Norwegian Rain takes on Bergen
“We live in the lab. We live here and it rains two out of three days. Everything we do has to work in Bergen.”
Norwegian Rain A/S outerwear is inspired by life in the rainiest city of Europe: Bergen, Norway. In 2007, the Bergen-born and raised creative director and manager Alexander Helle met T-Michael, and they decided to start Norwegian Rain. The latter had over 17 years of experience in tailoring. He is strategic director and head designer.
In a video on the Norwegian Rain website, Helle claims it once rained for 80 straight days in Bergen, and rainfall is between 94 inches and 118 inches a year, with the second rainiest city in Europe having 63 inches.
“I was born and raised in Bergen, and that means you’re born into a life in the rain,” said Helle in the video. “When it’s pouring down, it can work on your mood. How can we change that into ‘I’d love to put on something’ or ‘I do not need to check the weather because I’m independent of that weather?’ That’s when the goal started to be raincoats. We tried everything in Bergen and never found anything suitable. There wasn’t one raincoat that would fit the need in the range. I started thinking, not just about myself, but others living in harsh conditions. That was the starting point of the raincoats idea, that this is my mission in life.”
Helle grew up only a golf drive from the Norwegian Business School (NHH) in Bergen. He entered the school in 2003 and wanted to get into something creative. While at the Bocconi business school in Milan, Italy, he decided he wanted to develop the best rainwear. Therefore, his graduate work and thesis—he completed it in 2010—was about the startup.
Seeing it happen was uncertain. “Going back to 2007, ‘how can we succeed with something like that?’” Helle asked. “The world is turning more and more against the great giants out there, the big chains. How can we as a city so far from the fashion world succeed and make a stand? I needed a tailor who could really understand the garment making. I didn’t have that.”
Born and raised as the youngest of five children in Accra, Ghana, Michael Tetteh Nartey, known as T-Michael, moved to London as a teenager. From a young age, he was interested in clothing and the way it was made. At 11, he was adept with the sewing machine, but by 18 or 19, “It was very important to me to look good and I spent frantically money I didn’t have on clothing. It was a fun thing to do but I wasn’t interested in making clothing. I was interested in clothing that was well made.”
When at age 23, he moved to Norway with his wife at the time, he dragged out a sewing machine from her mother. He realized he had forgotten a lot. T-Michael enrolled in the tailoring school and spent nearly four years there.
Ten years later, he had a shop and studio. “The collection was growing. I was seeing more of ready-to-wear and made-to-measure and less bespoke,” he said. There seemed to be a market for more crafted men’s clothing.
Helle stopped by the store. “You go in there, and there are these strange things, village sculpture, something normal people would never put in a tailoring shop,” he said “It’s not the most commercial thing to do, but, damn, somewhat refreshing. I thought he’s amazing in his tailoring and has a different way of looking at things. That’s a very good combination if we’re going to make something that hasn’t been made before.”
T-Michael was firm. “I don’t do raincoats.” Helle was stubborn, too. “The way he rejected me, I was even more sure he was going to be the guy.” On a third visit, it was, appropriately, pouring. “He said, ‘You just keep coming back. Let’s sit down in the coffee shop across the street and talk this through,’” said Helle.
“I explained to Alex that I don’t do plastics,” recalled T-Michael. “From me wanting to tell him I wouldn’t do this, I ended up in what I normally do, trying to find a solution for something we’re talking about. We started talking we could do this or that. After an hour or so, we realized this is something we should be doing.”
“We understood, despite all our own contrasts, from backgrounds, schools, where we’re from, we had chemistry,” said Helle. “Life in Bergen was the trigger. Meeting Michael was the thing that executed bringing a simple idea into something of substance.”
The founders’ concept was for the outerwear to be functional, waterproof, and stylish, but it shouldn’t look like regular rainwear. Helle also knew a lot of the all-weather jackets worn for hiking contained bad material. Helle and T-Michael were not well received at fabric fairs.
“We said, ‘We need the most waterproof fabric there is,’” said Helle. ‘“It has to breathe more than anything we’ve tried before and has to be eco-friendly.’ We were kicked out of a lot of fabric booths, because they thought we were rude. We ended up with three suppliers. We tested it. Two didn’t live up to our high standards. There was one supplier left, from Japan. We didn’t look for Japanese. We looked for the best. We’re big fans that Japan has a respect for all things. It starts with any work. They do it with pride. They care about what they’re doing. That kind of excels in making products that are better than the rest of the world.”
At Piazza Tårn or Tårnplass by locals, you’ll find the Bergen flagship store situated on the corner, just up one street from Torgallmenningen at Christian Michelsens Gate. It is filled with odd objects, mid-century Scandi furniture on commission by ModernTribute, T-Michael’s shirts, sharp suits, and leather goods, and of course, Norwegian Rain’s varied garments for Arctic and summer climes, hats, waterproof shoes and boots, rucksacks, and studio bags. There are 10 unisex varieties of coats, seven for men and four for women ranging from $222.57 to $1,381.25. It is also here where the designs are born. T-Michael’s studio is located in the basement. Everyone is welcome to come and have a look!
In addition to Bergen, the company has flagship stores in Oslo, Paris, and Tokyo. The store in London is moving. They also have stock lists at No Man Walks Alone in Seattle, Carl’s Atelier in Los Angeles, and around the world, including 48 in Japan. The flagship store in Oslo is located at Blom on Karl Johans Gate. Blom was originally a bodega for artists, with a lot of soul. It was established in 1886 as a side business for a wine merchant. The building was torn down in 1895, and the bodega moved around the corner to an old stable. Close to the grand fountain, it was my family’s favorite restaurant and where I got engaged.
The rain project has evolved into a winning design label based on the ancient Norwegian word dugnad (“community project”). There have been collaborations with local creators. They use 100% waterproof eco fabrics from Japan and 70%-100% recycled polyester. Some of the designs are influenced by “the artisanal techniques found in traditional men’s tailoring, Scandinavian functionality and Japanese sensibilities.”
Norwegian Rain was one of seven “Talented Newcomers” in Vogue Italy in 2010. They received the “Distinction for Good Design” from the Norwegian Design Council in 2012.
“I like things that are well-made,” said T-Michael. “When I find a product, whether it’s a camera or boots or jacket or suit or uniform, I like to open them up to find jewels in them. The smaller things in it, the quirks you put in it, the way you cut one thing, the way you turn one thing, changes everything. We live in the lab. We live here and it rains two out of three days. Everything we do has to work in Bergen.
“When we start building a jacket, I will cut it. I’ll make a pattern like any other tailor would do. I will cut it out. We get the shape, form, and movement right. That’s where the raincoat starts. After that, it’s getting a form to work in the real life, get the functionality back into the piece again. We will stand outside with buckets of water and chuck it on each other to see how the water will fall, which way the water will seep through the fabric to use the information to create a detail that would also be functional. Every detail in our coats must function. If it’s there, there’s a reason for it. We want to transmit the idea that whatever you wear should take you through the day, whether it rains or doesn’t.”
When in Bergen, you are very welcome to visit the store, or check out their website at www.norwegianrain.com.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.