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A Moment with Terhi Pölkki

Katja Kokko | 3.5.2016

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Finnish design has never before resonated with me as loud and clear as it does right now. We have several clothing and accessories brands that are climbing the international ladder of design. With the high demand of products lookin really good labels with ecological and sustainable values and the living proof of their word are unfortunately still pretty scarce. After all the look is what we often go after.

Shoe designer Terhi Pölkki is the exception. The brand she created in 2011 is currently taking on the world in the United States and next fall she is headed to Asia. Internationally the biggest interest shining on Terhi´s clogs but I have my eye on a couple of other pairs that are totally riding the trend wave of the moment. I feel that the overall vibe of the new collection could be of interest of an even larger crowd.

Since I find inspiration in female entrepreneurs I wanted to meet up with Terhi and share the moment with you too. Get ready to be inspired and to fall in love, literally head over heels.

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How did you end as a shoe designer?

When I was 12 years old I was dreaming of a career in fashion design. After high school I worked at a shoe store and was studying to be a dressmaker. I did my internship program at  Janita´s shoe factory, where a whole new world opened up to me through hands on work. I completed my studies with dressmaking and after that begun my studies in Wetterhoff for shoe design. The school was very hands on and practically aligned which was a very good thing for my kind of person, I´m more of a functional dreamer than a wishy washy wisher. I even completed my studies in a fast forward manner.

Let´s hear a little bit about your life as a shoe designer abroad.

During my second semester in school I was doing an exchange program in England where I returned after graduating from Wetterhoff to continue to work on my masters degree at the London College of Fashion. After graduation I ended up working as a shoe designer for a design company where I designed shoes for  Topshop, Urban Outfitters and Asos. The cycle from design to manufacture was extremely fast: at best we would design 25 pairs of shoes a week that would be in stores within three months of the drawings leaving our desks. The shoes were mainly produced in low-cost countries like Brazil, India and China where I would travel quite a bit as a result. The mass production and above all the working conditions at the factories begun to really bother me. As a designer I felt extremely anxious about the fact that there was really nothing I could do as the quantity and price of manufacture were more important than the working conditions. I was seriously questioning the need of a new pair of shoes in this world.

What was the tipping point for your own shoe brand to become reality?

The thought of moving back to Finland begun to seem like a good idea when I was questioning is this really what this job is all about? A tough job considering the pay without any possibility of actually making a difference. I did my graduation thesis on shoes made of reindeer skin in 2008 and was rewarded as The shoe designer of the year. I grew hungrier to do my own thing. I figured that there has to be a point to all this, designing shoes on a line begun to rub me the wrong way and the ecological aspects begun growing more and more important to me by the day. In the summer of 2012 I introduced my first own line and my work was showed in Paris as well.

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What are your brand´s most important ecological values?  What are other important factors in your designing process?

I wanted for the manufacturing to be in Europe. My shoes are manufactured by a family run company in Portugal. The leather I use for my shoes is vegetable tanned and it does not contain chrome or heavy metals which are commonly used as dye and to make the leather long lasting. The leather I use is biodegradable and will not end up further loading our earth. I don´t think shoes should last forever all though they must withstand use. Along side of vegetable tanned leather I also use wood as a material in my shoes. The clogs are manufactured in Finland in a small factory in Myrskylä. The leather I use comes from Kokkola and the wood is Finnish birch.

The ecological values cannot restrict my work too much though and the look of the shoe is highly important, otherwise they will remain on the shelves. I have so to say made an ecological decision for my client and when designing shoes I must either see them in stores or on somebody´s feet. I don´t regard myself as an artist, after all I work in a commercial field.

Let´s talk about your brand going international.

My first line was introduced in Paris but somehow I felt like l was drowning over there. I ended up in the U.S. kind of by mistake. A jewelry designer friend of mine begged me to come to the New York Capsule Show three times before I finally decided to go. The decision was absolutely worth the while because in Europe there has been a recession for the whole time my brand has existed and in New York there´s a huge Scandinavia boom going on. Originally I was going to do just a couple of pairs of clogs for the fun of it and because the Finnish factories were easy access for me. The clogs ended up being the thing in the U.S. and at the moment I have a show room in Los Angeles and 10 retailers in the U.S. and Canada. My shoes are also sold in Switzerland, Germany and Dubai. Next fall I´ll be showing my collection in Shanghai.

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Has the creation and growing of your own brand been easy and natural to you?

Things haven´t gone according to any specific plan. For the longest time I felt pressure to seem bigger than I really am, I kept on comparing myself to the companies I used to work for as a designer until I realized I don´t want to try and be anything else than what I really am. I gave myself permission to feel good right here where I am. I haven´t wanted to create a “girl in the hay fields” brand image for myself but at the same time my authentic story has been my strongest forte in the U.S. For example they love my video about the making of clogs.

Developing my own brand takes time because I´m doing it all on my own and it´s been a good thing for instance that the international success hasn´t come too fast or I wouldn´t have been able to keep all the strings in my fingers. At the moment I´m thinking about hiring an employee to help me with my growing brand. Naturally I dream of continuing on doing my own thing and being internationally successful.

What is the most challenging aspect of running your own label?

Continuance is the hardest thing. A new line twice a year is a fairly fast pace and the wheels must keep on turning all the time. I didn´t learn marketing, sales or logistics in school and there has been a lot of those to learn with my business. It is also a challenge to make myself seen, to figure out how people will find out about my brand and end up buying my shoes of all the brands available.

Who has been your “dream come true” client and who would you like to see wearing your shoes? 

When Roisin Murphy and Lianne la Havas were performing at the Finnish Flow Festival they got a pair of my clogs which was absolutely amazing. I fantasize about Julianne Moore wearing my clogs as well because she is a heavy user of clogs.  (On a personal request from me behind the pen, I would love to see Terhi´s shoes on Garance Doré, I´m pretty sure she would love them!)

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What pair is your favorite from the spring collection and what´s the story behind them? Could you give a style tip for my readers?

My favorite is the Maroccan inspired Fiona Babouche shoe. My sister brought me a pair of similarly shaped shoes from Senegal in 2000 which I used as inspiration when designing these. All my shoes have a story to them and are named after someone special to me. With this pair the style tip is simple: everything goes! You can go totally wild and throw on a pair of jeans and a floral skirt  and rock these shoes.

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Here´s my personal collection of Terhi´s shoes: the black Amelie sandal, the black Rose clogs the black Mila lace up shoes and the ankle booties from last winter´s line. The Mila shoe has proven to be a classic among the clog, but I feel the next big thing will be the Amelie sandal. They feel great and look feminine and go with any outfit. The Fiona shoe is hyper trendy by style right now and a couple of big brands have their own version on it as well. To go another way with a beautiful sandal absolutely check out Note.

Pictures Katja Kokko

Translated by Mariko Pajalahti

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