Fabric of a company: Oleana weaves a new corporate model

Photo: Solveig Hisdal/Oleana

By Victoria Hofmo

Norwegian American Weekly

I don’t remember when I first saw an Oleana design, but I do know that it made me dream.  I could imagine stepping into the forest scene, emerging into the amazing outfit, replacing the woman wearing it, as if I had stepped into a fairy tale. Without reading a word about Oleana, I knew from their advertising that they exemplified quality, uniqueness, and beauty.

Oleana’s philosophy is one from which other companies could gain great insight.  The company began in the early 1990s as a response to the Norwegian textile business drying up. Three visionaries who had been working for Dale of Norway, Kolbjørn Valestrand, Hildegunn Møster and Signe Aarhus wanted to see if Norway’s industry could be reborn by creating a different type of business model.

I had the opportunity to interview three people who have a vested interest in this company: Signe Aarhus (one of the company founders and owners), Laura Almaas (a distributor who owns Chalet in the Woods) and Torbjørg Grottveit (an Oleana employee).  Below is an interview I had with these three amazing women one January winter day in a cozy New York bistro.

Victoria Hofmo: Why is Oleana in New York at this moment?

Signe Aarhus: Who wouldn’t want to come to New York!  I come to the New York Gift Show. It’s a good opportunity to see Laura and see what’s going on.  We don’t have a booth.  We come to get informed and meet our customers.  It’s an opportunity to show the new collection and then on to see our Maine rep.

V: Torbjørg, what do you do within the company?

Torbjørg Grottveit: I used to work at production and then went to school in Denmark. Now I work with customers, with technicians, order all the materials.  I try to make the production run as smoothly as possible.

S: Oleana has a flat structure.  A lot of us do many types of work.  Many people have many functions.  We try to find the best fit.  Some train in textiles, economics, bookkeeping, buying, selling, shipping…  The owner needs to be willing to get dirt under their fingers.

We are passionate about textiles.  We felt sad that they were leaving Norway.  In 1991, we [her two other partners Valestrand (her husband) and Hildegunn Møster] started planning. At that time the unemployment rate in Norway was higher then it had been in a long time. We were idealistic. We wanted to sell, produce and realize our own ideas.  We came from a large firm with a long lasting hierarchy. We knew if we had a flatter structure it would cost less. Hildegunn Møster knew the factory machines – the practical side.  Our ambition was not to be the biggest factory.  It was important for us to keep the quality.

V:  Signe, I am very interested in how you speak about cross-cultural influences in Norwegian textiles.

S:  In Hagia, Sophia in Istanbul there is runic graffiti from a Viking “I was here.”  One of our staff trips included following the Silk Route, but backwards.  Before the trip I wanted to prepare so I went there with Solveig Hisdal [our designer].  We had to go to the Harem in Topkapi Palace, where we saw a bowl from China. Women could dress in silk in all colors they wanted.  We can read reports from a Danish merchant about the shimmering silk. Our [staff] education tours can go all over because textiles were the biggest and first craft industry.

V:  I am fascinated by Oleana’s policy of having an annual traveling educational trip with the employees. Can you explain this a little more?

T: Before we take the trips, people start to investigate, plan.  They learn things they never would have on their own.

S:  We began staff traveling in 1993 we won the Design Award and had only five people working. We went to London to see the best Arts & Crafts Museum in the world, The Victoria & Albert.  And also to France in Lyon and Etienne to see where the ribbons are produced for our jackets.  We have also been to Granada and the Alhambra in Spain.  One of our blankets is based on Spanish lace.  We had a professor from Bergen explain how the three cultures: Muslim, Christian and Jewish.  Sweater #125 is from one of the textiles in the Alhambra.

There is so much tedious work involved, every stitch into every ring.  We want the staff to see that there is a bigger heaven over them. They can see their own place in a long tradition.

Last year, we went to Milan to see the spinning wheels in the north. We pay for two days work and they take off Saturday and Sunday usually our trips are for four days. In France, we had a week.  This has given us a lot of memories.  We got to know each other better.  We create common memories.

V: How did you choose the name Oleana?

S: The name Oleana comes from the utopian society in America set up by Ole Bull, the famous musician.  It’s a fantastic trade name because Ole Bull made contemporary music by looking at tradition and we are doing the same thing with knitting.  Ole Bull was also the first internationalist and knew he had to build his reputation in that way.  Also it is a name that can be spoken in all languages.

Victoria Hofmo continues her interview from the March 26 issue with Signe Aarhus of Oleana and Laura Almaas, an American distributor and owner of Chalet in the Woods in Gig Harbor, Wash.

V: How and why did you choose the name Oleana?

S: The name Oleana comes from the utopian society in America set up by Ole Bull, the famous musician.

L: I have a connection to Oleana. When I was 5 years old my grandfather’s sister came from Norway and knitted me a sweater. Her name was Oleana.

S: A fantastic trade name because Ole Bull made contemporary music by looking at tradition and we are doing the same thing with knitting. Ole Bull was also the first internationalist and knew he had to build his reputation in that way. Also it is a name that can be spoken in all languages.

V: And it sounds poetic. Laura, how did you start carrying the Oleana line?

L: I live in Gig Harbor, about an hour south of Seattle. I was in Norway visiting relatives when I saw a catalogue for a design exhibit of Solveig Hisdal’s [Oleana’s sole designer] work. Two or three years later, a buyer from Oleana had set up at Seattle’s Gift Show. I had already had my business for 12 years. I sold mostly Scandinavian imports, but no clothing. Their clothes were modern, colorful, made in Scandinavia. You can see the history, but with a brand new freshness [Her store is located in a forest]. In the forest there is a connection to Oleana. The temperment worked out well. There is an authenticity with the design and how the products are made in Norway. studies Norwegian History and textiles and they are made in Norway.

