Text: Nikolai Schirmer
I got my first Norrøna shell jacket when I was 15 years old, and I used it actively until I was 20, when I was invited by Torkel Karoliussen, who was the Norrøna team manager at the time, to come to Lofoten in Northern Norway. Norrøna was about to film an advertisement for its new lofoten collection, and Torkel had heard about the amateur web series which me and my buddy Vegard Rye had been working on, so he let us tag along on the trip. For the first time, I was allowed through the hallowed portals of what looked from the outside like a sumptuous emerald palace, floating on electric red clouds, which every season opened a trapdoor to dispense treasures such as down jackets, bags and shell clothing to outdoor enthusiasts like me. An adventure—which is still ongoing for me—was about to begin.
“Well, we just have to go up into the mountains and do cool stuff there.” That was the surprising response I got from Torkel when I asked about their plans for the shoot. And this from half of the duo that had dreamed up the legendary lofoten collection and filmed Norway’s first ski-based advert. I had expected a crystal-clear creative vision supported by a precise production plan, what I got was an unerring feeling for ski culture, shaped by years as a ski bum in the mountains, where the main aim was just to enjoy yourself.
It was only later, after I’d been asked to join the team as a skier and filmmaker, that I began to understand how this raw energy could be channeled and shaped into these envy-inducing garments which rained down on us, season after season.
“Extreme-user-driven product development,” Jørgen Jørgensen explained to me in the Norrøna building at Lysaker. “Norrøna listens to the feedback and ideas of our ambassadors and test team in the field, and our craftsman here translate that into products”.
Jørgen remembered how his father, Ole Jørgen Jørgensen, could tell the difference between fabric qualities using just his fingertips, and told me that the whole reason Norrøna was established in 1929 was because his grandfather had been working for a company where he did not think the craftsmanship was good enough. His whole family loved the outdoors and brought their experiences from the natural world into the manufacturing process, but none of them were elite sportsmen.
“I was visited by Henry Barber and Rob Taylor in 1977. They were probably considered to be the best rock and ice climbers in the world at the time. They had brought some secret Gore-Tex test fabric from the US. And that crazy stuff worked!” says Tomas Carlström. Norrøna has invited me to travel around Norway to meet some of the people who have helped shape the company, and Tomas is one of those who started the program of extreme-user-driven development in Hemsedal. The man is a Norwegian climbing legend, and is behind the chain of Skandinavisk Høyfjellsutstyr shops and Norway’s first Gore-Tex jacket, made by Norrøna in 1977. This was a piece of equipment inspired by the best climbers in the world, and designed around their feedback and ideas. Before regaling us with his legendary stories, he waxes lyrical about good food and red wine. Well after midnight, and countless bottles later, the photographer and director had to throw in the towel and crawl off to their beds. Tomas sighed, disappointedly, when he realized that they weren’t coming back, and played his Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band vinyl one last time, his mouth twitching with smiles about the parties he has been holding for decades for visiting climbers in the valley house he shares with his wife.
“We were a small family in those years. When we went to Everest for the first time in 1985, there were probably only 15 Norwegians who wanted to climb it, and we all knew each other.” Tomas and Jørgensen were part of that family, and were given feedback on the equipment, telling them what worked and what didn’t.
My tour continued to Isfjorden, the fjord in northwestern part of Norway. On the other side of the kitchen table from me in the modest 1950s house is Stein P. Aasheim, drinking coffee. This climber, hunter, desert cyclist, author and family man has been on enough adventures to fill several books – books which now stand in the office window, looking out onto the peaks of the Romsdalen valley and the endless adventures which await any climber with the nerve to tackle the loose rock. It was these mountains that gave the trollveggen collection its name, and it was in these mountains that it was tested.
In the spring of 2016, I’m standing on top of Trollveggen, with Robert Caspersen clinging onto the rock face below me. Lightly testing each handhold before he transfers his weight to it, just to check that it is not too loose, as he moves up the last section of Trollveggen with the same self-confidence with which he criticized the latest design change in the lyngen collection at a meeting we had both attended the previous year. “Sometimes I feel bad because I’m so direct. I have to remember that there can be a conflict between my needs and those of the wider market,” said Robert later, after a spell of climbing at Kolsås.
When it’s time to develop a new collection, the ambassadors who specialize in the relevant activity are invited to Norrøna’s premises at Lysaker to share their often contradictory views on what the best solutions are. “Spit it out, tell us everything you want! Nothing is inconceivable or stupid.” That was the message at the first meeting I attended. Jørgen has told me that there is value in this contradictory process, in which every viewpoint is taken into consideration. That was what he learned when he worked on the first pioneering lofoten collection with Torkel Karoliussen and Bjarke Mogens. Bringing together the best features of snowboarding and climbing clothing in the ultimate backcountry collection means not making easy compromises, but always looking for the right solution which will be there somewhere in front of you.
When the design team and ambassadors have beaveried away creating the basic design of the collection, the first prototypes are made right there at Norrøna HQ. These are then tested by the ambassadors in the most challenging conditions, but also by product technicians, sewing machinists, graphic designers, receptionists, salespeople and all the other outdoor enthusiasts who work there. You never know what you might see when you walk up along the Lysaker River to check in at Norrøna’s facility. You might hear a splash from Frode in Sales, who is testing the latest wetsuit in the ice-covered river, or hear leaves rustling in the slipstream created by Martin from Marketing, who is racing by in the latest cycling shorts prototype. It gives me a sense of security that the people I meet on the three-year collection development journey breathe the same mountain air, use the same words when they talk about snow, and really understand what it is all about. They understand that manufacturing the equipment must not harm the natural environment in which we will use it, that I want to look just as good out on the mountain as in the bar at the end of the day, and that if the fit in any way restricts my freedom of movement while I’m climbing along a frosty knife-edge at the crack of dawn could mean that I don’t get to reach the sun—which only shines for an hour every morning on the mountain where I’ve been waiting weeks for the right conditions.
They say that it takes three years to make a Norrøna garment. That’s a lie. It takes three generations, an army of fearless adventurers, discontented ski bums and nit-picking climbers, designers with vision, a skilled team in a sewing room, and a tireless quest for the most sustainable, durable and functional solutions.