From Political Science in China to Wool Underpants

Written by: Victoria Wæthing

26.11.2020

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Photo by: Guro Asdøl Midtmageli

Sustainability and equality: By focusing on quality over quantity, Northern Playground is a brand that has a business plan based on people not buying new clothes every season.  

Next to the old opera house in downtown Oslo, you can see a sign saying, “Extremely short travelled wool baselayers.” It is the sign leading into the shop Northern Playground, a start-up founded by Jo Egil Tobiassen, specializing in sustainable wool clothing.  

But how did a guy with a Political Science degree from China, end up making wool underpants? Certainly not because of his fondness for design or sewing, or for that matter—business. Rather, it was a necessity. “I’m a guy, and guys will sweat when they are out walking or skiing in the mountains. And when I sat down, I got cold. I just wanted to sit and enjoy a coffee at the top of the mountain without freezing,” explains Tobiassen.  

Photos provided by Jo Egil Tobiassen

That’s how he came up with the idea of wool baselayers with zippers that you can take off without getting undressed, simply by opening a zipper. From this concept, he would create a whole line of wool clothing that would take a couple years to develop. 

Hitchhiking from China 

Tobiassen moved back from China in 2009, after having done his master’s degree in Chinese politics. An adventurer at heart, he had previously already lived many years in South America. At the end of his studies, the curiosity towards his home was stronger than the urge to stay abroad, so he decided to hitchhike his way home. From China to Norway.  

Hitch hike from China? To Norway? 

Photos provided by Jo Egil Tobiassen

“Since I speak Chinese, I had no problems getting through China. However, I did get a little bit lost in translation on my way over Siberia in Russia,” explains Tobiassen. Traveling along the roads of the old silk road and through Russia, he finally arrived in Norway after six weeks. The story of Northern Playground started in 2014. 

After he had been working in communication for a few years, his idea about the wool baselayers with zippers emerged. But he had one problem; he didn’t know how to sew. 

Tobiassen called his mother, who had been working for many years in commercial design. She was the daughter of woman who had owned a small textile factory in the southern part of Norway during the fifties, a founder ahead of her time.  

After many hours of tutoring from his mother and watching YouTube videos with his friend Magnus, the prototype for the baselayer was ready. The products were solid, but the business model was lacking. The company had difficulties with volume, margins, and at certain point Tobiassen decided he had to rethink the business and start with fresh ideas.  

Not Being Part of the Problem 

It was crucial for Tobiassen not to be one of the bad guys in the industry. He wanted to focus on sustainability and produce textiles that in the long term were better for the environment  

“The problem with producing textiles is that it is not sustainable. Being a manufacturer of clothes, you become a part of the environmental problem,” explains Tobiassen.   

His new business model emerged, and he found a way to be part of the solution, rather than the problem.  

The solution: Building a system where you don’t have to continue buying new clothes all the time. Quite bold for a clothing manufacturer, don’t you think? Well, it works, and this is how:  

  1. Northern Playground involves their customers. 

They have created an online platform where the community decides the colour, functionality and design. By involving the customers, they avoid making products that people don’t want.  

  1. Good quality. 

By making sure the quality is top notch, a shirt can last for ten years. You don’t have to buy new stuff all the time because you have worn out a shirt or a trouser. The whole idea is that quality is more important than trend.  

  1. Lifetime service.  

Northern Playground will repair your piece of clothing, no questions asked. The local production will repair the products, thus cutting on consumerism and making sure the customer can keep a high-quality product for a long time.  

A Women’s Sewing Circle 

Northern Playground’s label on this hat have Made in Tøyen, Oslo on them.

The local production is in Tøyen, a part of the city centre of Oslo where Tobiassen lives. This is also how he got to know this group of women. All immigrants, they decided to create this sewing circle as a step in their integration into the Norwegian society. “It is a completely different experience working directly with the people who produce the clothing, rather than, for example, a robot,” says Tobiassen. He explains that the women producing the products feel closer to the products, and several pieces of clothing have the name of the seamstress sewn into the clothing.  

“People mock me a little, because Northern Playground—a part of myself—is made entirely of women. I trust and work very well with women,” says Tobiassen.  

Fun Fact: Being a female dominated business, Northern Playground would not receive a high score on the SHE Index, as the Index measures equality between the sexes, not just the number of women.  

Next Phase 

Tobiassen hopes that they will be able to scale-up the local production. In order for them to be true to the current business model and philosophy, the local production will also have to follow the places where the products are being sold, especially in order to offer repairs. Tobiassen says that they are also in the process of making it easier for people to have their products repaired. •