You know you’re onto something when your sportswear brand is named after an animal that is both cute and terrifying. The bear logo is synonymous with the Finnish footwear kings at Karhu but it wasn’t always the case. A little-known German guy by the name of Adi Dassler had similar enthusiasm for sports shoes and when it became clear his three stripe logo was already favoured by the Flying Finns, a deal was worked out to keep everyone happy. The trademark changed hands in 1951 for 1600 Euros and two bottles of whisky.
To focus purely on this piece of trivia though, does Karhu a serious disservice. Founded in 1916, the brand began manufacturing discuses and javelins, as well as running shoes and track spikes. As the market leader in sporting equipment, Karhu established their brand early on, with the 1920 Olympic Games serving as proof their products worked. Finnish athletes took home all three medals in javelin, which five gold medals were accrued using Karhu spikes. Four years later, the same feet-based feat was repeated by Paavo Nurmi whose Karhu running spikes helped him stand out.
Having become the standard bearer in Summer Olympic equipment, Karhu expanded into skiing products. War interrupted their plans but their expertise wasn’t lost, with Karhu producing snow-camo clothing and skis for the Finnish Army.
Following the Second World War, Karhu emerged with a new logo following the agreement with adidas, and it is this rework of the letter M which has served them well ever since.
Innovation and design have always been a strong suit of the Finnish psyche and as the country rebuilt itself in the 60s and 70s, Karhu became the pioneers of nylon and air cushioning in running shoes. This mentality extended into various other sports and the brand grew.
Like many brands built on craftsmanship and creativity, the latter part of the 20th century provided business challenges, but the same inherent DNA which seems to exist in all Finns served them well through that period.
Today, they remain one of the most reliable manufacturers of sporting goods and their classic footwear designs have stood the test of time. Their Originals range marries their historic running heritage with a contemporary aesthetic which is pretty much unrivalled. With the big two sportswear brands continuing to dominate, it falls naturally for the Finns to offer an appealing alternative. As a country which has a various times been annexed to Sweden and Russia, going against the grain and coming out better is what they’ve been doing for centuries anyway.
Written by Neil Summers.
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