The Hyperborean Shadows Series : Norwegian Rat

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The Hyperborean Shadows Series is an ongoing feature that will focus on the dwellers of Scandinavia, and their portrayal of northern landscapes, cultures and traditions through different forms of dark art.

There are so many incredible visions being realised in Scandinavia in this age, and I firmly believe that the creatives behind these visions need to be recognised, celebrated and documented.

Hyperborean Shadows was initially intended to be a book, but due to changes of circumstances, I made the decision to publish the interviews I conducted here in their raw form. The positive side of Hyperborean Shadows being a blog based project is that it can now be an on-going celebration that need never end.

Part one of the series features Norwegian clothing company Norwegian Rat, the very first creatives I contacted regarding this project, and some of the kindest, warmest, most generous characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of collaborating with. I hope you enjoy it.

“Prepare yourself, for the season of the Norwegian Rat is upon you…”

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The innovative clothing label Norwegian Rat was founded in an unsuspecting, quiet little village called Etne, in the West Fjords of Norway. Inspired by the dark and mysterious sides of Norwegian culture and history, Norwegian Rat craft clothing and accessories that are more – ever so much more – than just bits of fabric quickly stitched together, and tossed into the hands of fashion hungry consumers.

As well as being made to last longer than hurriedly manufactured clothing, the pieces Norwegian Rat create have back stories. Their 1349 jeans, for example, were named after the year the black death struck Norway, and rapidly obliterated half of the population. Naming a pair of jeans after one of Norway’s darkest years isn’t the only thing this clothing label is doing to stand apart from the masses. A big part of the Norwegian Rat ethic is collaborating with musicians, and heavily supporting the underground music scene in Norway.

I caught up with Norwegian Rat founder Thomas Thomassen, and picked his brain about the history and evolution of the company.

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Norwegian Rat was established one late night in December 2009. Can you recall the events that led up to the idea for and founding of the business? How many people were involved from the get go, and has the Norwegian Rat team expanded since 2009?

Back in 2007 I had a girlfriend from USA. During my holidays there, her friend gave me her American dictionary and thesaurus as a gift. I ended up reading in those books when they were at work during daytime, and one day while I was strolling through the letter “N”, the term “Norway Rat” for the common brown rat appeared. Instantly this name caught my interest, and I remember telling myself not to forget this name, because this could be a potential company name.

Two and half years later we were discussing maybe starting up a clothing brand. It wasn’t really serious in the very beginning, but as soon as I got out my thesaurus and we started spinning around “Norway/Norwegian Rat”, multiple cool  ideas emerged. And here we are, five years later.

We were four people when we first started up, but today we are three. And my guess is that it will stay like this for many years to come.

We have no desire rushing this forward like a freight train. We’re all working full time with other jobs, and when we breathed life into this project, we had a common agreement to do absolutely everything by ourselves. That meant if we did not know how to do it, we would simply just have to learn it. When working like this, you really can’t stress things.

The dynamic and ground foundation within NR is also very good, so yeah…we’re enjoying it this way and we feel like we’re not quite ready to expand our core team just yet.

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How long was the process from the initial idea to putting Norwegian Rat garments up for sale? What obstacles did you find yourself facing leading up to going into business?

Oh mama.. I could give you an answer with the length of small book on this one…

I would say it took us about 3 years before we were up and running. Starting up on a project like this will ALWAYS end up with spending more money than what originally was planned. We therefore, as mentioned before, agreed to do absolutely everything we could do by ourselves and without external help, reducing the costs as best as we could (and still do). Everything from direct contact with the factories we use, through finance and accounting, to setting up a web store fully integrated with Nynorsk and payment solutions to video making etc. And when you know pretty much nothing about most of these things…..it’s pretty damn certain it is going to take some time.

(Fun fact: Nynorsk, or New-Norwegian is an official written standard for the Norwegian language, alongside Bokmaal. The standard language was originally created by Ivar Aasen during the mid-19th century, to provide a Norwegian alternative to the Danish language which was commonly written in Norway at the time, since Norway was pretty much a Danish province for several hundred years. Roughly  estimated, around 10% of the Norwegian population writes in Nynorsk.)

