Aki Choklat
Born: 17th of May 1963, Jyväskylä.
When I was young I wanted to be… a painter.
If I could use only one pair of shoes it would be... anything made of leather or felt – or both!
Aki’s stockists include Design Forum, Helsinki; Shu, Vienna; Harvey Nichols, London; and Apartment, Berlin.

Spotting Aki Choklat in the street is not that difficult: look for his shoes. He will most probably be wearing the most eclectic or, at least, the spiciest shoes in that street. Choklat is without a doubt the most well-known Finnish of shoe designers.

In his hometown in Jyväskylä, central Finland, he designed his first pair of shoes at the age of 12. This was a road that took him years later to London where, as a freelancer, he launched his first shoe collection Jubaki and studied at the London Royal College of Art. He was eventually hired as a designer for the Portuguese shoe factory Calafe, and later with his own AC collection – a high quality men’s shoe focused line – has spellbound a set of international loyal Choklat devotees. Today Finnish-Moroccan cutting-edge shoe designer Choklat teaches at the prestigious Polimoda International Institute of Fashion Design in Florence.

But Choklat’s innovative style also attracted the attention of Finnish felt shoe company Lahtiset. In 2010 the company was awarded the Innofinland award for their collection “Aki Choklat for Lahtiset”, one of the most sought-after of Lahtiset’s collections. His book Footwear design (Portfolio Skills) is on shelves in March, a guide showing the key skills and tips behind the trade.

SixDegrees had a chat with Choklat about his work, his inspiration, his family and a fascinating life spent in the countryside of Jyväskylä, in Morroco, New York, London and in Florence.

Lets start with the beginning. What inspired you as a child?

My early memories of shoes relate to some of the typical Finnish children’s footwear, such as Nokia rubber boots and felt boots. However, one of my fondest memories is of my great grandfather’s grey Derbys in the storage room. Maybe they were from the ‘50s, but I remember them so well and I just loved them! Also already as a kid I had quite a different hobby: I was sketching shoes.

But having a crazy family like mine also inspires creativity! Once we decided to paint all the rooms Barbie pink. My dad also made furniture from plywood that we painted electric blue, they looked great but they were not very comfortable! My Finnish grandmother was a seamstress so I also had these amazing suits to wear. I was different, and being different in Finland in the ‘60s, and especially in the countryside, was quite something. But coming from a bohemian multi-cultural family like mine has helped with life in general because you learn to look at things in a different way.

Shoe photos by James Frid and Teemu Töyrylä

Your first choice for a career was not in design, however, but you pursued a diplomatic career. Why was that?

I wanted what most kids had: a normal life. I wanted a good job and money. So I moved to the United States to study at Utah University and after graduating I did a congressional internship at Capitol Hill. But I was profoundly unhappy. I later worked for many years for American Express. But I simply was not meant to sit in an office all day and wear a suit. Politics and office environments are not meant for me.

When do you consider that your career as a shoe designer started?

When I decided to join my sisters in New York. I continued there with my passion: selling and designing shoes in a market stand. We imported Moroccan clothes and accessories making alterations and updating them for street wear. I’ve always loved the Moroccan babouche slippers and, among other things, I redesigned them and they sold! The turning point in my career was in this market square in Soho. Someone bought one of my designs and when I realised how happy that person was, well, I never looked back again. That was around 1997 and, although it has often been a struggle, I never regretted taking that road!

How can you know if a new model of shoe will be a success, and where do you get your inspiration from?

With designs you never really know. Many times the shoe that I didn’t even want to show becomes the best seller. Like many designers my process of creating starts with inspiration. Everything – stories, life, relationships, exhibitions – inspires me, I sit down and design endlessly, no problem there. But it’s difficult to predict what will be a success. My shoes have sold limited numbers in Finland but then they are sold more in other countries, like in the United Kingdom, Italy or Belgium.

“I am interested in
both traditional and
innovative styles.”

