Karhu’s Trainers Came from the Running Tracks to the Streets
Beloved to many Finns, the Finnish sportswear brand Karhu has a long and colorful history. Origin in the sports, Karhu’s shoes have been the favorites of many Finnish athletes, such as Olympic legend Paavo Nurmi, and the shoes were also seen on the feet of Finland’s Former President Urho Kekkonen. Founded in 1916, Karhu still keeps up with trends, and last winter the shoes were spotted on Kanye West’s feet.
While ago TRE’s CEO and Founder Tanja was visiting Milan. In a café, the Italian man sitting next to her praised Tanja’s shoes – which were Karhu’s Albatross sneakers. The man was Enrico Arese from the Arese family who has owned the Karhu company since 2014. Enrico showed Tanja a video, where his father Francesco was in the 70s training in Turku with the best Finnish runners of that era. He is a former middle-distance runner and until 2013 he worked as the President of ASICS Italy. Francesco’s other son, Emanuele Arese, is Karhu’s COO. The company is nowadays situated in Amsterdam.
We had a little chat with Karhu’s Global Lifestyle Manager Remko Nouws about how did Karhu end up in the Italian hands and where the company is heading.
Vilma from TRE: How did the Arese family become interested in Karhu? Why did they want to buy a small Finnish brand?
Remko: This is quite an interesting story, but a bit long. I hope you don’t mind me telling it because I have the feeling that this is very important.
V: Sounds interesting, I’m all ears.
R: The last Finnish owner sold the brand to Huub Valkenburg, who is Dutch. In the 70s and 80s Karhu was a very popular brand in The Netherlands. It was a fixed value like Adidas or Puma. Huub was a huge fan of Karhu and saw the potential. Let's fast forward and tell you how the Arese family became co-owners in Karhu.
I used to work at ASICS Europe with Emanuele Arese, son of the old owner of ASICS Italy, Francesco Arese. Next to being a team, we developed a strong friendship. Emanuele became curious about the Karhu brand because I was always very passionate about it. I knew the history very well and having a good Finnish friend working for Karhu I showed him the brand during Bread & Butter trade show in Berlin.
V: How did it end up?
R: Emanuele liked Karhu a lot but wasn’t aware of its legendary status. At home, he told his father about Karhu. Since his father was an old athlete, winning the Track & Field 1500 meters European gold medal in Helsinki in 1971, he immediately became excited. You have to understand that in the 70s Mister Arese used to train during summertime in Finland together with the best Finnish runners, so he was well aware of Karhu as a brand.
V: So what happened then?
R: After 30 years, in 2013, Mister Arese stopped working for ASICS. He was looking for a new adventure, which a year later became Karhu. To make a long story short, in the end I connected the Arese family to Karhu and they became co-owners and asked me to join. Rebuilding such an amazing brand with passionate people that all have their own history with Karhu is very special.
V: How about, what are Karhu’s best selling countries?
R: Finland is very important for us because it is our home country. Next to Finland, Karhu is very popular in Japan, followed by Italy, France, and The Netherlands. But I have to say it goes well in general. In the US you can find us also in high-end department and concept stores like Barneys and Dover Street Market, something we are very proud of.
V: Yes, nowadays sneakers aren’t meant only for the running tracks. Where are Karhu’s sneakers made?
R: Karhu sneakers are made in different countries. At this moment we are producing in China and Vietnam and we are looking into European production as well for the future. But I think that it is very important to know that it is not about the country you produce, but about the factories where you are producing. Everywhere you have good and bad factories and we try to make sure our factories are good ones.
V: You’re right in that. What are Karhu’s future plans?
R: The aim is to make beautiful products; receive global recognition and work with great retailers worldwide, who want to grow together with us and secure Karhu’s next 100 years as a sports brand.
V: Will you still cherish Karhu’s Finnish origin?
R: For sure we will cherish Karhu’s Finnish origins! Finland runs through Karhu’s veins. The world doesn’t know Karhu like the Finns know the brand, so through the brand we are educating global sneaker fans also about Finland.
V: And how do you do that?
R: Every season we are bringing Finnish concepts based on things Finland is known for like its nature, design and sports history. Last year we celebrated our 100th anniversary together with Turku’s own “Paavo Nurmi Games”. We honored Paavo Nurmi by giving him his own shoe, the Synchron Classic. Paavo still holds the track & field Olympic medal record leaving Usain Bolt behind him and he used to run in Karhu shoes.
V: Paavo, our national hero. Just like Karhu. Thank you Remko for your time, it was nice chatting with you.
Did you know that...
- Karhu used to produce Olympic equipment (discus discs, javelins, etc.). This happened in the first half of the 20th century.
- Karhu was the first sports brand with a patent on an Air Cushion system (1976).
- In the early years, Karhu was known for the shoes with three stripes, but the company sold their three stripes trademark to Adidas in the 50s. The story says the price was two bottles of good whiskey and about 1600 euros.
Karhu trainers available at TRE Store, Mikonkatu 6, Helsinki, and online www.worldoftre.com
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Text: Vilma Heimonen
Photos: Photos: Karhu, Runnerwally for Karhu, Justine Leenarts for Karhu