Hitting The Mark

Hitting The Mark

Conversations with founders about the intersection of brand clarity and startup success.


EP102 – Norwegian Wool: Michael Berkowitz, Founder & CEO

Strategic Clarity

Michael Berkowitz was a commodities trader who switched to the fashion world after taking on coat-making as a hobby. Yes, you heard that correctly. So he shifted to what in plain sight could be seen as yet another commodity: making coats. But there is more to this story than meets the eye as he solved tangible problems while being credited with making ‘quiet luxury’ a new movement in the world of brands.


Launching a quiet luxury brand seems to come with tons of added risk. What gave him the confidence to launch into the flashy fashion world without that type of branding? The answer to that, plus plentiful branding and marketing insights is what awaits you on this episode as we kick off the New Year.


Oh, and in case you think you have not heard of Norwegian Wool, I am certain you have seen their products on HBO’s hugely successful show Succession which has outfitted their cast and even mentioned the brand by name.


Fabian Geyrhalter: Welcome to the show, Michael.

Michael Berkowitz: Thank you, Fabian. It’s great to be here.

Fabian Geyrhalter: It’s so good to have you. So you launched your high-end line of coats almost 10 years ago. You started it as a hobby while you were a commodities trader, so that already is very different. And it’s kind of funny because selling coats in today’s market could almost be seen as you still trading commodities because it is such a common product category. What made you pick up coat making as a hobby and then subsequently plunge fully into it? It’s not a very common route to take.

Michael Berkowitz: Sure, so actually I’m gonna comment the one thing you said and then answer your question. I sometimes joke with my team that I used to be in commodities and I left that world behind and what I mean by that is that yes while they’re a lot of brands out there selling coats, I guess the actual definition of a commodity is something that is very basic and very much on some sort of exchange. So if you’re trading gold or silver, you know exactly what the quality is and how much it is per ounce, per pound, whatever commodity item you’re selling and in the world of consumer goods, there are commodity coats or commodity clothing. Your standard just white polo shirt, your v-neck blue sweater.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: I very much believe that we’re in the world of premium and luxury that we’re making fewer pieces that are much much more expensive, but give you a lot more value a lot more features and performance than the commodity items. So there was a lot that I pull from that world in terms of how to run a business and thinking about how consumers thinking about it and I actually believe that coming as an outsider opened a lot of doors for us and especially in the design world. We were thinking about coats and outerwear as a consumer rather than as some fancy designer in their design house in New York or Milan or Paris. So that actually all came out really nicely. But my joke is that we’re no longer in commodities. These are specialty items that really have to transcend commodity items. But to answer your question directly, really it came about from a real need. I’m a big believer in a lot of the best companies, best brands should be solving a problem.

I know that there’s some really big brands out there that maybe just doing something a little bit different, a little bit better. They might have an interesting angle and distribution, those things are interesting, but those don’t excite me. The things that really excite me is that there’s a problem and here’s the solution. And just very easy, one plus one equals two. And for me, it was a very simple problem. As a commodities trader I used to go into the city every day and have to dress kind of nicely. I wasn’t a suit and tie guy most days but the nice business casual that most of us go and I’ll throw in a sport jacket a lot and…

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: A nice sweater and you wanted to look presentable. Especially I was one of the youngest guys in the firm. So I always felt like my words were being judged a little bit more closely, or being scrutinized and in the world of finance and business you walk into a meeting, everyone sums you up right away before you even open your mouth. Are you for real? Are you the guy that could get the deal done? Can you break through walls to make something happen? And my problem was, that my warm coats were these big big puffer coats that look like I was about to go on an Arctic mission.

Fabian Geyrhalter: I got some of those yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: Yeah, and they’re great. If you’re by yourself, just with your kids and your backyard, that’s fine. But if you’re gonna be seen and you’re trying to tell your story and you want to look sophisticated and give off this impression of confidence and a real go-getter deal guy, you want to look like you’re able to conquer 45 degree weather and that 45 degree weather doesn’t conquer you.
Fabian Geyrhalter: You don’t want to look like the Michelin Man right?

