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Two Norwegians meet at a party in New York. He’s just visiting; she lives here. He’s a singer on the side; she lends him her guitar. They fall in love, move to Oslo and get married.
This story first appeared in the August 22, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
What could be the plotline of a blockbuster rom-com is actually the backstory behind new label With & Wessel, launched this year by Stian Tolnæs and Cathrine Wessel. Seven years after they first met, the duo is now back in Manhattan and opening a flagship store in NoLIta.
But they haven’t completely left Norway behind; the boutique, slated to open Sept. 8 on Elizabeth Street, will offer a slice of Scandinavia, with antique larch flooring and Aspen trees suspended from the ceiling.
The collection is hinged entirely on that comfy Norwegian staple: wool. “The fabric has been the survivor factor of Norway for a while,” says Tolnæs. “The North Pole explorers, they wore wool. The old national costumes of Norway — all wool.”
Tolnæs came up with the idea for the label while at his previous job as vice president of brands and marketing at Swix, a Norwegian company that produces ski poles, wax and skiwear. “I saw a huge opportunity on the wool side,” he says. “I thought, ‘How can you expand this line to be more fashionable?’ But the sports world is very nonconfirming. Very fast I understood I would have to do it externally.”
Enter Wessel, a photographer working in the fashion, travel and music industries (clients include Glamour, Marie Claire, Condé Nast Traveler and Elle). She’s the editorial counterpoint to Tolnæs’ business savvy. Still in need of someone with design expertise, the two hired Michelle Kim, an Anna Sui alum.
The resulting collection injects a cool edge to those de rigueur wool staples — from slouchy T-shirts, dresses and wrap sweaters to lingerie and hosiery, in superfine merino wools with raw edges or satin details. “We’re especially excited for spring because that’s the challenge of wool,” says Kim, noting that upcoming offerings include flyaway dresses and draped halter tops.
“Our wool is so thin, you won’t believe it’s wool. It feels like silk,” Tolnæs adds. “The perception that you can’t wear wool in the summer is going to change.”
Wholesale prices for the men’s and women’s line range from $34 to $114, with innerwear running from $11 to $25. Retailers include Anthropologie, P45 in Chicago and A.Smith in Niigata, Japan.
As for the curious moniker, there’s some Norwegian history here, too. With & Wessel is the name of the now-defunct firm founded by Wessel’s grandfather, Andreas Bredal Wessel, and her granduncle, Bror With. The company imported early-day DKW cars and motorcycles to the country (the firm later merged with Audi), and manufactured the famed Rottefella ski bindings, which With actually invented.
“The name has a history in innovation, craftsmanship and entrepreneurism,” says Tolnæs. “And that’s the feeling of our brand.”