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When it rains creativity pours

There is something magical about Bergen. Between the white-washed timber cottages, narrow winding alleyways, and forests straight out of Tolkien, a new kind of creativity emerges. Two menswear entrepreneurs have made the gateway to the fjords one of Scandinavia’s most interesting places for modern tailoring and innovative outerwear. It all starts with the rain.

Words Tsemaye Opubor
Photography Felix Odell

Bergen has a solid 240 days of rain each year- topping the list in Scandinavia, and often the rest of Europe, as it’s rainiest city.

You would be forgiven for thinking that it must be a wet and dreary place. But fear not.

Bergen, known as the gateway to the fjords, is an unpretentious and quaint city.

It’s also a historic place, set amongst seven mountains and founded by King Olaf Kyrre in 1070 AD.

For more than 200 years Bergen was the capital of Norway. Trade in dried cod made the city an important northern European merchant community during the time of the Germanic Hanseatic League trade alliance, especially from the 13th to 15th centuries.

Fast-forward to Bergen 2017, and you find a dynamic city that has loads of creative energy and a relaxed and welcoming vibe.

It’s no accident that both Norwegian Rain the hip rainwear brand, and T–Michael the intelligent bespoke menswear label, was born in Bergen.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in September when I meet Alexander Helle and T. Michael, the masterminds behind the brands, in their new joint Bergen flagship store.

The day started out with the kind of fog and faint drizzle that immediately makes one think of Dublin…or actually, Bergen.

And then something mythical happens.

Like an urban legend that we’ve all heard about but doubt its authenticity; the sun appears, burning away the fog and turning the sky into a brilliant, cloudless blue.

Suddenly the streets and bars across the city start filling up, and everything is taken up a notch. The extra energy can be felt in the air as Bergen residents spill out of wherever they’ve been hiding; ready to enjoy this last hurrah of late summer.

I silently worry that all this sunshine might dampen the mood of the rainwear designing duo.

I needn’t have worried.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Norwegian Rain brand, which was founded by Alexander and T-Michael in 2007.

How did the world’s hippest rainwear brand come to be?

It all started with persistence.

— The brand Norwegian Rain came about because of a need. It rains all the time here and the rainwear on offer wasn’t cool enough or functional enough, and it just didn’t look good, Alexander explains.

If what you’re wearing doesn’t reflect your personal style, then it doesn’t work.  Also, in today’s world if you want to make something that works, it has to work everywhere. Bergen is too small to focus your creativity on making products for just the local market, and we think about making things for Norway and, we think about the rest of the world as well.

Alexander knew that he wanted to make rainwear in a company that would survive. He also knew that to be able to offer something that worked everywhere he would need to find someone skilled, and ‘someone who thinks differently’ as he puts it.

Enter Michael T. Nartey, a local Bergen designer and tailor known by the name T-Michael.

— I didn’t know Michael personally, I just knew of him as a tailor and designer. His first shop here in Bergen was more like a gallery, and he had toy cars on a racing track in his window, and a similar playfulness in the other displays. Everywhere you looked he had strange little things. I had none of that experience of craftsmanship or the skill to make a garment, so I knew that I had to have Michael with me. He was the person that I needed to join forces with, says Alex with a smile.

But it was easier said than done. T-Michael had no interest in working with Alexander on the project.

— We had an initial meeting and Alexander was excited about producing rainwear and I told him no straight off the bat, T-Michael recalls. I let him know that I wasn’t interested in working with plastics, thanked him for the meeting and that was the end of it.

Or so T-Michael thought, Alexander wasn’t about to give up.

— I troubled him, a couple of times or more and of course, he still said no, Alexander tells me.

Eventually, Alexander wore down T-Michael for another meeting and the two sat down again.

The next time they met things were different.

— We sat over a cup of hot chocolate since neither of us drinks coffee. The conversation just flowed into finding solutions for how we would produce rainwear. We started from there and it’s kind of been like that ever since. The two of us believe that we can conquer the world, and we just work towards figuring out how we can solve a problem. Suddenly we’ve created a solution well beyond the problem itself, says T. Michael.