In addition to all this we are extremely picky about our products. If a sample doesn’t meet our requirements, we need another sample with the enhancements and changes we want. This type of back and forth with the factories takes a lot of time, and suddenly 3 months have gone by in a jiff!

Another tricky part teaming up with good friends to make a company is that the friendships are taken to a whole new level, and sometimes put to the test. You now expect something totally new from them, and those expectations collide from time to time. This isn’t always easy, and we have had our discussions for sure. Luckily we foresaw this before setting sail, so despite our quarrels and disagreements, we always find a solution. Since the three of us are pretty open minded and able to deal with constructive criticism, our friendship has grown even tighter because of this “obstacle”, and I gotta say I really think it’s nice being able to turn issues like this into something positive!

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The concept of Norwegian Rat is based around the dark and mysterious sides of Norwegian culture and history. I think that what you are doing is extremely commendable, and introduces people to history and individuals whom they may have otherwise forgotten or not discovered. I am incredibly curious to know about the idea forming process. Is there always a brainstorming session, or is there one person at the helm who beings the ideas in?

First of all; Thank you for the nice words! We really appreciate feedback like this, and it makes us want to delve even deeper into our history!

The main reason we decided giving actual historical names to clothes we set up, is that it occurred to us how little we actually know about our own history. There are maybe a few historical pillars in older history most Norwegians know of, with the events of 1348 / 1349 being on the top shelf. This is because half of our population ended up six feet under during the years the Black Plague ravaged Norway, but apart from that, most people (us included), are pretty clueless about older history. So I guess we can say our very own embarrassment of knowing so little about our own history and ancestors, reflects the main concept of Norwegian Rat, “forcing” ourselves to find suitable names and interesting (yet often pretty grizzly…) happenings by studying our history.

Usually I am the one reading books from our mini library or watching documentaries, writing down all the names and years I find appealing and interesting. I then start to focus on those names and happenings and dive a little further into that. In the end I look over my notes, and finally present it to the others.

Another thing we once did was to involve our followers on Facebook. That was very successful and resulted in a lot of activity and suggestions for great names.  And that is exactly one of “our missions”; Getting people involved in our history.

Naming our pieces is actually one of my favourite things to work with. It’s quite a relieving break from all the computer work.

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So much of our clothing nowadays is badly and cheaply made throwaway fashion. How important is it that the clothes Norwegian Rat make are well made, durable and long-lasting?

It is paramount! If it is one thing we made perfectly clear in the beginning, it was never to push low quality wear!

The longer the clothes lasts, the longer the history lives. It is important for us that our customers label us as a brand that is “high-quality and long lasting”. And most important of all; Our future and existence lies in the hands of our customers, so it goes without saying we value and respect them greatly! If we should be dealing clothes of low quality which does not meet our customers’ expectations, we know they would never return! An exciting concept alone won’t get you far in the long run, so yeah..I would say it is pretty much rule #1 on the NR ship.

As a result of being such quality freaks, we don’t have shitloads of items in our store. Testing products takes time, because we need feedback from our customers for this, and rather than making new stuff all the time, we’re more into getting our stuff closer and closer to perfection, before moving on to new ideas and new items. We’ve sure had our teething problems as all other companies, but we’ve come a long way ironing them out.

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I have noticed Norwegian Rat have an affiliation with the magnificent work of the great Theodor Kittelsen. I struggle to imagine where multiple bands and artists would be today if it wasn’t for his hugely inspirational output! In what ways does Kittlesen’s work inspires Norwegian Rat?

A lot! Since I was a little kid I have always been very fond of the Norwegian folktales Asbjornsen & Moe collected, and Kittelsen often had illustrations in their books. I think Kittelsen’s illustrations of Pesta (his personification of the black plague)  made him the only Norwegian artist any 10 year old in the whole Norway knows of. At least it was for me.

Us Norwegians are very proud of our mighty nature and eerie folk creatures, and, since he gave face to almost all of these creatures in addition to the gloomy and shadowy nature aspect of his art, I think that granted him a very special place in the heart of Norwegians. His work is very mysterious and murky, which suits our inspirational channels very nice.

