It’s a warm afternoon in Milan, and the Italian capital of fashion and design is buzzing with life. The vibrant metropolis is an internationally recognised arbiter of fine taste, and for the last months, it’s also been the home of Alexander Helle. The year is 2007, and the dreamer from the north is on exchange at Bocconi University, where he’s just about to finish the first year of his Master’s degree in Business and Administration. On this particular afternoon, he’s chilling in a park, soaking up sunshine and thinking about life. He’ll soon have to return to his hometown, Bergen, and he’s not too exited about it. In the «City of Rain» it’s bucketing down every two out of three days, and Alex dreads the prospect of retuning to a life under an umbrella. Then the idea hits him, like the apple hit Newton; he needs to fix those rainy days. How? By reinventing waterproof clothing; and so The Rain Project is born.
«The music itself doesn’t really matter as long as it’s loud. It’s like a mental sledgehammer restarting the brain.»
Fast-forward nine years, and Alex is welcoming me into Norwegian Rain’s newly opened flagship store in 193 Piccadilly. It’s a sophisticated space with an air of times gone by, right at the heart of the British capital – another rainy city. As I put down the three coffees I brought from a new age cycling shop café around the corner, I look around; the tailored suits, stylish hats and vintage furniture, makes me think that Don Draper & Co could walk in at any time.
The second half of the creative duo behind the brand, T-Michael, is in the middle of redecorating the shop for a launch party that will take place later in the evening. The soft-spoken man with the firm handshake is a Ghanaian born tailor from Bergen, who had been running his own studio in the rainy city for some 15 odd years before Alex asked him to join forces.
As I sit down to have a chat with the two bespectacled, bearded men in their tailored suits, Alex admits he’d been a fan of T-Michael for a long time before they started working together.
I remember when I was younger, standing outside his store in Bergen and at first not daring to go in at all. It’s such a magical place, not a typical tailoring salon at all – more like an art gallery. I remember the first shirt I bought there. I couldn’t really afford it, but I was so proud.
Nevertheless, it would take several attempts for Alex to convince T-Michael to come aboard. When returning to Bergen, he was still a student, and seeking out an established tailor whose weapons of choice were Kashmir and silk, to help him make rain coats might seem like a long shot. But once Alex had put his mind to it, there was no stopping him.
I said no the first two or three times. The initial idea didn’t give me much, and it had nothing to do with what I was doing at the time. But you were polite and persistent, which are both qualities I appreciate.
The first time I came in, you came up to me and shook my hand. And I thought: «This is a great guy». So despite the first rejections I didn’t feel defeated, I just kept telling myself «I’m going to make this happen». But I wish we had tape recordings from those first meetings, from me trying to break the ice, and ask about this massive project, before we even knew each other properly.
The two friends chuckle as those early days play to their inner eye. Somewhere around the third or fourth meeting, the guys really started talking, and somewhere in that conversation – what is now the duo’s greatest asset emerged: their ability to always push the other’s ambitions further. Alex’s original proposal to make a raincoat together, turned into a question about how to make the ultimate raincoat. It was this level of commitment which finally convinced T-Michael, and the duo has been a success story ever since. Today, the initial scepticism has given way to a mutual respect characterising the dynamics of their friendship.
In terms of how the business is run, their roles are constantly overlapping. On paper, Alex is the manager and creative director and T-Michael is the bespoke tailor and designer, but the two are in no way restricted by such business card labels.
Of course some things were set from the beginning, but the big picture is pretty blurry. We’re making something completely from scratch, so we continuously have to find our own path. The reason it works is because we challenge each other.
We didn’t know exactly what we were making when we started out, and it’s been a long process of trying and failing and trying again. Of finding the right fabrics and of making them work. But we have the same triggers, which makes it easy to keep up the drive.
