Bergen’s Oleana looks to the future
Founder Signe Aarhus visits the “ideal venue” of Gig Harbor’s Chalet in the Woods
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
When Signe Aarhus, co-founder of Bergen’s Oleana, first came to visit Laura Almaas, her West Coast rep in Gig Harbor, Wash., she wondered if she had come for a business meeting or a country retreat. When she arrived at Almaas’s shop, Chalet in the Woods, she was met by dogs, cats—and yes, a flock of Oxford sheep. Aarhus wondered how in the world it would be possible to run a company in such an out-of-the-way place in the cedar woods of the Evergreen State.
But as Aarhus has learned after 25 years of success at the helm of Norway’s youngest textile factory, “something unusual sometimes get the most attention.” When she first founded the factory with her husband Kolbjørn Valestrand and colleague Hildegunn Møster, everyone wondered how the new company could obtain financing, let alone make it in Norwegian manufacturing.
Yet, against all odds, Oleana became profitable from the outset; over the years, it has stood out as a model company, winning awards for both design and innovative business practices (see “Norwegian Fairy-tale Couture,” Nov. 17, 2017: www.norwegianamerican.com/featured/oleana-fairy-tale-couture). Today, Oleana is sold around the globe, even attracting customers to the cedar woods of Chalet in the Woods.
Over the years, Aarhus and Almaas have made many trips back and forth between Norway and Washington, the most recent this past September, when Chalet in the Woods decided to celebrate a partnership that has lasted over 20 years. And a celebration it was: loyal customers and friends poured into the Pavilion in Gig Harbor, many wearing colorful Oleana sweaters purchased over the years. They were treated to a delicious luncheon, including an ekte Norwegian kransekake and a glass of bubbly, as they anxiously waited to meet Signe Aarhus. With bright fuchsia tablecloths and autumn floral arrangements, it was a festive occasion.
When you first meet Signe Aarhus, you may be surprised how friendly and down-to-earth she is—and unlike most women in high fashion these days, she doesn’t wear black. But Aarhus and Oleana have always gone against the stream. Aarhus based her first designs on traditional Norwegian knitting patterns, bringing an older textile tradition back to life. Soon lead designer Solveig Hisdal came on board and introduced her award-winning floral creations. Hisdal is a storyteller who weaves her narrative in fibers: she takes inspiration in nature, old drawings and patterns, and even old kitchen towels and tablecloths. Oleana has always aspired to do something different, a strategy or vision that has helped them survive in the fastest-dying industry in Europe.
Aarhus explained to her Gig Harbor audience how quality has always been key to Oleana’s success. With production based in Ytre Arna outside of Bergen, where wages for workers are among the highest in the world, exceptional quality is key to remaining competitive. Oleana only employs “people with a good sense of humor,” and one gets the sense that co-workers are treated more like an extended family.
Their workplace has been designated an économusée as a factory that is open to the public to showcase traditional handcraft techniques while maintaining a firm commitment to quality, the environment, and employee well-being. Each day, visitors come from all over Norway and the world to experience the Oleana way of work, many seeing textile production in action for the first time.
For Oleana management, it is important that their staff enjoys working with each other. Every year, they close the factory and take a trip together to rest up and gather new inspiration, often visiting a locale connected to the business. In recent years, the Oleana family has also taken on an international flavor, with “new native” employees from 12 different countries. At times it has been necessary to go beyond Norway’s borders to recruit the best talent, especially the highly skilled programmers needed to realize elaborate designs on the factory’s high-tech Japanese knitting machines. But everyone speaks Norwegian with each other: Oleana is a Norwegian company through-and-through.
After 25 years, one wonders what the future may hold. There have already been significant changes in retailing, with more and more commerce going online, a challenge for a company that has always emphasized a personal, exclusive shopping experience. Oleana offers a web catalog at www.oleana.no, where shoppers can peruse the merchandise before going to a boutique, and in some countries, they are even selling online. Aarhus recognizes that markets are different around the globe, and it takes both creativity and flexibility to navigate the challenges faced in a global market.
Oleana is also looking ahead to the next generation. Recently, a new designer, Mathilda Nordberg, was hired to work with Hisdal, who is still going strong but looking toward retirement. Nordberg, a native Swede, was educated at the prestigious Royal College of Art in London and has already won numerous design awards. She will bring something new to Oleana: she is a generation younger than Hisdal, and one can expect that she will put her own, unique twist on the designs. After years in the fashion industry, Aarhus understands that change is very important.
As the two remaining owners, Aarhus and Valestrand are also in the process of moving toward retirement and are pleased that Aarhus’s youngest daughter and her husband have taken over the business. Gerda, who worked in the factory as a young girl sewing on labels and helping in the shop, studied luxury design management at Politechnico di Milano in Italy. Steffen, her husband, is educated in business administration. With two young daughters of her own, it was Gerda who convinced her predecessors to start a line of clothing for children. Despite a high price point, the children’s collection has been a great success. Families hand down the durable, high-quality pieces from sibling to sibling—and Aarhus’s grandchildren love their Oleana clothes.
Back in the United States at Chalet in the Woods, there are no signs of stopping for owner Almaas. She carries the entire Oleana line, including women’s sweaters, hats, and shawls; children’s clothing; blankets and pillows; and other accessories. She is always excited to see the new collections and plans events throughout the year to promote her business and let her clients experience life on the farm with the traditional handicrafts.
While Almaas’s four adult children all have day jobs, having grown up with the business, they are often on hand to provide support in everything from IT support, taking professional photos, or helping at events. As in Norway, Oleana in Gig Harbor is a family affair, and there is special atmosphere of intimacy and warmth when you visit the Chalet.
As Aarhus has said, Chalet in the Woods is the most unique Oleana shop, somehow an ideal venue for a company that has always forged its own way forth. And the future is bright for this transatlantic partnership that has lasted for over a quarter of a century, with the synergy of tradition, innovation, and creative joy that is the hallmark of Oleana.
This article originally appeared in the October 19, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.