Motus Operandi

LONDON, UK–If her friend’s mother had not left her gardening shoes lying around the house, Maarja Motus’s company, Voru 82, may have never got off the ground.  I first heard about Voru 82—and Motus– during a conversation I had with a woman from the Hungarian Design Council when we were both attending a design conference in Cieszyn, Poland in February this year. She told me she had recently been to a seminar in Paris where Motus was a guest speaker. Motus—a spunky curly-haired 23 year-old Estonian design student—had been invited to relay her experiences of helping turn a tired brand of sneakers into an Estonian fashion phenomena. On a trip to Tallinn the next week, I saw in a design store a few pairs of the sneakers—mostly black but with bright stripes and shoelaces in colors like mint, yellow and red—and thought they were (along with the story of how Motus’s reinterpretation of the shoes reignited interest in them) pretty cool. I toyed with buying a pair but did not in the end—and I have not stopped kicking myself.

During the last days of summer in 2009 Motus—about to enter her final year at Tallinn’s Academy of Art—was at said friend’s house when she came across the mother’s sneakers, which she had recently purchased from the Abris factory store. Along with manufacturing the sneakers the Estonian company, which has been around since 1929,  also produces unstylish but practical footwear for factory workers, boots for the military and nursing shoes. The factory, located in the southern Estonian town of Voru, started manufacturing the sneakers in 1982 when Estonia was still a part of the Soviet Union. During the 1980s in parts of the USSR the shoes were a highly regarded fashion item.

“These sneakers were the first footwear sold in Estonia that looked Western,” Motus tells me in an interview over Skype (also created in Estonia.) “They were a real must-have in the 1980s and everyone was crazy about them.” But when democracy came to Estonia in 1991, the influx of Western sneaker brands like Adidas and Nike meant that the simple shoes were quickly relegated to the back of most people’s closets. Though the company continued to manufacture the shoes, they were mostly sold to prisons where inmates wore them as part of their regulation uniform.

voru82_retro-sneakers_redWhen school started back up and Motus was assigned in one of her classes to create a business plan, she thought it might be a crazy but cool idea to rework the classic sneakers. Though her first approach to the company did not go down well –she cold-called them asking for an internship and they told her no—when she finally visited the factory in person things went more smoothly. “When I told my friends I was going to the factory store, they said they thought the prison shoes were retro and asked me to buy them a few pairs. I asked if I could order them in different colors,” she says. “The production manager came out, said that the next big shipment was being produced in two weeks and if I could bring in the materials they would do it for me.” The production manager then went on to add that this would be the last ever production of the sneakers because the company had decided to discontinue the style.

Working against time, Motus designed 25 pairs of shoes in colors like blue, red and yellow and, on a whim, she also applied for a place at the art academy’s yearly fashion show. Motus says that, luckily, the PR person in charge of the fashion show was intrigued by the idea of the redesign and starting talking the sneakers up to the press. “People in their 20s and 30s remember those shoes from their childhood and everyone has a story that relates to the sneakers,” she says. “So that is what helped make this product more visible.” The shoes were a hit at the fashion show and Tanel Veenre, a jewellery designer and fashion critic thinks the shoes appeal because they have a cool creepiness. “The irritating color combinations like bright pink-cold green or light orange-bright green and the strange retro-materials [mix] our Soviet heritage with urban city-glam,” Veenre tells me. Thanks to the positive reviews, Abris decided there might be life left in their sneakers and decided to continue to manufacture the shoes, the old version still being sold to prisons and the new funky designs manufactured exclusively for Motus’s newly established company, Voru 82.

At the end of last year Motus won the coveted Estonian Design Award—given out every two years—and one of Estonia’s largest newspapers dubbed the sneakers as one of 2010’s cultural stars. Voru 82 also now produces what Motus calls “tennis shoes”—though they look more like quirky chunky sandals to me—which were originally designed by Abris as shoes for factory workers at Krenholm, a textile company in Narva, Estonia that went bankrupt last winter. One of the things Motus is most passionate about with her shoes is that they are locally produced and sourced; she decided that the tennis shoe/sandals should be manufactured from the fabrics produced at Krenholm (they used to produce fabrics for Finnish company Marimekko.) It’s been these tennis shoes/sandals that have caught the attention of fashion-forward shops in places like Helsinki, Frankfurt and London. “In Estonia, people are more interested in the sneakers because of the whole [nostalgia] aspect,” she tells me. “But abroad, it’s the tennis shoes that people are interested in and they think they are super-duper cool. People keep saying to me, ‘Whoa, what kind of shoes are these?’”  Motus—who is currently working on a Masters in product design in Tallinn—says she it not sure what the future holds for Voru 82. “I am thinking about this every day and though I am not sure I see myself in five years still designing shoes, it has been a project I have worked hard on and I do not want to drop it that easily,” she says.  Fans of Voru 82 certainly hope she doesn’t let the shoe drop.

Photo courtesy of Maarja Motus/Voru 82