Alexander smiles at the memory and says:

— Once we broke down the barriers between us, and said ‘let’s start doing this’, the chemistry between us has been smashing. We have so much in common. We really compliment each other. It’s just been very smooth. Strange and odd things drive us. We’re both naïve and ambitious and try to do all sorts of things and we never believe we can’t do them. Our ideas just give us fuel.

— If I can’t convince Alex about an idea, or he can’t convince me then we aren’t doing it. But if we both like it and think its fun then we really don’t hesitate. For instance, we opened a flagship store in London. We didn’t spend too much time thinking about it and we certainly didn’t stop to think ‘no we can’t open a store in London’. We just found the space on Piccadilly and went from there, T-Michael explains.

— Michael is very easy to ping-pong with, he’s such a great guy and very easy to talk to. We never look at obstacles and there is no drama. Everyone thinks that there are boundaries in our partnership and that I am the business mind and Michael is the creative one, but that’s not true at all. Michael is just as much of a businessman as I am, says Alexander.

The pair tells me that Bergen was the most natural place for their partnership to be born.

— Bergen is a young city, that’s quite small. Everybody knows each other and people live close to each other. The city is trapped between 7 mountains, and then there’s the rain. If it’s raining you have time to do stuff and then things happen. There’s a lot of passion in this city that gives you an extra kick to survive, Alexander explains.

T-Michael believes that the rain in Bergen, as well as the size of the city gives creativity a push.

— Because of the rain you don’t spend all your time hanging out. The weather sends you back inside, and since you’re inside you need to have something to do. You need to be creative to cope with the weather. But, the weather also helps further your creativity, T-Michael says.

— Bergen is small enough that we all stick together. People are quite humble here. You don’t hear people talking about what they’re doing, but then you find out they’ve done some amazing things under the radar. Big cities have a lot of people talking themselves up, without delivering the goods. But we’re not like that in Bergen; we’re all humble and supportive of each other and hard workers. We can give and take advice here. People are open to listening and coming up with suggestions. It’s a creative city because it’s young and vibrant and because it’s a university city its stimulated by the energy of all the young people here, he continues.

During the past 10 years Norwegian Rain has gone from strength to strength. The brand philosophy of producing hi-tech, functional and waterproof outerwear that doesn’t compromise on style has gained fans far and wide. Alexander and T-Michael have won prizes at home and abroad, as well as attracting attention from some of the world’s most acclaimed international style titles such as GQ Italia, W Magazine, Hybebeast, High Snobiety, International Herald Tribune to name just a few.

— Sometimes I scroll back on Instagram and get surprised by an image that we’ve posted of something we’ve done in the past. The pace is so fast, and we work so hard that we don’t have time to enjoy things in the moment, says Alexander. So now, 10 years later, if I had imagined it, I wouldn’t have believed it could be like this. We do so many crazy things, but after all these years we are both still naïve and ambitious. We still believe in what we are doing. If we didn’t, we probably wouldn’t have the energy to survive it all, he says.

After eight years of commuting and running operations from the Oslo Norwegian Rain- T-Michael store, Alexander has moved back to his hometown of Bergen full time. The new 400 m2 Oslo flagship store has just opened and another milestone has been reached. Alexander tells me that he is looking forward to spending more quality time with his family as well as spending more time with T-Michael, planning new projects and collaborations for the Norwegian Rain brand.

At the moment the duo are thinking about the AW18 collection.

— In the new collection we are working on for AW18 there will be more volume, and there will be more sculptural pieces. It will be a bit more bold, says T-Michael.

— We have to find the magic in that tiny space where men will still be interested in wearing our pieces without going overboard on the details. So we are trying to create classic pieces with great design and a long period of functionality, he adds.

The pair describe their Norwegian Rain collections as ranging from very classic to very experimental. They strive to design pieces that maintain a certain strictness, a task which they find ‘challenging’, in tandem with their ambition to ensure that the pieces are fresh, unique and different. Norwegian Rain pieces must also be easy to wear.