Michael Berkowitz: Absolutely. I think the Michelin Man is now skinnier because I think they redid him but that’s absolutely right. You do not want to walk in looking like the Michelin Man, you do not want to look like that you’re about to head Antarctica when you’re just walking through New York, London, or Paris or whatever city you’re in. And my beautiful coats that I had from Italy looked great. But if it did get a little bit chilly you were freezing, if it got the little bit wet, rain, sleet, snow, any of that you smell wet sheep for the rest of the day. And it would get soaked. I remember putting on these coats if you got wet and then you put your coat back on it’s this worst terrible feeling they are putting on this wet sheep around you because it’s soaks it in. Everything about the beautiful cashmere wool coats out of Italy were totally devoid of performance. The hand pockets were so narrow and so shallow and then these awkward positions, no one ever put their hand there. It was designed on paper. No one actually ever asked where would you like to keep your hands nice warm and cozy. So that was a real problem because I felt like I either compromised on my look or I compromised on my warmth, and I’ll come into the office or I’ll go to Zurich and I would already be sneezing and coughing because I wasn’t properly dressed so that simple problem when I started to hear other people complaining of the same thing, I felt like there’s got to be a solution and that’s really what got me going. I felt like if there are other people out there that are having the same problem I have, and it should be something that’s surmountable, I wanted to start testing it out.

Fabian Geyrhalter: But Michael, it comes so naturally to you, how you say that, but in reality, you know, you’re a commodities trader, you’re a guy, you’re in New York City and you’re like, oh I’m going to fix this problem in the fashion world, which is overly saturated with big brands, and you’re like I’m just going to start this as a hobby. How do you even start this as a hobby?

Michael Berkowitz: Well, nothing was easy, I will admit that. Nothing is easy and I’m sure starting any business isn’t easy. But this was perhaps particularly hard because getting into Italian manufacturing, these are not worlds that are very open to new players coming in. They want history. It’s not even just about paying, they want to make sure that you’re going to stay with them. They don’t want you to work with them for a season then move everything over to Asian manufacturing. They want to know that you’re here for real. So coming in as a new guy is certainly not easy and getting into the best fabric mills across the Northern parts of Italy and we did a lot of work in Norway with their fashion institutes to see what they were doing. Not so much in the lux world, but to understand what they were creating for outdoors, Skiware, and their very technical outerwear. And the whole idea of Norwegian Wool was really to merge two worlds that don’t typically talk. Scandinavians for their outdoor stuff and Italians for their beautiful craftsmanship and styling, and put them into a room and say get the best from both of your worlds and put it together to make this ultimate piece. So no it wasn’t easy but I think some of it was, as a commodities trader, you’re always trying to solve problems, figure out arbitrages, figure out if there was a demand for something that wasn’t being met, so it wasn’t a complete 180, if we felt that there was a need for more catalytic converters in America, there’s going to be more need for palladium, so let’s find more raw materials and sources for that. So that general just solving problems.

Fabian Geyrhalter: The resourcefulness. You know, it’s most probably stating it was a hobby is a little bit understating because you most probably got into it saying, hey if there’s a problem we can fix, let’s monetize it later.

Michael Berkowitz: Yeah well, the other thing that actually helped was that I had to make 200 pieces for my very first sampling, that was what the factory required, so I sort of had to sell through them and I went into it thinking, hey if it takes me 10 years to sell it, it was a fun hobby but stick to my day job, but I actually sold through all 200 in just like two to three months and that was just doing this nights and weekends and we actually sold out where stores wanted more than what we had and that’s when I realized we were actually onto something.

Fabian Geyrhalter: That’s awesome. That’s absolutely fantastic. I can relate with my product startup as we just ordered 500 products and now I’m in that night and weekend mode like is this feasible? And we will see. But back to your brand, because it is extremely interesting, the way that you refer to, so you’re an understated luxury brand, quiet luxury as the term goes. It’s a trend which you have been credited as playing a big part in setting that trend.

Michael Berkowitz: Yeah.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Launching a quiet luxury brand seems to come with an added, you know, like just tons of added risk, right? What gave you the confidence to launch in this really flashy world of fashion without that type of branding? Was it data? Was it people you talked to? Was it gut instinct?