The chemistry between the two shines through as they talk, and Alex jokes about how they have so much in common it’s almost weird. In addition to the shared hometown, they both have a deep devotion for sartorial craftsmanship and functionality, for making things that last and emerging themselves in the creative process. Nevertheless, they both have strong personalities, and the eventual clash seems inevitable. Their secret is keeping the balance by simply being each other’s quality check.
If I have an idea, but I can’t seem to convince Alex about it, then that idea isn’t good enough. And vice versa. This way the energy is constant, and everyone keeps pulling in the same direction.
On a personal level, however, they admit to having had the odd difference every now and then. Still, reminiscing about those early days, T-Michael teases Alex about how the younger Alex would always order mojitos while T-Michael himself enjoyed his whiskey. Both jiggles at the memory, they are quick to point out how that particular difference didn’t take long to evaporate. But even though Alex favours spring and T-Michael loves autumn, the duo’s energy is complemented and enhanced by these occasional discrepancies. These tiny idiosyncrasies are like artistic spices, adding zest to the creative process. They both admit to having frequent dreams about flying, and although the specific nature of their dreams is not the same, in the end they both take to the air.
Despite how poetic it might sound to work with rain, neither of the guys are romantics – they regard the weather as a facilitator for creativity, rather than a source of it.
The rain itself is not the inspiration, but when it rains I want to go inside and create. Accompanied by the soft pitter-patter from outside, I can be working on something and suddenly realise six hours have gone by. Going back to the brand, the rain is both our devil and our angel. We create clothes to fight it, and it enables us to create clothes.
However, the quest for inspiration is a battle with the routines of every day life.
It’s a matter of breaking free from the endless to-do lists and emails. There are several ways to achieve that, but going to concerts is an all-time favourite of mine. The music itself doesn’t really matter as long as it’s loud. It’s like a mental sledgehammer restarting the brain.
T-Michael, who dabbles in making short films, uses these as a way to keep starting over. His short clips are enthralling in their own abstract way – one of them, COAL, ends with a display of the words «the creative adult is the child that survived». The individual scenes range from quirky to emotive – a man listening checking his coffee cup with a stethoscope, a naked, red-wigged woman in a lake being offered a cigarette from a passing man, a family hiding behind masks around the dinner table.
I have these fragments of pictures that come to me, and although there is a story behind each one, and the way they are put together, that’s only relevant up until the moment they are made. After that, all that matters is how the spectator interprets the piece. And either it gives them something or it doesn’t.
When watching your films, I often feel my head starting to spin. I just disappear into them. I’m taken far away, and instead of trying to understand it, I just see where it leads me. That’s why I like them.
This approach translates to their take on their rapid success. They stay true to their vision and see where it takes them. The goal is to create items that can transcend time, and to seduce people with each piece.
The fundamental idea is to design a raincoat for everyone, whether you’re big or small, or work in a bank or lead two separate lives – you should find a model that fits you.
As our time begins to run out, and I start wondering if it might rain on my way home, it seems only natural to bring up the duo’s future. But in spite of the speed with which the project has grown, they don’t seem to worry too much about what’s to come.
We often get asked where Norwegian Rain is in ten years, but that’s such a distant world. In ten years there are no cars, people will just be moving around on boxes of air. Seriously though, we don’t have time to think about the future.
When I stepped off the bus this morning, I felt the crisp air and the warm comfort of wrapping a scarf around my neck. And I though to myself «fuck it, it’s looking good ahead».
His optimism stays with my as I finish the last drops of my now cold coffee, wave goodbye and step out into the afternoon rush hour of Central London. The vitality radiating from the two men has been infectious, and their charming demeanour has led me to believe in the encouraging prospect of the return of the gentleman. Just as I’m passing St. James Church, an ominous raindrop lands on my cheek. Still a poet at heart, I give myself a second to appreciate the wet peck before I hurry towards the station, cursing the fact that I always forget to bring an umbrella. Feeling one droplet after the other gently hit my skin, I line up in the queue to the crowded depths of the underground and let myself dream of someday slipping into one of those elegant, black raincoats.