Norway House presents Oleana
Casting on for a new generation
“Work hard. Be kind,” is how Gerda Sørhus Fuglerud, CEO of Oleana summarizes the company’s ethos. Oleana, a knitwear company based in Ytre Arna, Norway, produces high quality knitwear—the “Work hard”—that is ethically produced—the “Be kind.” When Gerda talks about the ethos, she could also say, “Be brave.” Gerda’s mother and stepfather were brave in 1992 when they started a company to help revive Norway’s once-vibrant textile manufacturing. They were brave when they decided it was time to give control of the company to a new director. Now, it is Gerda’s turn to be brave, as she takes an established company, along with designer Matilda Norberg, in new directions and to new markets.
Oleana’s loyal customers love the clothes for their exceptional design and quality. They know that what they wear was produced by people who work in a safe, pleasant factory and with manufacturing processes that protect the environment. While Gerda and Matilda are making new clothes, they are staying true to the values on which the company was founded. “We want to make the world’s finest knitwear,” says Gerda. “We also want to challenge our image. We want to be young and playful.”
This new direction in design can be seen at Norway House in Minneapolis now until May 10 in the exhibit “Oleana – Casting on for a New Generation.” The gallery blossoms in oranges and blues, greens and violets, peaches and plums. Bold florals and gentle geometrics blend on soft but sculptural silhouettes. The introduction of geometric designs and the large, A-line coats and dresses are new, but the colors complement earlier collections so these pieces will easily fit into a wardrobe with Oleana garments from previous collections.
The new collection honors the past and builds on it. The company’s first designer, Solveig Hisdal, loved flowers and the natural world. Her sweaters flowed with intertwining blossoms in vibrant colors. The bright palette was a bold move in 1992. Black was the fashion color of choice. Gerda’s mother, Signe Arhaus, wanted to create clothes that were colorful, a radical departure from current trends of the time. She knew that differentiation would be key for the company’s success. Solveig’s botanically based, feminine patterns on tailored cardigans and flowing scarves worked perfectly. In 2020, black still predominates, and Oleana’s colors still brighten the design landscape. “We have two lines of clothes, classic and the new line, with colors that match and coordinate between the two, “ says Gerda.
Mathilda Norberg, Oleana’s new designer, is the perfect person to create a distinctive new line that bridges between beloved standards and new ideas. Finding her wasn’t easy. When Solveig said she was planning to retire, Gerda first used her business network to invite designers to submit a portfolio. “I talked to people and looked at the designs they created for us. It was repetitive. A bad copy of who we already were,” Gerda says. She began the search again, posting job announcements at design colleges.
Mathilda saw the announcement and submitted her designs. “She gave us something we did not expect, and I love it!” says Gerda with a smile. Mathilda’s bold and playful style was in line with the direction Oleana wanted to take. While Mathilda was a student at the Royal College of Art in London, her final collection was entitled “Earth’s Crust/Material Rules.” She used geology as the inspiration for the clothing, giving it bold sculptural lines and using her knowledge of weaving, knitting and embroidery to create varied textures. The fashion website SoCatchy.net referred to the collection as “perfection.”
The same bold lines that appeared in Mathilda’s student collection now appear in her work for Oleana. Sweeping jackets, A-line dresses, and geometric patterns in spirit-lifting colors create a sense of energy and boldness.
While Mathilda’s designs caught Oleana’s attention, it was her personality and values that sealed the deal. Gerda’s parents strove to create a safe, enjoyable workplace where each person understood that she or he was valued. Gerda’s own background was in human relations. “The designer had to have the right personality and to have social skills, to be artistic and to be strategic,” says Gerda. “Matilde understood our customers, our culture, and we found that we talked the same language.”
With the new designer on board, Oleana’s leadership was ready to make another brave step by using a new business model for sales. They are working with Lori Anderson, the former owner of EuroNest. EuroNest was a retail store in St. Louis Park, Minn., that offered home décor, antiques, and interior design consultation. Recognizing that the retail world was changing rapidly, Lori chose to close the store and continue to offer design consultation. Her appreciation of good design and quality led her to working with Oleana on a new business model for distribution.
Lori uses pop-up shops, which she says have been “wildly successful.” Her first pop-up was the opening night of the exhibit. People were clearly enjoying the setting, the clothes, and the opportunity to try on Oleana fashions before ordering. “This line melds the Old World with the New,” she says. “The U.S. market is definitely ready for these fashions.” Lori has several more pop-ups at Norway House planned during the course of the exhibit. Her website is still under construction, but she has Instagram and Facebook pages under Oleana.USA where dates are posted.
Norway House is an ideal setting for this exhibit. The non-profit’s mission is to connect the United States and contemporary Norway through arts, business, and culture. There is an appreciation of the past; the wall of donor plaques includes families’ immigration stories and tributes to past generations. The programming that the donors’ support focuses on the needs and interests of today. People coming to the exhibit fully appreciate the significance to the generational change that “Casting on” represents.
Max Stevenson, director of exhibitions and programming at Norway House, says, “The reception has been excellent! Norway House couldn’t be more thrilled.”In the first two weeks of the exhibit, 300 guests have explored the exhibit, many of them first-time visitors to Norway House. “The collection has been praised for its bold new direction, full of color and fun patterns, while bringing awareness to the ethical and sustainable practices of Oleana’s production methods,” he says.
“Oleana – Casting on a for a New Generation” is an opportunity to see the beauty that is created when hard work, kindness, and a touch of bravery guide a designer’s hand and a company’s ethos.
Note: Events at Norway House have been affected by coronavirus. Check www.norwayhouse.org/calendar for updated information.
Oleana–Casting on for a New Generation
Now until May 10, 2020
911 E. Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis
www.norwayhouse.org • (612) 871-2211
This article originally appeared in the March 20, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.