Michael Berkowitz: A combination. I really think that what’s happened over the years is that the fashion leaders have gone a little bit more removed each passing year from their consumer. And where really nice fashion used to have a hint of edginess, you would take really beautiful product, really great quality and have a hint of edginess so that you show that you care about how you look, you’re thinking about it, has just gone off the deep end for many other brands and because of the world of globalization and emerging markets and tons of new money coming in from different places that usually didn’t really affect design as much as it is now, a lot of brands are rushing to get those newer markets and are forgetting about their core customers. And the average customer that we’re targeting, the business professional man or woman who could work in a whole array of different types of professions, but wants to look good, wants to look elevated, wants to look fashionable and stylish, but within the world of normal clothing. And cares about real things and wet weather doesn’t want to get wet and cold weather doesn’t want to get cold. What I was seeing was that more of the brands were just forgetting about this and forgetting about the basics. A coat keep you warm. I mean a coat should be something that you wear when it’s wet and sleeting and snowing and the coat should be protecting you. You shouldn’t be worried about protecting your coat because it’s from some delicate material, something like that. So you’re turning it inside out so that you could actually cover your coat. That just seems so ridiculous that if an alien would come from outer space and look at it they would be so confused. What is going on that you’re protecting your coat? So I just think that what’s happened is that a lot of the leaders in the industry have gone further and further away. I think 30, 40, 50 years ago, even people who are real students of the best fashion houses and the best fashion schools still had an appreciation for some of these fundamentals and that has been lost. So I think that I really want to stay true to what does my world want? What are my consumers feeling like is not there. There’s a white space on the paper. There’s a void and the world of quiet luxury was really where they were very few players and there are a couple of players out there that are quite big but for the most part they’re in the world of just regular clothing and that’s fantastic but it was specifically an outerwear, the warmest best down coats out there, the ones that are the loudest and those brands are the ones that are actually moving the quickest to becoming louder and louder and louder and I see what a lot of these brands are coming out with and I just look around and saying that my own friends and my own colleagues would not wear those.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: And you walk across the floor of a lot of the big department stores and you’re saying most of shoppers would not wear most of the things that are being offered and that’s where I saw the disconnect. So you’re right. It is hard to create something quiet luxury because there’s less branding. It’s less out there to get the credit. If someone’s wearing our coat our branding’s just subtle on the sleeve. It’s not going to be shouted out to the world. We’ve had lots and lots of celebrities wearing it and you wouldn’t necessarily know that because it’s not that loud. So that is harder but the end of the day that is what our customer wants and we have to stick to that and ultimately it has worked. We had to take a little bit longer to get there.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: But it absolutely worked.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Well and that loss that immediately loss where it’s like we can’t see the brand that someone’s wearing, in the end is actually your ultimate gain, because you fully understood something that just while you were talking came to me quite logically. When I’m especially in Europe, there’s a different fashion sense. And in New York. I’m in LA, that fashion sense is all gone. But on the east coast and in Europe, you walk into a meeting and people judge you, right? Obviously, by the way that you come across by your manners, by the way you look, by what you wear and if you do wear something where you have a big logo on it, or you have a pattern on it, it makes it so easy to be judged by that brand. Oh, he’s the guy who wore that brand. Where if you just have something that looks amazingly stylish and good that is overlooked. That’s not even a question anymore of what brand he wears. It just looks good and on that person, so it’s actually really interesting. I never thought about this.

Michael Berkowitz: Sure. Actually I will tell you that my big belief is that someone who’s confident wants to tell their own story.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: And you walk into a room whether it’s professional with the business colleagues or you’re at a dinner party, wherever you are. If you have a job that you’re proud of, if you have a family that you’re proud of, if you have a life that you’re living that you think is something that you’re proud of, you want to wear your own story and it’s actually a sign of lack of confidence if you have to identify with someone else’s brand. That you are someone else’s brand.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: And it’s one thing to like a brand, it’s one thing to think that they make beautiful products. But if you’re buying a sweatshirt that is a nothing special sweatshirt, but the quality is nothing special, everything about it is nothing special, but just has a big name across the front, it means something about you, that that’s what you’re trying to identify someone else and I would say that they’re better off…

Fabian Geyrhalter: I think it’s fascinating.

Michael Berkowitz: if that’s the case, you should spend the money on therapy because you need to, if you like anything that looks beautiful absolutely, but if you’re just buying it to indentify with another brand you’re not doing yourself and your own story a service.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah and of course I can come to the defense of some brands right? I can come to the defense of a Patagonia where people want to wear it because they want to make a statement how they feel about nature. And how they feel about they’re belonging to something that’s bigger than the brand that is on their shirt. But usually you’re absolutely 100% correct, and especially when it comes to your high-end market, I think it’s really fascinating. How do you juggle though, that fine line of understated brand yet superior brand image? Because I mean Norwegian Wool, it’s obviously stemming from Scandinavia, right? It’s been manufactured in Tuscany. Your headquarters are located in Manhattan. So brand perception is still a huge component of your company.

