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Kenneth Hjertum

The former business student that started Oslo’s most-influential fashion destination, YME, with exhibitions, artist collaborations, and exclusive contracts with world leading brands.

Words Karin Ström
Photography Michael Angeles

Oslo, Norway

The story of YME started six years ago when management consulting executive Kenneth Hjertum teamed up with creative director and artist Nicolai Schaanning Larsen to create a truly inspirational concept store with roots in Norse mythology. Up until that point, Kenneth had limited experience with the fashion industry — instead, he had studied international business and information technology in Chicago and worked for investment banks and management consulting firms in Chicago, New York, and Oslo. After 10 years in the management consulting business, he felt the need to move on. Eager to bring something new into their lives, he and Nicolai joined forces with a vision to create a concept store named after a Norse mythology giant, with a twofold purpose: to bring Norwegian fashion, art, and culture to the world, and to bring international fashion and design to Oslo.

During the four years that the store has been opened, the emphasis has been placed on the latter mission. YME is exclusive in Norway for 4percentnt of their brands, which include Off-White, adidas Consortium, NikeLab, Ader Error and A Cold Wall, to name but a few. But with an increasing online presence and their own clothing line in the pipeline, YME will soon start exporting Norwegian fashion to the world.

— We’ve been collaborating with Norwegian artists and Norwegian designers and hopefully, we can have something to show for SS 2019. During the first four years, we didn’t have time to focus on our own production as much as we planned, but we’re catching up now when we have reached a certain position in the market. Our vision was to create an inspiring, leading and curated concept store, and I think we’ve gotten far on the way. But we had to make a lot of changes in terms of brand focus. In the beginning, we focussed on French and Belgian avant-garde luxury brands but then shifted the emphasis towards affordable luxury and street brands. We’ve found our sweet spot in the intersection between streetwear and high-end fashion.

For the design of the store, spanning over three floors, Kenneth and Nicolai employed the universally renowned architecture studio Snøhetta, famous for buildings like the Oslo Opera House and Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt. Through a six month long process, YME Studios and Snøhetta collaborated together on the design with the ambition to create a universe based on the saga about YME, complete with physical objects inspired by the Norse story of creation. The store, located in a historic building from 1844 between the Royal Palace and the Parliament, features an art gallery, a bookstore, a café, and a roof garden.

— We weren’t simply looking for a retail space, but an engaging and inspiring multifunctional area where customers are encouraged to meet and exchange cultures. Of course you want the wow factor, you want the customers to be impressed when they enter the store, but we don’t want to scare them. When we first opened the store, it looked like an exhibition. People were afraid to touch things. The solution was to mix pricey objects with more affordable things in order to create a broad, welcoming mix.

When dreaming up the retail space, Kenneth and Nicolai did glance at stores like Colette in Paris, Corso Como in Milan, and Dover Street Market in London, but they were always certain that YME would find its own unique character and niche.

— YME now has a much more clear position in the market compared to a few years ago. We have found our target audience. The typical customer is a creative professional — an artist, a designer, an architect, an actor or an ad executive. We have a slightly higher number of men compared to women. And the feedback we get from customers is phenomenal. A recurring comment is that coming to our store feels like traveling internationally, that it’s like being on vacation.

Can you describe a typical workday?

— Every day is different, but the typical day I come to the office around 8am. Before the store opens at 10am we focus on the online store. Then we have a meeting with the floor managers, oversee new products being carried out to the stores and prepare for the week’s event. Every day of the week we are looking for new ways to create experiences for our customers.

What is the most important thing to focus on in order to stay relevant as a retail outlet today?

— I think it’s all about mastering the omnichannel strategy. The online presence and the physical store really have to float together and create a seamless customer experience. You have to think hard about what kind of experiences you’re able to create for your customers in the physical store. We host events in the store every week, a lot of them are part of global launches we do for big brands, and we also do a lot of art exhibitions with up-and-coming Norwegian artists. I think it’s important to give the customer something more than just products.

How do you balance physical retail versus online retail? How do you think that will change in the future, for your shop and for the industry as a whole?

— Today physical retail sales are about 60 per cent of the revenue, but online is growing much faster and will probably constitute the majority of the revenue pretty soon. But even when that happens, I think it’s still going to be very important to have a strong physical presence, a physical place where people can come and have that unique experience that they can’t have online. I think that goes for most curated concept stores.

What is the characteristic that makes your shop the most unique?

— The location on Karl Johans close to the castle and the Spikersuppa park is very important. And the way the store is designed, with the big staircase that we use a lot during the events. Another characteristic that defines our shop is that it speaks for generation Y and Z. We represent new brands and everything that is emerging on the fashion scene.

How do you communicate with your customers? How do you keep them engaged?

— We use the usual channels of course, like Facebook, Instagram, and newsletters, but also personal invitations to events. You got to give the customer a reason to come and engage with you, a physical meeting is still the best way to keep in touch.

How has social media affected your business?

— We see social media as the extension of our online presence. And without our online store, we wouldn’t be able to survive in a place like Oslo. The store is 1000 square feet, and it would be hard to fill it with all the things we want without the support of the online store. We would never be able to carry such a wide range of products, so it helps us to stand out. With support of social media, we can remain true to our vision and our global niche within streetwear and high-end fashion.

Are you threatened by big e-commerce players like Amazon, or do you think your unique position will hold strong?

— We carry a lot of brands that don’t want to be on Amazon. So consequently, when people go to they are looking for something that they would not find on Amazon. We’re working hard to differentiate ourselves by offering a unique and exclusive product offering and shopping experience. The more unique and different we are, the more likely we are to avoid direct competition from the big retailers.

Name a new brand that you’ve started carrying or are thinking about bringing into the store?

— A Cold Wall, A_Plan_Application and Ader Error are all new brands we started carrying from autumn/winter 18. Pleasures is another new brand that we started carrying spring/summer 18.

What are the most important brands for you right now?

— Brands are important for different reasons. We carry some big brands, like adidas and Nike, that are reliable in terms of sales which makes them very important to us. Other brands, like the ones I mentioned in the previous answer, are more important for the unique YME experience. We need both to be who we are. And I think collaborations between brands and stores are the future for experience-based retail. There’s a store in New York called STORY, that has taken the shopping experience to a new level as brands or collaboration partners finance a complete rebuild of the store every month. Customers are not financing the store by shopping, instead, the brands pay for the customers to indulge in a brand experience.

How important is it to bring unique products into the store that others don’t carry?

— It’s important. We have exclusivity in Norway for almost half of the brands we carry. But I also think it’s important to keep an open mind to brands that you maybe have chosen not to work with previously. For example, we just started carrying Burberry after they recruited Riccardo Tisci as creative director.

Where do you see your business in 10 years? What will the ratio be between the physical and online retail experience?

— I’d say about 80 percent online. But in 10 years, our vision is also to have increased YME’s physical presence with new international locations. We have already been contacted by real estate agents in New York, and Asia is also very interesting — we see so many Asian customers in the store, they have a really strong appreciation for Scandinavian design. Having said that, it will always be more important to us to be unique and different than to grow big. But hopefully, we can do both.

Kenneth Hjertum photographed at YME in Oslo.
The store is inspired by the Norse story of creation.
Some brands are important for sales, others for the image of the store.
The Snøhetta designed interior.