The Karhu Store

Hi, there. Who are you?

I’m Markus Hallsten, Manager of the Karhu Concept Store in Lasipalatsi. I’m a 25 year-old, Swedish-speaking Finn, which means Swedish is my mother tongue, but I also speak Finnish and follow Finland in every sport. I’m born and raised in Helsinki, but I’ve got family in the US and Sweden.

How did you end up as manager of the store?

It’s a funny story. I don’t have any background in management, I used to work in a bank. But I got tired of it and went to Amsterdam, to study and to look for something else. I happen to have a huge passion for sneakers, and while I was there, I sent an open email to Karhu, explaining my passion for the brand and for sneakers, and asking for an opportunity to get in. And what do you know, their offices are in Amsterdam! They told me to come and we had a talk. Then three or four months later they took me in and made me Manager of the Karhu Concept Store in Helsinki!

Well done! Could we hear a bit of Karhu history?

Sure! People don’t know this, but Karhu is one of the oldest sneaker brands in the world. It was created in 1916, so it’s older than Finland (as a country). Their first name brand was Sport Artiklar Ab, meaning “Sporting Goods”. They began by making javelins, discs, and spikes for running shoes, and that went very well. In the 20s they incorporated the name Karhu, and sponsored the Flying Finns, the amazing Finnish long-distance runners who did so well in the Olympic Games: Hannes Kolehmainen, Ville Rittola, and the legendary track & field sportsman Paavo Nurmi. Nurmi is still the greatest Olympian runner of all time (better than Usain Bolt) holding nine gold medals and three silver.

Then during World War II Karhu made military equipment: uniforms, bags, skin and ski-boots, and so on. After all that, in the 50s, Karhu’s logo had three stripes.

What? The three-stripes design was Karhu’s?

Yes. But they sold it to that German company for around 1.600 euros and a couple of bottles of whisky! Germans are good negotiators, I guess. (laughs) Then, forward to 1968, when Karhu made the first mass-produced training shoe (before that, they were only made for pro athletes). It was the Trampas, which was voted at the time the best training shoe of all time, and was used by twenty colleges in America. And then, in 1976, Karhu was the first sports brand with a patent on an air cushion system.

No way.

Yeah. Before Nike, Adidas, Puma, all of them. That was the Champion model. And after the 70s Karhu kept going as a big sporting brand, and still focused on the running game. They invented, in association with the University of Jyväskyla, the Fulcrum technology.

What is that?

Do you know what the rolling effect is? When you run, your feet are supposed to roll from heel to toe, to ease the forward movement. The Fulcrum technology assists you with a more efficient and less traumatic run. It’s not as soft as Adidas’ Boost technology, but a bit stiffer, which also helps reduce knee oscillations and give more stability.

But story-wise, that’s more or less it. We’re still here, focusing on our inline collection, and collaborating from time to time with brands in general.

What does “collaboration” mean, in this context?

The brand and the store design a model together, a limited edition. For example, right now I’m wearing a pair of Karhu X Patta Synchron Classics. These were made in collaboration with Patta, a very cool brand based in Amsterdam. This is our second colab with them, to celebrate Karhu’s 100th anniversary.

Aren’t you a bit wary to put them on, if they are collectible special editions?

Some models I never wear. But my motto is “rock ’em, don’t stock ’em”. I believe shoes are meant to be worn, and as long as you take good care of them, it’s okay. We have also collaborated with Sneakersnstuff, which is a very trendy store in Stockholm. Those guys have branched out big time now, into London and Berlin. Another one with Concepts, from Cambridge, Massachusetts (they have stores in New York and Dubai). Also with Footpatrol, which is one of London’s premier sneaker stores.

Who makes these connections happen?

Mostly our Global Lifestyle Manager. My boss, basically.

I understand that the current owner is Italian?

Mr. Emanuele Arese, yes. He’s a cool guy. He was a professional Track & Field athlete himself, and he won his 1500-meter European Gold medal in 1971 in Helsinki. He used to train in the summer with the Finnish top athletes, so he has a very special place in his heart for Finland and Karhu.

Let’s talk about collecting: when did sneakers began to be more than shoes and became valuable art items?

The sneaker game! Being conscious of your shoes, or “if you have cool-looking shoes you will be noticed.” It probably started at the end of the 70s in NY, with the Converse basketball shoes. But it really took off -and collecting became a thing- with the release, in 1984, of the Nike Air Jordans. So it’s closely related to basketball and hip-hop. Everybody has their own opinion about this, this is just my interpretation, but it became a global phenomenon about ten years ago, with people investing in shoes. Today, some models are sold for 10.000 dollars, which is not a bad deal. I myself have been collecting since I was sixteen.

Everybody has their own favorite brand. I used to be a Nike collector, but then I started branching out, picking particular models from special brands. Which is all part of the game, you want to be unique, you want to stand out. Some old OGs out there have pairs from the seventies, never used (which is known as “dead-stock”).

How many pairs do you own?

Right now, between 70 and 75 pairs. I had a minor economic crisis at home a couple of months ago, so I had to sell around 15 pairs. They were not terribly important, I have pairs with big sentimental value for me, like the first ones I bought with my own money (a pair of Nike Dunk High). Then some Jordans that I have always wanted since I got into the game, and I finally got for a good price.

Do you trade them online?

I try to do as little as possible online. I do research and then go on trips to try to find the best stores. Be there when there’s a big release, maybe if I go to Stockholm or Berlin. If I can’t go in person I ask some friend to get it for me. And some things you have to buy online, there’s no other way.

Where do you keep all those shoes?

I have a sneaker wall at home. Two bookshelves that don’t carry books, they carry shoes, so I can show them to my friends when they come over. Right now it’s a mess, shoes and shoeboxes everywhere, ’cause I haven’t cleaned up after I sold the last pairs!

Back to Karhu management. Was it a conscious decision for Karhu to get into the sneaker game?

I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing yeah. I mean, if you want to be in the the shoe business, the sneaker game is now a big part of the market. So you have to.

Where are the shoes made, physically?

In Asia, but we are considering some production in Europe in the near future.

Where are you going with this?

Up. There’s some big projects coming, but I can’t talk about it. (laughs) Cool kids, hipsters, and fashion influencers are catching up with the brand. It’s lots of fun and I’m gonna do my best to keep it that way!

The Karhu Store website is here, and the physical store is in Lasipalatsi, Mannerheimintie 22-24.