Michael Berkowitz: So for us it’s a lot about who’s wearing it and over the years we’ve been fortunate to just have so many big names wearing it, not just from celebrities, and the celebrities that we have wearing it has all been organic. We don’t pay celebrities to wear our product.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Amazing

Michael Berkowitz: We’ve had Patrick Dempsey, his styling team came over because they were shooting a show that was shooting outdoors and he was tired of being so cold but wanted to look great though. So they had to buy three coats for him right on the spot. We’ve had many such stories and the authenticity there is something that’s very important. But then we’re also getting lots of movers and shakers to wear it, when we had this whole piece in the New York Times which again was organic about this is the coat to wear to Davos and it was about how people are going to Davos who are outside in the Alps talking about their businesses everything from the big Silicon Valley founders to the major banks and the major politicians and everyone’s there and they want to look good but they’re outside. This is the coat they’re wearing. That is our brand image.

Fabian Geyrhalter: How amazing right? I mean that’s your entire positioning happening with one article. Where you like, this is exactly where you wanted to be. That’s pretty amazing.

Michael Berkowitz: But yeah, very much so but it’s still true to our brand that it wasn’t about paying people or influencers to wear it, it was about people who really care about this and I think a lot of these people may not be influencers, but they’re very influential and people look up to them a lot of our customers when they see these people wearing it, since they know they’re not getting paid to wear it and they know that they have unlimited buying resources, it must mean that they like the product that is the ultimate endorsement.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: So that’s how the word of mouth has a gone out there.
Fabian Geyrhalter: And the idea that you have to hunt it down. It’s not that one brand that everyone knows and they’re talking about it, but even PR in that way is understated. Talking about understated PR, naturally brings me to your collaboration with HBO’s Succession, which has outfitted their entire cast, or a lot of their cast with Norwegian Wool. Your brand even got mentioned by name during an episode, which was real fun. I rewatched that yesterday. It seems like the perfect match but also somewhat risky because not everyone wants to associate themselves with the cast of Succession. How did it come about that collaboration?

Michael Berkowitz: So also organic. They actually had written that scene, the one that you’re referring to where at Kendall’s birthday party Connor doesn’t want to take off his coat and Kendall’s insulted because it looks like he’s not really there to stay so they had that scene, but they didn’t write in what brand because Connor responds that he won’t give in his coats at coat check because he once had a blank taken from him in Vancouver. So when they heard about us, they wrote the scene and they wrote Norwegian Wool and that’s when the styling team said, oh this is interesting. We’ve heard of Norwegian Wool but now that we see it in the show, we got to check it out so they came over.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Unbelievable

Michael Berkowitz: And they just showed up at our showroom one day, very understated themselves and our team just started telling them about some of our product and what makes it special and they weren’t actually obligated to buy anything other than that one coat for that scene, but then they kept on coming back to buy more because they were shooting a lot outside, that show does take place a lot outside.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: And I actually sat with John Schwartz from their styling team. We did like a post. Right, it was actually as they finished shooting but it was before the last episode had aired so we sat down doing a lot of reflections and one of the things I commented that people always ask do we think the show is accurate or exaggerated? So, of course, it’s Hollywood and there’s a lot of things that are exaggerated but one of the things I said, I think is very true is that a lot of business meetings take place outside of business rooms today. So it could be on a weekend retreat, in a hotel, it could be outdoors at a cafe. It can even just be walking a few blocks in some city and that is a big theme in the show, that a lot of the talking and a lot of the action and deals happen sort of on the fly and all these different places and that’s why they needed so much outerwear and I thought that actually is quite accurate and you mentioned whether you want to be associated with them. They are, in the show they’re all depicted as awful people. You wouldn’t show the show to your kids as role models. But again, it comes down to I think a lot of people look at their fashion with a lot of respect because these are supposed to be people who could buy anything, the Roy’s are supposed to be people that they don’t need impress anyone, everyone knows they’re super successful and I think a lot of people found that at least their fashion choices is something that they would look up to a lot. So it was very influential for us.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Amazing. Absolutely amazing. And I read, I read in an article about you and the brand, the following, you said from the very start we had to think and do things differently. We’ll lose if we try to do billboards the way Brunello Cuccinelli does. We always have to think of creative ways of doing things, but stay true to our classic styles that are tailored and timeless and that solve a real problem people have, not following trends. So as most startups face similar problems, being either bootstrapped in the beginning or just having a really, really small budget. In your case, in an industry that is all about big spend in the consumer market, right? We chatted about this a little bit before we went on air. How crazy some of these budgets are, some of these fashion companies. But what were, what were some of these tactics that you implemented to get the brand out there, especially the quiet, understated brand and especially without a big budget in the beginning that maybe our listeners could learn from, like what were some of those, some of those marketing strategies that you put out there? Maybe they weren’t the marketing strategies, maybe it was just something you did from the from the gut where you’re like, you know what? Look, let let’s try this, you know, and it starts.