T-Michael tells Alexander that he would like for them to produce their own fabrics in the future, according to Norwegian Rain criteria. Alexander says nothing for a few moments, and then slowly starts smiling and nodding.

It is at this moment that I fully understand the way this creative partnership works. One thought expressed to the other starts a chain of ideas, solutions, scenarios and off they go.

— Small runs are the way of the future, we should all do things to keep up with the sustainable processes. We would be able to control everything, T-Michael says to Alexander.

— Michael’s really surprised me with this idea, Alexander says. It makes perfect sense and it is really exciting to think like that, especially knowing that we are a small company. We could probably find a way to use Norwegian producers for this idea too, he continues. In the design process, we just push and push. Our work is grounded in our shared values, Alexander explains.

When I ask about the typical Norwegian Rain customer I’m told that there are no target customers that the designers are specifically designing for.

— We say that the Norwegian customer is every person over 17 years old. We don’t have a target customer really. We are not a fashion concept in that sense. Yes, we are a contemporary brand, but it’s more about creating a raincoat that protects you from the rain. We have older and younger customers rocking it their own way. They can both look totally amazing but they look totally different. We like that. We don’t create an image for our customers. We fill a need. Our customers can live their life as they do, but just a bit more independent of the weather, says Alexander.

We don’t have a formula, but if it’s not fun we’re not going to do it. It’s really nice to know that we have customers that believe in the concept.

T-Michael says that his own label bespoke tailoring and ready to wear pieces developed from his love of suits from a British point of view, made from a Scandinavian point of view.

He came to Bergen in 1995 after meeting and falling in love with a Norwegian girl in London. Originally from Accra, Ghana T-Michael explains that the beauty of Bergen grew on him.

— Eventually, Bergen has come to be one of the most relaxing places in the world for me, and I now call it home. But, being from Ghana is the basis and foundation of who I am. Everything I’ve built or learnt gives added value, but my starting point is always Ghana, T-Michael tells me.

He started his tailoring and design studio in 1996 but says he didn’t want to design or wear suits like his father wears them.

— I don’t want to wear a suit as something ceremonial. For me it’s about fabric and drape, it’s not about showing off, he tells me. I want a suit to behave like a suit, but I want to soften it so that It’s just a uniform. It’s still a suit and structured, but it’s an everyday suit, he says.

Having expanded his designs to include shoes, glasses, and leather accessories T-Michael tells me that he enjoys working in the middle ground between the formal and informal.

— The toes of my shoes are slightly bulky, slightly rounded and have a lovely line to them. I have based them on early football boots. I added a basic conceptual approach to them. I’ve built from that, and I’ve built them to last. If you get it, its like ‘of course that’s the shoe I want to buy’, he explains.

Designing two separate collections has been an exciting journey for the designer.

— Norwegian Rain has a very specific idea to it, but my collection I make just for me. It’s a whole different vibe. It’s a luxury to be able to do both and it is very liberating.  I go to Tokyo often and I’ve just started a collaboration with Y& Sons; a third generation kimono maker, to make a traditional kimono my way. It doesn’t matter how you wear it, it’s an everyday kimono.

The sun is going down and it’s time to explore Bergen by night. As I say my farewells T-Michael has one last thing he wants to tell me.

— All in all I have to say that I am finally living the life I’ve always dreamt of, doing the things I’ve always wanted to do, in a slightly subversive manner. Yes, it rains here a lot, but I make raincoats so when it rains, it’s not too bad really.

Tsemaye Opubor is a writer covering global fashion

Norwegian Rain founders Alexander Helle and T-Michael
With 240 days of rain a year, it is no surprise that it pours during our visit
Alexander and T-Michael started collaborating after much convincing from Alexander. Now they are inseparable business and creative partners
After eight years in Oslo, Alexander Helle has moved back to Bergen with his family
T-Michael moved to Bergen in the 90s, but his style transcends borders. He is a popular streetstyle figure on social media
The forests of Bergen