“Norwegian Fairy-tale Couture”

Oleana celebrates a quarter century of beating the odds with high-quality clothing

A sweater being made in the Oleana factory.

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall,
With its business slogan, “fair made,” Oleana offers generous wages to its workers at its factory outside of Bergen and has been recognized for its innovative business practices — and employee retention is high.

Lori Ann Reinhall
Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association

The Vision
In 1991, three veterans of the Norwegian textile industry, Signe Aarhus, Kolbjørn Valestrand, and Hildegunn Møster, got together over a cup of tea in their hometown of Bergen and came up with what might have been seen as a mind-blowing idea. While most jobs in their industry were moving to countries with lower production costs, they had the vision to create a product line so unique, so beautiful, so high in quality that production could remain in Norway.

With the country in the midst of a banking crisis, most thought their concept was a mere pipe dream. But in 1992, after many hours of brainstorming and hard work, their vision became reality and their company Oleana was founded — and it has been a success ever since. With colorful designs based on traditional Norwegian knitting, the Oleana factory revived an entire community. With time, a popular boutique was established in a main shopping area in Bergen with a loyal local clientele and a bustling tourist trade.

Oleana is now one of the most profitable clothing manufacturers in Norway. With its award-winning couture and a business model that has never failed, it is the pride of Norwegian innovation. Today Oleana is sold around the globe, in specialty boutiques from Bergen to New York, Oslo to Aspen, Stockholm to Tokyo, Zurich to Seattle.

The Design
At the heart of Oleana’s success is its master designer, Solveig Hisdal, the creative genius behind the colorful patterns that have become a worldwide sensation. Hisdal joined the team in 1992, and she makes all final creative decisions. A demure, petite woman, she is a force to be reckoned with, having received the highest honors in Norwegian design.

An Oleana sweater.

Photo courtesy of Oleana
Solveig Hisdal’s award-winning designs find their inspiration in traditional Norwegian textiles and the colors of nature.

Hisdal takes her inspiration in the patterns found in the traditional weaving and folk costumes of Norway, its colorful bunads as well as the colors of nature. Further inspiration comes from a rich tradition of porcelain patterns whose origins go back to Asia as they came to Europe via the Silk Road. It is Norwegian tradition at its very best, all with a modern twist uniquely Oleana.

All materials used to create the sweaters, jackets, hats, scarves, and blankets are the highest quality natural fibers: merino wool, silk, cashmere. The raw materials in turn have a positive environmental effect. With wool that comes from farms in Norway, grazing sheep prevent areas from being overgrown with grasses and weeds, which helps to keep the earth in balance.

The Économusée
When you come to Oleana’s “factory by the fjord,” outside of Arne, a short train ride from Bergen, you are impressed by an environment that is aesthetic, efficient, and ecological. I arrived there early one May morning with owners Signe Aarhus and Kolbjørn Valestrand, the sun glistening on the still waters of fjord. Aarhus explains that a key aspect of the Oleana dream was to create a workplace that would nurture creativity, happiness, good health, and wealth for all.

Workers are paid well (up to 100 times those in developing countries), and employee turnover is low. “It has always been about quality,” Aarhus explains, adding, “We can’t compete on prices.” With its slogan “fair made,” the company has always gone against mainstream free-market practices without losing money, and they have numerous awards for their innovative business savvy.

Oleana and its workers are at home in an old refurbished building with modern updates—it’s clean, spacious, and light. The humming of state-of-the art knitting machines is heard in the background. As you walk through the building, colorful placards tell of its history as the Arne Textile Factory, opening in 1876, closing in 1978, and its revival with Oleana in 1993.

The factory reopening had a significant impact on the town, and today tourists from all over the world visit. In fact, Oleana has been designated as an “économusée,” selected because of its commitment to quality and authenticity. That means that artisans are committed to creating traditional yet contemporary products, while offering a unique experience to tourists. At Oleana, you can experience the production process from yarn to finished product and enjoy a cup of coffee or lunch with a view of the fjord. And at the end, you have the opportunity to shop for something beautiful in the factory store, all with a new appreciation for the work that has gone into it.

The Celebration
As president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association with a golden jubilee to celebrate, it seemed only appropriate to reach out to Oleana in 2017, the year of their silver jubilee. To set the ball in motion, I contacted Laura Almaas, their local representative in the Pacific Northwest and owner of Chalet in the Woods in Gig Harbor, a unique shopping venue that features the Oleana line, complete with a garden full of flowers and a pasture of fluffy white sheep.

Soon plans for a celebration in Seattle on Saturday, November 4, at the Washington Athletic Club started to take shape: “Oleana: Norwegian Fairy-tale Couture.” For those lucky enough to attend, the new fall clothing line was presented against the backdrop of the Johnson Lobby with its Chihuly glass sculptures. A Norwegian-inspired luncheon was served, as guests were entertained by Nordic-inspired local harpist Beth Kollé. There were raffle prizes (including a one-year online subscription to The Norwegian American), and Laura Almaas was on hand to tell about her trip to Bergen for the Oleana celebration there. Finally, there was also the opportunity to try on and purchase the collection. Spirits were high.

The Dream
I, too, had a dream in 2016, when I took over the presidency of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association: the dream to celebrate our 50-year jubilee in 2017 with renewed energy and meaningful exchange between the two cities—the dream of making a difference. With the support of the city governments of Seattle and Bergen, a growing roster of volunteers, and the help of talented artists and committed professionals on both sides of the Atlantic, this dream, too, has become a reality. In 2017 we were thrilled by enchanting art exhibits, world-class concerts, and elegant gala celebrations, and we even sent a citizen delegation to Bergen City Hall, followed by an adventurous trip on the Hurtigruten up the coast of Norway.

With the closing event of our jubilee adventure, “Oleana: Norwegian Fairy-tale Couture” at the Washington Athletic Club on November 4, we were lifted to new heights as we continue on our journey.

For more information about the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, please email seattlebergensistercities@gmail.com.

To learn more about Oleana and to preview the fall collection, visit www.oleana.no, or check out www.chaletinthewoods.com.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 17, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.