My business was originally one of the oldest businesses in our town that I had shopped in. The previous owner was the son of a Norwegian immigrant and had gone to school in Norway. He and his wife began an import company. I took over this business.

V: Signe, how many designs does Oleana have?

S: In the factory we save one of each and have it on display. There are about 140 designs. We keep the best (sellers) and can have them for 10-12 years. We also have a new collection twice a year (spring/summer & fall/winter). For materials, we use silk, wool and alpaca from Peru.

L: It is very environmentally sound. The sheep drink water and this textile is sustainable. It also keeps their industry alive.

V: Can you describe the process of how you go from a Solveig’s design to a finished product?

S: Solveig gets inspiration and discusses what types of material. She starts sketching

shapes and patterns and than decides on which designs. She then blows up the contours of the pattern and tries it in different parts of the garment until she decides on which panel she wants it. We then discuss it. The fault of many textile companies is that the designer is not high enough in the system. We say that at Oleana, “Your design is not a result of compromise.”

S: This is something that we can depend on. We don’t have to put it on sale because there is no overproduction. We go against the stream. We use tip-top machines and handwork mounting it together.

V: Why do the products feel so Norwegian?

S: We have a Norwegian viewpoint, but not one of superiority. Nothing is typically Norwegian. We think of it as floating rivers. You will see silk used in an isolated town in Norway. This happened because of trade from the Viking times onward.

L: All is fluid

S: Like music. Nothing is as interrelated as in Folk Art.

T: Back in the old days people used what they had

V: What do you see for Oleana’s future?

S: We manage to continue to produce in Norway or pack up. We could start to make all types of products Oleana Home for instance. We have decided to let producers do that and stick to with what we do. We don’t need to be the biggest company in the world. One of our first customers was Nordstrom’s. This didn’t work for us because they changed buyers every 2 years and we couldn’t build a relationship. We don’t sell on the net. We had the privilege of choosing our own staff. We picked out everyone. We are successful enough to service and keep reps we want. We decided that we should pick out people so that we look forward to phoning them. We only have this life, so why not make it as pleasant as possible. In our other job we saw so much energy wasted on conflicts. We want our day to be meaningful working with nice people. One of the things I really appreciate, are all the goods friends at Oleana. It’s the human contact. Dreams & visions create energy.

On a more practical level we are now sharing space and renting. We went from 150 – 2,2000 sq. meters. We may need more space in the future. We would want to have our own house that matches our product.

V: You mentioned that your factory has every design ever made on display. How can one see these?

S: We marketed an Open House Factory. It is now bringing tourism.

V: Where do you sell?

S: We distribute in the Midwest, and we have a few customers in New England. Vail is one of our biggest customers. We also sell in Germany and Sweden. Germany is our biggest exporter. Japan is now buying also.

V: I have heard that you recently had a celebrity wearing your line.

S: When Obama received the Nobel Peace prize he was given a Dale sweater and his wife was given an Olena piece. Michelle bought 3 more of our pieces.

V: You adverting is so enticing. Who puts it together?

S: We started by having our daughters’ model. Torbjorg has modeled and some of our other staff, as well. Solveig, our designer takes all of the pictures.

V: What kind of materials do you use?

S: We use wool, silk and alpaca.

V: Who owns the company?

S: Three of us had 51% of company shares. We didn’t want anyone to buy us out so we now control all of the shares. Rent and power are our biggest costs. We share our profits with our employees. In Norway few people dare to start up a company.

V: Do you think that you’ve influenced others?

S: I think so. So many students are writing about us. It’s a little too early to tell.

We hope that people have seen that you can run a business in a decent manner.

L: What is staying power? I think it’s a new way of thinking. They can buy one great thing they can love for many years, instead of throwing it away. A story of Oleana with each design. You are buying something good and healthy. And people like the compliments (they get when wearing the clothes”

V: I think the clothes are like slipping into a fairy tale.

L: Without a vision the people will perish, someone said.

S: We need visions & dreams to create energy.

L: To me it’s like what Alice Water says. You might not necessarily go to a restaurant. But you will begin to think about what you are eating. People may not all buy Oleana but they will think about what they are wearing. “

S: We also learned about the Body Shop when it first started.

L: People want to believe in good in humanity. They want a vision of something better.

S: We love to take customers to come to Norway. Our they see our connection to nature, fjords, light.

Also, shopping is a political action.” We can teach what are you drinking from, what are you wearing. We need a bit of truth. If you didn’t care about these things, you might as well give up. With children you can teach them to appreciate a cup, why drink from an ugly one. It is the same with the way we choose to dress.

We have teenagers coming to the factory, I started to ask, “Do you know what you wear.” The boys kept asking about how much we earn. I was really shocked. You have to break through. The girls didn’t get into a position to ask. It’s good to ask.

V: It seems like stepping back in time is not such a bad thing, when all work was respected. When people took pride in their work.

S: My husband, Kolbjørn always says, “The old way is the new way.”

Hear! Hear! for the old way being the new way, if it can be done like Oleana – revitalizing an industry, not only respecting but also partnering with workers and producing amazing products. Oleana can be summed up by something I recently saw on a blog – Oleana is the rock star of Norwegian textiles.

To learn more about Oleana, visit www.oleana.no.

For more information about Chalet in the Woods, visit www.chaletinthewoods.com.

This article was originally published in the March 28 and April 2 issues 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.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.