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One of the first things that attracted me to Norwegian Rat was your celebration of the underground music arena. Just how important is music to the Norwegian Rat brand? How do you decide which projects you want to work with? Do you ensure you make the time to get involved with the underground scene by attending gigs and festivals in Norway?

Music is extremely important for all members of NR! The world would certainly be a dull place to live in if it had not been for all the fantastic and extremely talented artists out there!

We use music all the time when working with Norwegian Rat, so it is a huge inspiration fountain for us. Sadly enough, we pretty much belong in the listeners corners ourselves, so having ended up in a position where we get to collaborate with mighty bands such as KAMPFAR, EINHERJER, SLEGEST and hopefully many more in the future, makes us very humble about it all.

How do we decide…heh…well….we got a pretty freaking long list of bands we would love to cooperate with, but, as a pretty fresh company with very limited capital, we need to hold back quite a bit. After all, we must administrate that work too, simultaneously with our own gear.

In general we just ask. Or they ask us. The latest addition is a band I came by called SLEGEST. Their music knocked me flat out, and I just couldn’t stop listening to their tracks and thinking about how freaking amazing a collaboration with these guys would be, so I simply asked. Luckily they were very interested, and gave us thumbs up. They write in Nynorsk too, which is pretty awesome..heh..

This part of the concept is worth all the work we put into NR alone! It is extremely motivating! KAMPFAR is the band we have collaborated with the longest, and playing ball with those guys are probably the brightest chapter in NRs history. They make some pretty hairy music, got a huge catalog, got a nose for details, are passionate about their art, and are insanely effective and to the point in the planning, in addition to being very easy going. When rolling with guys like this, it’s pretty certain you’re up for some rock ‘n’ roll!

Balancing a day job and our time consuming Rat hobby, in addition to being social with partners, friends and family, time left for traveling to big events in this elongated country (and abroad) is very limited, unfortunately. If, in the future, we are lucky enough to quit our day jobs and work with NR full time, it would be easier, but for now we primarily need to stick with the scenes in our town for the most part. That said, you come a long way having friends which are heavily into music, both players and listeners, in addition to the internet!

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Where in Norway can Norwegian Rat clothing be found, and do you have plans to start selling in other countries, or is Norway the primary focus for the time being?

At the moment, clothing from Norwegian Rat can be found in out home town, Etne, and in Haugesund at Karma Tattoo / Amrak. We have been focusing on our web store, so this part haven’t gotten so much attention yet. As mentioned earlier we operate within the “first things first”-frame, so for now we have enough with getting our clothes closer to perfection and optimizing our web store.

That said we would love getting into stores abroad, so if you or anyone else out there have any tips, feel free to inform us! =)

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Your collaboration with photographer Espen Mills has produced some stunning captures. How did this collaboration come about and what has the working experience with him been like?

Espen grew up in Etne too, so we go way back. And since he lives in Stavanger just like ourselves, it was very natural for us to ask him first. Anything else would be foolish since he’s probably one of Norway’s best photographers, especially when it comes to nature shots.

As he’s a good friend of us, everything is very laid back, which is a good thing. Having a good time while doing something fun with your friends, where the business part pretty much is non-existent, is for us what it is all about. With all the expectations gone, the creativity flows, and you get some nice shots, which we did. Hopefully it’ll get even better next time!

One of the fantastic things about your clothing is the attention to detail. These aren’t just quickly thrown together items, these are garments which have had been crafted with creativity, time and patience. The useful guitar pick pocket and credit card holder pocket additions to your 1349 jeans are simply brilliant. Can you talk about why Norwegian Rat values these extra features, and what the response has been like from customers?

Yeah, we have spent quite a lot of time getting the clothes to where we want them, without it becoming too much. As mentioned earlier we want to present “a package” which is unique and functional. Something you most likely haven’t seen before. The side panel pockets on the Skakke jacket is a result of this. Regular hoodies with just the kangaroo pocket isn’t really useful except for warming your hands, but with the side panels with solid zippers you’re actually able to store your (probably) dearest possessions like your credit card and cell phone without having the paranoia of loosing anything. Of all our details and features, this feature is my favourite so far, and we have gotten a lot of credit for this one.

