Aktiv Style Outerwear brings Norwegian and Nordic brands to Denver
A new brick-and-mortar shop makes its debut
The Norwegian American
Most people when they return from Norway have splurged on a Dale sweater or Helly Hansen slicker as a memento. Nate and Leslie Axvig came back with a business idea, Aktiv Style outerwear.
They’re lawyers who met when she interviewed him for a job. They left Denver to spend July 2016-August 2017 in Oslo pursuing doctorates in communications and technology law (law of the internet) at the University of Oslo. Their children, Luke and Becky, came along. Luke was in fifth grade at the multiculturally diverse English-speaking Northern Lights school in Skådalen. Becky was in first grade at Vinderen, where she helped teach English. Nate, who grew up in North Dakota, is seven-eighths Norwegian and one-eighth Swedish. His great-grandparents immigrated to the United States.
“We had vacationed there in 2012, and I tracked down some cousins,” said Nate in a Skype interview. “So, we made some family connections. We really thought Oslo was very livable, and we wanted our kids to experience living in a foreign country. The cousins who we met up with were always so engaging and interested in how the American side of the family was doing. Some were still in our ancestral home area. Some had moved down to Oslo, so it was easy to find them.”
One experience was Norwegian winter, and they soon learned—and were intrigued by—the famous Norwegian adage, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”
“That was in Norwegian, on the door of the Vinderen School,” said Axvig. “My daughter would go to school looking like she was going to work on a fishing boat. She was in slickers all the way, and they would go outside every day. It did not matter what the weather was like.”
Patronizing any of the number of coffee shops, they started noticing the outerwear Norwegians wore. “We noticed a phenomenon that takes place in Colorado and Norway,” he said. “People live in their more technical, higher end, outdoor activity gear. Men and women would show up to the coffeehouse in these expensive technical pieces. They were not the Patagonia and North Face brands that we were accustomed to seeing. They were all these different brands we had never heard of.
“We got to know a lot of those brands. The quality is fantastic. It’s not just Norwegian, it’s Swedish and Danish, too. Everything is built for a purpose. It’s meant to look nice. There is a practical purpose for every part of the garment, which is very Coloradoesque too. People want to wear things that either work well in the elements or are not holding them back.”
Initially, they thought they would buy cheap winter clothes—“which don’t exist in Norway.” Instead, they bought from Amundsen, Bjørn Dæhlie (legendary cross-country skier), Kari Traa (former Olympic freestyle skier), and Norønna. Upon returning home, they wanted to buy more.
“For many of the brands, it was very difficult. We could not find any of them.”
Nate and Leslie decided to fill the need. They had been learning about e-commerce in Oslo. They finished writing their dissertations in Denver, and Nate set about trying to set up Aktiv Style as a strictly online business in spring 2018. On Sept. 1, they made the daring move in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and sagging economy to open a brick-and-mortar store.
“We had looked into retail space, but the Denver real estate market is crazy,” said Axvig. “It’s very expensive. It was in our mind, but it was shelved. This [The Stanley] marketplace that we go to almost daily had an opening, and we had been talking with them a little bit beforehand. The layout of the space felt like the Scandinavian shops that we went to in Oslo. The location is in a part of the city where people will be interested in the products that we have. There aren’t a lot of other options. There’s not an REI right around the corner. We decided to give it a try. There’s certainly some risk with it. What gave us some comfort is, by and large, Colorado has been really good about masks, social distancing, and lack of big numbers in groups. Our daily (coronavirus) positive numbers are low. So, that made me feel, from a business standpoint, we were going to get back into a place of relative normalcy quicker than other parts of the country.”
There was a journey to get to brick and mortar. One challenge was to change Americans’ view of wool.
“The basic material for a lot of our clothing is wool,” said Axvig. “Wool in the United States has an itchy reputation. The wool that I had when I was in North Dakota as a kid was not good. It was bad quality, itchy, awful. We had to sell Americans on the value of wool and the qualities it brings. We were still butting up against the idea that it was going to be itchy. People wanted to touch the material. We were trying to find a way to make that happen.”
They also needed product. First, he contacted their favorite brand, Amundsen, which makes sweaters, shirts, shorts, knickerbockers, jackets, and hoodies. The owner is the great-nephew of Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen.
“It’s less than 10 years old, but the Amundsen sport branding is so iconic,” Axvig said. “Roald Amundsen is like George Washington, Michael Jordan, and George Clooney all wrapped up. He’s so important to the Norwegian mindset. We saw their clothes. We bought their clothes. That was the first email I sent. Not only were they receptive, they had recently placed a representative in Boulder, which is 30 miles away. So that worked out really well. Amundsen is our signature Norwegian brand. We worked with the Scandinavian outdoor group to reach out to other brands. A lot of these companies are small family owned businesses, so they could relate to what we were trying to do. My last name is Axvig, so I think that gave them some comfort as well.”
In addition to Amundsen, of the Norwegian brands, they carry Bjørn Dæhlie, Kari Traa, Norønna, Northern Playground, and Skogstad.
They did some pop-ups to create awareness, but the key was when Nate returned home to North Dakota for Norsk Høstfest, the four-day festival in Minot in September 2019.
“I didn’t know what to expect from a sales standpoint, because we were bringing a bunch of brands that if people had been to Norway, they would be familiar with, but if they hadn’t, they were going to be new,” he said. “It was a huge success. There was a captive audience at Høstfest. People are in a heritage mindset. Dæhlie is very represented there. If you’re looking for something a little different than that, there aren’t a lot of options. We can fill that void. I’m from North Dakota. The degrees of separation in North Dakota are like one and a half. Everybody that would come into my little booth, I could make a connection with, which was good.”
Aktiv does offer some Dale sweaters. Currently, they are marked down to $140-$160, which anyone who has bought them in Norway knows is a bargain. They’re not moving well, because Dale is available elsewhere, so Aktiv may discontinue selling it.
What’s interesting is they are receiving orders from Norway, so they’re sending product back.
Now, the challenge is getting people into the physical store. At the time of the interview, they had only been open for two weeks. The first day it was 98 degrees outside. Not ideal for winter shopping. A week later, there was snow for two days. They’re offering curbside pickup and regular delivery. “I get on my bike and I ride the products over to their house,” said Axvig.
No more than five people are allowed in the store at a time. They are experimenting with a private shopping experience. Shoppers can reserve a half hour with the store to themselves. “If someone is immunocompromised or something like that, that’s another option,” Axvig said. So far, no one has signed up.
“Once we get into the traditional cold weather season in three, four weeks, I think we’ll probably be getting some interest or maybe not,” said Axvig. “Either things work, or they don’t. We have to experiment and see how that goes. If it makes it easier for somebody to shop, then, great.”
Aktiv also bases its philosophy on “the right aesthetic, real world testing, sustainability and responsibility and quality,” according to the website. And, most of all, the clothes have to look great.
Nate and Leslie also brought something else back from Norway.
“Even before Becky went to her first day of school, she received a postcard from the teacher introducing her to the other members of the vennegruppe, or friends group. So, that’s what we named our mailing list, vennegruppe.”
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.