Lehtinen.
Mid-1960s: Casual Shoes
On-track performance meets off-track style. Always listening to feedback from their champion runners, Karhu recognized the demand for an off-track training shoe in the early 1960s. The result was Karhu’s first “trainer” – the classic Trampas model, produced in two versions: An athletic one with the iconic “M”-logo and bear insignia, and logo-less version for casual wear.
The shoe received an overwhelming response from the global running circuit, becoming standard issue footwear not only for the Finnish Olympic team, but also 20 U.S. colleges. Allegedly, legendary long distance running coach Sir Arthur Lydiard called the Trampas, “the best training shoe in the world.”
In the bigger picture, the Trampas also proved a perfect match for a budding trend: “[It was] developed during the peak of the first jogging boom in the mid-1960s when there was a need for a trainer people could use outside the track when most running shoes were designed for the track and field environment,” said Jukka Lehtinen.
1976: Introducing air-cushioned Footwear
Now, who really invented “air”-cushioned shoes? Karhu introduced a number of new synthetic materials and forward-thinking technologies into their running shoes in the 1960s and ‘70s, including nylon and air cushioning – another little-known first-ever in footwear history: “Karhu already started developing the air technology in the early ‘70s and it was commercialised with a shoe called the Champion in 1976. That’s couple years before Nike launched theirs!” said Jukka Lehtinen.
Accordingly, this makes Karhu, “the first brand with a patent on an air cushion sole unit. This was the commercial heyday of Karhu and we were going head-to-head in the Nordics and some other key markets with the other major brands.”
Championed by decorated Finnish runners such as Olavi Suomalainen at international competitions, the Champion model became a bestseller for Karhu, selling over 1,000,000 pairs globally in its first year. “Our top-selling model of all time and also the first running shoe in the world with Air Cushion technology.”
1982: Fly Like an Albatross
Nike has the Cortez, adidas has the Stan Smith. One of the Karhu’s most enduring and classic silhouettes hit stores in 1982: The Albatross model. “It was one of our best-selling sneakers in the early 1980s. The shoe came out in strong, really commercial colorways and could fit the feet of most runners. Not much has changed apparently because our retro version is doing really well also!” said Jukka Lehtinen.
The original 1982 TV commercial for the Albatross was lit:
Successful re-releases include 2015’s Karhu Albatross ‘Nordic Berries’. The wild berry inspired pack included three styles, inspired by the blueberry, lingonberry and sea buckthorn, berries that grow in Finnish nature. The upper color of each style matches the color of one of the berries while the foot bed features a all-over berry print.
1984: Harlem Air
Move over, Chuck Taylor! Karhu hit a slam dunk by bringing their Scandinavian heat to the basketball circuit in 1984: The Harlem Air, a leather high top, won over serious players by offering supreme ankle support and two pivot points on the outsole – now a standard, but back in 1984 actually a big deal. Bounce!
The shoe also features in the Frisbee-powered “Join the Team” TV commercial:
1986: Better than Air?
The evolution continues. Although air-cushioned shoes kept flying off the shelves at retailers around the world, a joint research project between Karhu and the University of Jyväskylä brought interesting evidence to light: “What we learned is that the air sole, although making the shoe soft and cushioned, isn’t optimal for running footwear,” said Jukka Lehtinen. “The air system wastes the energy of a runner and makes him bounce up and down more. And running shouldn’t be about up and down, it should be about moving forward!”
Despite the commercial success, Karhu ditched the air system in 1986 and introduced their next push into advancing running-specific technology: “We created a Fulcrum concept that made runners’ biomechanics work as natural and efficient as possible. Of course we still research and develop the Fulcrum technology to push it to next level every year, but the principle of this rolling effect hasn’t changed since 1986.”
Watch the 1986 TV commercial for Fulcrum:
1986-today: Fulcrum Puts a Spring in Runners’ Step
The market was hungry for new technologies, and Fulcrum hit the spot. “The innovative Fulcrum technology, which we still use in our performance shoes today, was first introduced in 1986 with the Fulcrum Star.”
Word soon spread like wildfire across the international running community, and many die-hard runners swear by the Fulcrum concept. A runner named Dori from the U.S. professed on her marathon blog: “I am not exaggerating when I say these Karhu shoes changed my running life!”
As scientific research has proven, the Fulcrum concept reduces the runner’s vertical bounce by 13% compared to traditional shoes and by 5% over barefoot running.
1996: A New Spin on Lacing
A new way to tighten your shoes. Over the years, pretty much all athletic footwear brands have experimented with alternative lacing technologies, producing concepts that ranged from cables all the way to velcro. Karhu’s entry was called Synchron lacing, “Synchron was an unorthodox lacing innovation by Karhu from 1980. The diagonal lacing across the toe box wrapped the feet firmly inside the shoe, thus providing runners with a better fit,” said Jukka Lehtinen.
The technology found its way into many models, put reached its peak with a 1996 release: “There are many amazing Synchron family silhouettes like the Athletic model from 1984, but our favourite at the moment is the Synchron Classic from 1996, which we might release sometime in the near future.”