The credit card pocket and the pick pocket is more of a fun feature. I am not sure if I would dare putting my credit card in the credit card pocket, but it’s very handy if you should have paper money on you and want to separate those from the other riff raff one puts in one’s pocket! Everyone finds the guitar pick pocket a cool feature, but I really don’t know if it’s as useful as we like to believe(?). At least I know I always seem to loose my guitar pick. But oh well…if I had known more than 5 chords on the guitar and the guitar was my living, I guess I could have automated this move. None the less it’s a nifty feature that is kinda fitting having as we got the music part within the NR concept.

Do you have a solid line up of bands you would like to work with in the coming months, and what can be expected from Norwegian Rat?

If a solid line up means several bands, I would, unfortunately, have to say no. Lately we have been working our asses off to make a system where the time frame from getting into a collaboration with a band, to having our hands on the their merch is significantly reduced.

If this turns out to be a success, we’ll be able to administrate a collaboration with several bands at the same time, but time will show if our actions hold water for that. At the time we got new stuff going on with two bands. Those being SLEGEST and our long time partner in crime KAMPFAR. We are extremely excited about these  products, especially Kampfar’s, as we’re coming out with an awesome Kampfar edition of a new hoodie we’ve made.

We’re pretty much taking it day by day, but hopefully we’ll be able to get our hands on several new t-shirts before the summer. Later we’ll have the new hoodie I mentioned earlier, and a new batch of the 1349 jeans. Being in the game for quite some years now, we don’t dare hoping for too much, too soon, as experience tells us Murphy’s Law is very much present in this game.

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What has been happening with Norwegian Rat since we last spoke?

A lot of cool things is, and has been, going on actually!

Back in September / October we were asked by Jannicke Wiese Hansen of Nidhogg Tattoo if we wanted to do the Blekkmetal merch, which we of course accepted! This festival wrote itself into the history books as a legendary happening, and we are extremely humble and happy about being a small part of it! So a huge “thank you” goes out to Jannicke and the rest of the crew for giving us this awesome assignment.

We’re still working on improving our old products (more precisely the 1349 jeans) and creating new ones. We’re really excited about our new products, especially the two denim jackets. One is called “Naglfar” after a ship in Norse mythology that will ferry hordes of chaos to Vigrid during Ragnarok, and the other one is called “Halvdan Svarte”, after a king that went through the ice and drowned in Randsfjorden in ca 860 A.D

Another thing worth mentioning about these jackets is that we collaborate with the aforementioned Jannicke Wiese Hansen and Dagfinn Bjelland (of Karma Tattoo in Haugesund) regarding the art print that will be on the inside on the back of the jacket. We will also make a small quantity of the Halvdan jacket in a KAMPFAR edition.

These jackets will be in our store – hopefully – pretty soon.

Speaking of Kampfar; We will release a new Kampfar / Norwegian Rat collaboration tee. The great tattoo artist Tim Lehi is also involved in this, as he’s the one that took care of the prints. (Awesome guy to work with!)

That is probably the most exciting stuff that has been happening. Maybe as a little fun anecdote it is worth mentioning that I am these days corresponding with the Norwegian authorities regarding a new product I have been mulling over in my mind. However; though they liked the idea, laws are laws and have to be followed, so I don’t have high hopes for the original plan. Luckily I have a (somewhat amputated) backup plan.


Any final words?

We would like to thank all our customers, partners, and all the new friends we’ve got! It’s because of you we’re still around and are able to do this!

A special thank you goes out to our much appreciated buddy Niels “@shovelheadbanger” from the Netherlands! We’re extremely excited about the new “Nisse-line” that will be arriving thanks to his pretty darn panzer doodles he actually gave us! We never saw it coming, but we’re extremely grateful!

And of course we would like to thank you, Katie, for wanting to interview us! We really appreciate it!

 

Want More?

Check out the Norwegian Rat Website

Read my review on the Norwegian Rat tote bag

 

 

 

 

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