Clothing with an adventurous spirit
European Viking itinerary inspires Norwegian-American designer to go in new direction
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
Madison Leiren has always had the Viking spirit in her blood. Born into a Norwegian immigrant family, her heritage has had a profound impact on both her personal and professional life. Last spring, she left her distinctive mark on the Seattle fashion scene with her first runway show at the new Nordic Museum, where the Viking influence on her collection was unmistakable. Her collection was inspired by the colors of Norway’s dramatic landscape and the magic of Norwegian folklore—and the results were stunning. (See “Norway inspires 17de Mai runway show,” May 4, 2018: www.norwegianamerican.com/featured/norway-inspires-17de-mai-runway-show).
It was only natural that Leiren would again look to world of the Vikings for new inspiration, and when the opportunity to explore Viking legacy in France and visit Norway with her family, she was quickly on board. While Viking history had always been a strong interest, she knew little about the French settlements in Normandy, and as a designer, France had always called. She had only been to Norway once in 2014, and was ready to embark on a new adventure.
One of the first stops on the Viking itinerary was the port city of Honfleur in Northwestern France. At one time in history, the entire region was under Viking rule. In 911, the Viking jarl Rollo became the ruler of Normandy, the “Country of the Northmen.”
The Viking influence in Honfleur is perhaps most visible at Sainte Catherine Church. Built much like a Norwegian stave church, it is shaped like two Viking ships turned upside down. Inside, however, the detailed ornamentation is much more typical of a Catholic place of worship. The designer in Leiren was attracted to the statue of the Virgin Mary, whose robe had been crafted with extremely intricate detail. She was also impressed by the intricate carpentry of the wooden doors, not unlike carvings she had seen in Norway.
The Cathedral of Rouen was even more imposing. When Rollo sacked the town in the early 10th century, the church was destroyed and rebuilt with a façade of unmistakable Viking motifs. It is not known whether the cathedral was at one time painted, but a 20-minute light show created by local university students gave tourists a sense of how color could have appeared. Images of Viking history and lore were projected on the façade, including the tree Yggdrasil, the Midgard serpent, Nordic runes, an array of shields, and of course, Vikings in full regalia. For Leiren, the tapestry of colors left a lasting impression.
But it was, without a doubt, her stop in Paris that had the strongest impact in France. While the Vikings had gone there to sack the city in 845, Leiren arrived in the world center of design on a quest of fashion discovery. She was amazed by the selection of the textiles, and purchased two new handmade laces to incorporate into her new collection.
No European trip with the Leiren family would be complete without a stop with relatives in Norway. This time the rendezvous would take place in Oslo, where Leiren would see the sights of the capital for the first time. She was particularly impressed by the Vigeland sculpture garden in Frogner Park, offering a new experience of the human body and existential condition. At Norway’s National Parliament Building, she saw pastel walls of sage green and dusty lavender pink framed by lacey white and gold details, reminiscent of what she had seen in France. They were colors she wanted to take home with her.
At the Viking Ship Museum on the island of Bygdøy, Leiren came face-to-face with the artifacts that she had read and dreamt about so much about all her life. Guided by her uncle, Professor Emeritus Terje Leiren, a leading Viking expert at the University of Washington, she was able to examine the swords and utensils in detail and learn more about their history. But the three best-preserved Viking ships in the world, the Tune, Gokstad, and Oseberg, left an overwhelming impression with their streamlined flowing lines. Leiren could see pleats in the lines of their woodwork, concepts to take back home to Seattle.
Leiren’s days in Oslo offered more inspiration of a purely motivational nature. At the Fram Museum, she relived the story of the polar explorers, who persevered no matter the odds. She was even more touched by her visit to the Resistance Museum at Akershus Fortress, knowing what her family had endured during WWII.
Leiren’s Viking adventure to France and Norway lasted only two weeks, but the impact on her designs will be lasting. Previously, she had aimed toward more ready-to-wear pieces, but going forth, she will focus more on custom work, with a close eye on detail and craftsmanship. She brings back the beautiful pastel colors, flowing lines, and lacy details she discovered on her trip. At the core, her designs will remain Nordic, but they will embrace influences from other cultures. She is slightly rebranding her business and will focus on evening, bridal, and formal designs. She further embraces the ecology of custom work, where there is virtually no waste of materials, and well-designed custom clothing can be handed down through generations.
Norwegian-American designer Madison Leiren has heard the stories of the Vikings since she was child, and now as an adult, she has learned what it means to live the adventure. In the Viking spirit, her designs are informed by her travel to other lands. Through her original custom clothing, it is her dream to take her clients on their own unique fashion journey.
To learn more about Madison Leiren’s custom collection, visit www.leirendesigns.com.
Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and community activist based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.
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.