Wearing your values

Two designs from Oleana's spring 2011 collection.

Two designs from Oleana's spring 2011 collection.

Oleana’s co-founder Signe Aarhus talks about entrepreneurship in Tacoma, Wash.

By Kelsey Larson

Special to the Norwegian American Weekly

“Everybody was saying, look at this funny thing Oleana has done. Everybody was laughing.”

On the evening of Feb. 23, Signe Aarhus addressed a sizeable crowd at the Scandinavian Cultural Center at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. She referred to her company’s decision to create their catalogue in miniature; it is about the size of the palm of your hand, and apparently the competition found the idea a bit amusing.

In the end, however, it is Oleana who gets the last laugh: with clientele among the elite of the world – including Michelle Obama, who recently purchased several of the signature Oleana sweaters – and stores carrying Oleana textiles in two continents, success has come as somewhat of a surprise to this relatively young Norwegian textile company, founded in 1992 by Aarhus and her husband. They founded the company with the idea of creating more jobs in the textile business in their native Norway, as most companies were moving to countries with cheaper labor. Now, with a factory in Bergen and 60 highly skilled employees, Oleana has more than met its goal of creating a unique textile business using sustainable materials.

In her lecture, entitled “Wearing Your Values: The Fabric of Entrepreneurship,” Aarhus told the story of Oleana’s creation and worked to convey Oleana’s philosophy of sustainable living. Aarhus firmly believes that women need to own less – but “more beautiful” – clothing (Oleana sweaters, known for their quality materials and vibrant colors and patterns, fit that description well). In many parts of the world textiles are overproduced and textile workers are underpaid, and Oleana stands behind the belief that, “It is becoming more important for us to buy clothing that is produced in a responsible manner. We can no longer accept the humiliating circumstances that many women and children work under in order to produce inexpensive textile products.”

Oleana also believes in swimming against the current. “We see everything the big textile companies are doing, and we try to do the opposite of that,” Aarhus said during her lecture. This can be anything from the company’s tiny catalogue to its unique fashion shows, which employ professional dancers rather than models. Oleana doesn’t even sell its wares on the Internet.

Besides the evening lecture, Aarhus spent the day on the PLU campus, visiting a second-year Norwegian class, a business class, the President’s residence for a luncheon, and the Scandinavian Shop in the Garfield Book Company to teach the employees about care and maintenance of the Oleana sweaters, which the shop now carries.

For more information, visit www.chaletinthewoods.com and www.oleana.no.

Kelsey Larson is a senior at Pacific Lutheran University. She spent the 2009 – 2010 academic year studying in Bø, Norway at Telemark University College and developed a passion for Norwegian language and culture. She will be graduating in May with degrees in Norwegian and English Writing.

This article was originally published in the March 11, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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