2000s: Lifestyle with Karhu Originals
Looking at history while moving forward. As the lifestyle counterpart to their track-inspired performance models, Karhu continues serving up stylish classics in their Karhu Originals line. Next to contemporary renditions of design milestones such as the Aria and Trampas models, Karhu Originals has been turning heads with carefully chosen collabs.
“We do not want to create excess on the market and do collaborations just for the sake of doing them, you know? We will just pick the ones that can make a difference. And to make sure, we are looking into our Finnish roots on the brand and store side. That goes for both apparel and footwear,” said Jukka Lehtinen
2015: Concepts x Karhu Aria ‘95
Building bridges across the Atlantic. In 2015, Karhu teamed up with Boston-based sneakers emporium Concepts to bring back a true classic: The Aria ‘95. Dark Blue, lighter Blue and turquoise are mixed with an orange sock liner for a bright summer look! The colorway is meant to pay homage to Finland, Karhu’s homeland!
“The Aria was a mid-1990s icon for Karhu. Probably the most technical running shoe in the collection back then with Fulcrum midsole, mono tongue upper and carbon fiber plate in the midsole. We have worked really hard to bring this silhouette back to life and are excited to re-launch it after 20 years!” said Jukka Lehtinen.
2015: Karhu x Moomin x Sneakerstuff
Leverage those synergies. In 2015, Karhu activated sneaker enthusiasts across Scandinavia for the classic comic book-inspired Moomin x Sneakerstuff project. “The guys at Sneakerstuff like Karhu, as Finland and Sweden are neighbours and there are not many Swedish sneaker brands alive,” said Jukka Lehtinen.
“Moomin comics were a fitting concept for the collaboration because they grew up reading the Moomin stories. But of course it was a bold move to go for all-over cartoon prints for our first real collaboration, but it’s good to think outside the box sometimes with these projects.”
2000s: Still Focused on Performance
Despite their success in the lifestyle segment, Karhu’s heart still beats for performance. Among die-hard runners, Karhu joins the likes of Asics when it comes to trusted, running-specific tech. In 2009, Runner’s World magazine crowned the updated Karhu Fulcrum Strong model as the year’s “Best Debut” running shoe model.
In 2013, Karhu unveiled their “everyday training shoes of the future” – the Fluid3 Fulcrum and Steady3 Fulcrum models – as the innovative legacy continues. You can also watch the video on Fulcrum technology here.
2015: Embracing History
Take a virtual tour. In 2015, Karhu launched its very own Online Museum as a storytelling vehicle for communicating the brand to a growing international audience. “We want to launch the online museum to educate the consumer and show our beautiful history. We want to show our brand DNA and the museum is a good way to push it online as well,” said Jukka.
Assembling the online museum’s exhibits has been far from easy, as Karhu’s archiving efforts encountered major setbacks throughout the years: “This is partly a sad story because in the 1950s there was a fire accident at Karhu headquarters in Helsinki, and while the offices burnt down, so did the archive. That’s why we don’t have lot of product left from the first decades. After the accident they were apparently so devastated that their interest in archiving dropped.”
2016: Celebrating 100 Years in the Fast Lane
The bear logo celebrates a heavy anniversary. In the run-up to Karhu’s 100th anniversary in 2016, interest in building a coherent footwear archive has resurged: “Not so long ago we started gathering vintage Karhus again and the archive is growing steadily. We are making road trips around Finland to visit old sport and shoe shops and visiting old athletes who were sponsored by Karhu back in the days. Sometimes we are lucky and find some real grails!” said Jukka.
One of the greatest comebacks: The Karhu x Patta ‘Synchron Classic’ is materialized in premium nubuck on the uppers supplemented by durable mesh, pigskin leather lining, and 3M reflective accents. The heels and tongues feature embroidered Patta and KARHU branding.
2017: Karhu Synchron Classic “Paavo Nurmi”
I feel like Paavo when I’m putting on my shoes. In 2017, Karhu celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Paavo Nurmi Games, a track and field athletic event named after the iconic Finnish athlete from the town of Turku with a special drop: The Karhu Synchron Classic “Paavo Nurmi” features a monochromatic colorway inspired by Nurmi’s penchant for wearing white Kangaroo leather shoes in the 1920s, at a time when his peers on the track still wore all-black racing spikes.
Each collector’s box also features a brochure about the life and achievements of Paavo Nurmi. For instance, did you know that the “Flying Finn” still ranges as the most decorated track and field athlete in Olympic history? With nine gold and three silver medals under his belt, Nurmi also set 22 world records during his career.
Also in 2017, Kanye West took a vacaj from representing his Yeezy line when he was spotted in Brentwood, California wearing a pair of Karhu Fusion 2.0 “Mount Pallas Caramel” kicks. A shoutout from one of the world’s most famous sneaker heads to one of the oldest brands – and just one of many milestones in the ongoing history of Karhu.
Words by Dirk Vogel