For our latest discussion, we sat down with Remko Nouws. Being a part of Karhu’s lifestyle department, LEGEND, Remko plays a part in the brand globally taking on aspects such as PR and marketing. Having been part of Karhu since 2014, we’ve often worked closely with Remko when it comes to Footpatrol and Karhu so it’s great to get a deeper understanding into his role and the history of Karhu.
Footpatrol: Hey Remko, thank you for taking the time out to talk to us today! For our readers please can you introduce yourself and what you do for Karhu?
Remko: Hi Sam, thanks for the invitation, appreciate it! My name is Remko Nouws and I am born and raised in Amsterdam. I joined Karhu at the end of 2014 and I am globally responsible for LEGEND, Karhu’s Lifestyle category, which includes everything product, PR & marketing related.
FP: Karhu is a brand with so much history and has been around for over 100 years, something some may not be aware of! In the early years the company was producing a lot of sporting equipment specifically discusses, Javelins and even spiked running shoes, which led to a lot of Olympic success for Finish athletes before even going on to help make items for the Finish Military. How has these 100 years of history helped to shape the brand for what it is today?
Remko: As you mentioned, the brand is more than 100 years old (established in 1916). We are considered to be a smaller sports brand, but Karhu has the history of well-known key players in the market. Even though we lost everything because of a huge fire in the 1950s in Finland, we started to rebuild the Karhu archives years ago. The archive consists of original shoes, apparel, accessories, memorabilia and old catalogues going back as far as 1920. All of this helps us to develop new products and to come up with interesting concepts.
FP: One story that most people would have heard of is that Karhu originally owned the trademark for the ‘Three Stripes’ logo which they sold for around €1600 euro and some whisky! This led to the introduction of the M logo standing for Mestari, Finnish for Champion, logo that’s still in use to this day.
Remko: Haha, well according to the legend, this seemed to have taken place in the early 1950s. However, we are super happy with our M-logo in all shapes and forms. The design has been changed over the years. To me this also gives a lot of individual character to the silhouettes that were launched throughout these decades.
FP: Karhu continued to bring new products to market, with the introduction of the Champion Air, a shoe that launched in 1976 and featured a cushioned midsole and sold over 1,000,000 units worldwide. How did it feel to bring this iconic silhouette back to market 40 years on?
Remko: It was very exciting to bring back a shoe that for its time featured revolutionary technology. The ChampionAir was in the collection for years but the product teams of the 70’s and early 80’s slightly changed the design each year. We didn’t have the version we liked in our archive and by coincidence we found that exact original version via a person in Finland that still owned a pair. You can imagine that it felt like we were destined to bring back the shoe once we found the perfect reference!
FP: By the mid 1980’s you had moved away from the cushioning in the Champion Air and introduced a new technology, Fulcrum Technology. Can you tell us a bit more about this and how its evolved over the years?
Remko: Karhu is known for the Fulcrum technology, which was developed in 1986 in order to help runners run 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 they realised that a different kind of movement was more efficient. 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. The Fulcrum Technology is still Karhu’s main technology, and is featured in all our running shoes.
FP: In more recent times, going back the past 5 years even, Karhu have frequently collaborated with some of the biggest sneaker retailers and brands around the world! The Footpatrol Fusion 2.0 from 2016 is one of our favourites! How do these projects come about and what’s it like being able to work with these partners?
Remko: I can imagine that the Footpatrol collab was one of the team’s favourites, and to be honest, I am a big fan of the outcome of the shoe as well. You guys challenged us to use some new materials, which we later on also used inline. That is how it should be if you would ask me. But lets get back to your initial question.
In general we are not the brand that collaborates too often. We try to build a brand that can stand on its own two feet, so the main focus is on building the strongest possible inline collection, because there is quite some competition surrounding us. However, if we can collaborate with partners that can elevate Karhu, then we love to work together on a project. It happens that we are invited by a brand to visit their head quarters for a meeting and to get a look into their brand archives. These are the moments to treasure and you feel very fortunate working in this industry. I really like linking up, going back and forth with the partner and working on an amazing product, which hopefully is appreciated by fans around the world.
FP: Some of these partnerships have been amazing ways to reintroduce the consumer to older models from your archive and certain times we have seen Karhu go down the OG route and introduced a model in its original form, how is the decision made to reintroduce a silhouette with a partner vs the going down original route?
Remko: In general we introduce a model inline first. We want to show confidence in our own products instead of leaning on a partner for model validation. We recently launched the Legacy 96, an Air Cushioned runner that has started getting some love, so I think it could be the right time to get something in the works on the model. What do you think?
FP: One thing I have always admired of Karhu is the thought that goes into every pack of shoes that launches. The colour palettes, themes, storytelling and photography is always well thought out in every release. How closely do the design and marketing teams work together throughout this process?
Remko: First of all, this is a huge compliment for the team! We are well aware of the great stuff other brands launch, so we need to give 200% to keep up with them. This means that I am asking the teams to go that extra step (or two, or three), we can’t be “just” good; our stuff needs to be outstanding!
From the start, the teams work closely together and anybody with a good idea can give input. Sometimes the concept comes first, but it can also happen that a colour way or the use of materials inspire the team to come up with a suiting concept. But as I mentioned before, Karhu and its rich history seem to be the gift that keeps on giving and we are trying to use all that brand goodness in the most respectful, credible and fun way.
FP: In the media and press its been evident that there are a lot of Karhu enthusiasts out there as they have been spotted on numerous celebrities over the years! With a lot of brands partnering with celebrities, musicians, restaurants and even other brands over the likes of retailers and athletes. Would this be a route that we can expect to see Karhu venture down in the near future?
Remko: We have been very fortunate to see our shoes on the feet of some very talented and famous people, which of course helped to spear point the brand awareness of Karhu. Funny enough these moments came also with cool anecdotes. Can you imagine on a normal weekday in Helsinki, Shia LaBeouf steps into your store, and buys a pair of shoes which he later is spotted in during the film festival in Cannes, crazy right? Or that Kanye walks out of a restaurant wearing a pair of Karhu’s, this blew my mind of course! But to get back to your question, yes we are open to look into directions that are less usual, but it needs to fit Karhu as a brand. Our authenticity is very important to us, but it can be exciting to get out of the comfort zone. It can also be good to combine the two and work together with a retailer and an external designer. That will be our next step, but we are also in talks with a great upcoming fashion brand and the project will potentially launch in 2021.
FP: Remko, thank you for your time! Before we sign off please can you let the readers know what you are doing to keep active and inspired during these tough times! (Hopefully making use of the Footpatrol Run with Friends playlist) and what they can expect to see from Karhu throughout the rest of 2020!
Remko: The Karhu x Footpatrol “Run With Friends” Playlist is a MUST and at my home in daily rotation and I suggest all Footpatrol and Karhu fans to listen to it via the Karhu Store Spotify account (karustorehelsinki on Spotify). Next to listening to music, I have a little boy that is almost 1.5 years old. Being with him on a daily basis during this period was the biggest joy and trust me, chasing him kept me very active. We might have a problem, he is already way too much into footwear and I didn’t even force him to get into it, haha!
Again, thanks for the invitation Sam and hopefully it gave people a bit of an idea of what we do and drives us at Karhu. Both the LEGEND and Performance Running teams are very passionate so keep an eye on us; more good stuff is on the way!