Is there a difference between designing for men and designing for women?

Oh yes, there certainly is a difference between men’s and women’s footwear. Men’s shoes are my world, for sure, but I still have to think about the women’s world as well. Women’s footwear is a totally different planet! To be honest I think that you are either one or the other, but as a designer its good sometimes to dive into both worlds. It’s easy for me to design for men since I think of myself as the end user, but for some I used strong women as inspiration.

You are also known for your love of handcraft and the artisan’s work. What materials do you like to work with? Do you prefer handmade designs?

I like to work above all with leather and some of my models are 100 per cent handmade, though the production models are factory made. Both productions are important. At the moment I am taking a break from factory production and I am working with Italian artisans to create something more personal. But I am interested in both traditional and innovative styles and also in combining them.

Finland has not had particularly a footwear culture compared to countries such as Italy or Spain. What do you think of Finnish footwear?

Finland still has some manufacturing. It might not have the same traditions as the other countries in, for example, Central Europe but we do have some special traditions that we excel in. The Finnish birch bark [tuohi virus] shoes are very unique to Finland, same as felt and even the combination of these two. I also think that Finnish foot wear design talent in the world is remarkable and world class. The innovations of Julia Lundsten’s label Finsk, Minna Parikka’s naughty but romantic collections, Janne Lax and his bespoke tradition meets sportswear and the legendary Pertti Palmroth that was selling globally decades ago.

I have been a visiting lecturer at HAMK Wetterhoff [the University of Applied Sciences in Häme, Central Finland], which is the only footwear school in Scandinavia and in the Baltic States, and some of the talent coming out of that school is simply amazing!

What about your work for Lahtiset?

I really like to work with those felt models because it is something that is traditionally Finnish. My own AC line has sold very limited numbers in Finland but the ‘Aki Choklat for Lahtiset’ line has sold very well. I think the ACFL-002 is the best seller, a simple slipper with holes on top. And my work for in the Lahtiset factory gives me an excuse to visit Finland, not that I need one!

You teach in one of the most prestigious design schools in Europe, the Polimoda School in Florence. What has this experience been like?

I am a very down-to-earth person and teaching in any good school is as important as teaching in Polimoda. But of course I consider it an honour to be part of the Polimoda academic family, and working in a school whose president is Salvatore Ferragamo’s son Ferruccio Ferragamo is obviously very special. It’s rewarding and great to meet new talents. But yes, I must admit that is it also the most beautiful teaching environment in the world. And through work Florence has also become my hometown, so I feel very comfortable there.

Are you a dreamer or a realist?

I live a very simple, I guess realistic and non-fashion lifestyle. I cycle or walk everywhere. In Florence I live in a block of flats full of plus-70-year-olds. And in Italy a lot of my time involves quite elaborate eating. In London, quite a few pubs. I spend most of my days just working on things around the house, like gardening. But my work life is full of the other more superficial fashion stuff. So I really appreciate the so-called normal life. Hanging around with friends, reading. But a dreamer? Of course, also. I think a designer has to be a dreamer.

Where is home?

My home and office is in London but I’m in a lucky position to also have a flat in Florence. I also miss Finland constantly. I visit Finland often, because of my work, and my parents who live in Finland. In Finland I always go to the cottage, winter or summer. Always sauna! In summer I love rowing in the lake. I guess I can say I have several homes.

What about the future?

At present I am trying to focus on other work that does not involve factory production. I have done over 20 seasons with my label and I have felt that every season I had to design something just because of the fashion system. I will show my new creations when I have something to say. For now I am focusing on learning Italian and growing flowers in my terrace in Florence.

I guess you get asked a lot if you like chocolate?

Occasionally I am asked, but not too often. I do love chocolate, dark and bitter. I indulge myself from time to time! Sometimes at passport controls, when they notice my surname, I get the odd shriek of joy!

Footwear design (Portfolio Skills) is being published in March.

Carina Chela