Michael Berkowitz: So yeah, there’s a lot to be said on that. Some of the ideas that come to mind first are product that if you are able to get in front of customers, even just on a small scale, when we first started, we started selling through some little small boutiques across the Northeast Carter. So Boston the New York to DC area. So you knew that you were getting a few pieces on the floor and even before that we have to show the pieces to the buyers from those stores. And they were buying from all the other big brands that we all know of. So you have to just absolutely wow with product because …

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: there’s nothing you can say that will impress them if they touch it and it doesn’t feel good. If they try it on it doesn’t feel good. So we really just have to have this bang out product from day one that the whole concept should be that it looks like there is no down in there, that you’re wearing it and to the outsider it just looks like a regular wool cashmere coat, but you wearing it on the inside like I cannot believe this whole coat is lined with down and it feels so light yet so warm it just it evoked a lot of emotion when you wear it. It doesn’t just keep warm and dry. It actually makes you, even broadens your shoulders a little bit, you feel good about how you look. You look yourself in the mirror and you feel like you can conquer the day and I think that’s something that even buyers in these stores it’s happened to us many times that when you go and they try on something that for the rest of the meeting they would keep the coat on and at a certain point you got to give it back to me. I only have a few samples, this is my first year. Walking around the store talking to other customers. Someone could be in there to buy a pair of socks and they’re still wearing this coat as they’re talking to customers, that was one way of cutting out of the line, the product really just spoke for itself.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: And then when customers came in and started to shop, they saw it and they felt that it was really special and different. In terms of some marketing tactics, I think it’s also realizing that some of that quote that you had for me. I agree with myself. I must have said that a while ago.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Good.

Michael Berkowitz: But I agree with myself that some of the main places that a lot of brands like to market, don’t necessarily line up with where their customers are at or it might just be for general brand awareness. But if you think and you really scratch your head, you could say if I know who my target audience is, where do they find out about things? Where do they get their information from? What are their lives? And if you actually understand their lives a little bit better than other companies do, if there are other big brands that are targeting those same audiences, but I came from that world so I know their routine a little bit better. You’re sometimes able to find ways to reach them and sometimes it can even be less expensive or more cost effective than the conventional ways of doing marketing, but you’re still reaching the same customer. So we did a lot of that and thankfully it really worked out.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah, no and that’s interesting. I always tell founders, sometimes founders are their own best target audience, like you are, right? Like you were in that world. You needed the product, you created it for people like you right and that professional world is pretty large, right? But if you’re not that person you should just create cut out figures of these people that you cater to and put them all in on everywhere in the office that just say this is not about you and I, the marketing that we do, it’s for these people like where are they? Who are they, right? It’s something that seems so simple but it’s where most fail, right? And that’s what you saw even in your product development early on where all the big ones that have all the budget yet they can’t figure out how to get a pocket in the right angle where you can actually put something in. Like it’s the simplest stuff, right, that you aced on your coats because you came from the outside in. So it’s very similar in that way. But let’s look back at when you started this with your minimum order and you were sitting on these coats and you had a couple of months to start selling them. What was, if you remember because it’s so hard because every entrepreneurial journey, like every day is a highlight and every day is the lowest moment, it just keeps going every day. But was there one big break through moment where you felt like, you know what? I think we just made the switch from startup into a brand. Like this is real, like this is going to be a brand.

Michael Berkowitz: There are a couple of moments like that and you’re totally right. It is a roller coaster, but I’m a big believer that people think about things, there’s an expression I didn’t think she was hot till my roommate did and now I can’t get her out of my mind. And that’s a very very powerful emotion that a lot of people follow others and look to see what other people are wearing. So initially there was one of our biggest clients that was a little bit hesitant to take our product and hesitant and not the nicest way and I’ll tell you that in fact, when we met with them, they had four buyers there and each one gave an independent reason why Norwegian Wool will not be right for them and it’s not a good brand and they left by saying I could pick, that they’re not taking me but I could pick whichever reason I think is right.
Then they started hearing about all the other stores having us and having a lot of success and suddenly they looked at us a lot differently and then they did place an order and they were scrambling to place more orders in season because things were selling out too soon. And that was when we really felt like okay. It’s not about the intermediary and again a lot of those buyers, they’re good people. They’re trying their best and some of the stores we deal with, the buyers are super smart. Super, just in touch with what their customers want and some of them actually start off as sales people on the floors and really did rotations around the floor and they really do get it and then some were just a little bit further removed and didn’t really understand. So those types of situations where you got this pat on your back and realize okay, you see, the customers really are the ones who dictate what’s right and what’s wrong and the customers are the ones they’ll speak the loudest and if we have the right product and there is a whole to be filled the customers will find it and will want it. It will speak for itself. And when I went back in for the next year’s order, they actually give me a big handshake before we even started saying anything else and it was just like this acknowledgment that you’re right and maybe we should listen to the customer a little bit more and that’s good advice for anyone you could be in food and beverage.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: You could be in the hospitality. You could be in services. I mean the basics, just listen to the customer. You can’t just come up with an idea because you want to be an entrepreneur. You can’t just come up with an idea that’s different. It has to be commercial. It has to be consumer based, based on what customers really want and when we get those affirmations of that it feels really really good.
Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah, that is amazing. And it was very difficult because you hear what a customer needs and you already created a product and you have to pivot and pivot and pivot and pivot until you’re finally there and that’s the beautiful pivot right? They’re pivots where you just kind of, had the wrong idea or where you messed up and you didn’t look at data or you didn’t do the research. And then there are the other pivots where you just put something out on the market, you listen, you reinvent you reinnovate and reiterate and then you put it out again.
Michael Berkowitz: Can I actually, I’ll mention something on that point, even in our last number of years, we had to adjust a little bit and adapt, the
winter patterns have changed a bit that winters are a little bit later than they used to be.

Fabian Geyrhalter: That’s true.

Michael Berkowitz: There were two winters in a row earlier on that where these polar vortexes if you remember that it was just below freezing for multiple weeks on end. That there were pictures from anything from Chicago to New York and…

Fabian Geyrhalter: And California even.

Michael Berkowitz: Yeah.

Fabian Geyrhalter: We were drowning in snow.

Michael Berkowitz: It was nationwide and almost a worldwide thing where the gates of cold weather had opened up and everyone just wanted the heaviest warmest coats they can find. These last few years, it’s actually not as mild as people think it might be, it’s more that things are a little bit later that November is a little bit more of what October used to be and…

Fabian Geyrhalter: The transition month. Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: March is where we’re still getting cold weather and snow and when you should start thinking of spring it’s still freezing. But what that means for us and I would say there’s one more thing. So many of our customers are hybrid working in some sense, many have come back to the office, but many may only come in two three days a week. A lot more people are commuting because they moved out to suburbs and that goes through an entire world even not just here.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Interesting

Michael Berkowitz: There’s a lot more of some days casual, some days dressy. So this lighter weight hybrid versatility versus just heavy warmth has, that’s the trend that our customers want a lot more easy. So in many cases without compromising on the warmth, we’ve been able to year over year use lighter weight wool shells and lighter weight cashmere shells, so it’s still the same coat. It still looks the same. But when you put it on, you feel even lighter. Stretchier is really important people, especially when you’re commuting. You’re driving a car, you’re in a train.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah, yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: People come in and they want to throw a football wearing it. And you see the way people move their arms, even I sit on, we have our own store on Fifth Avenue. So sometimes you’ll fly on the wall to see how customer shop and so many men and women now are moving when they try things on to wear it. So we have been able to stretchier material, stretchier waterproof membranes, lighter materials those things that if we just sold the exact same product we made eight nine years ago, there would still be an audience but it would be a slightly smaller audience. Now that we’ve been able to open it up to being a little bit lighter and easier to wear, we’ve been able to adapt and not reinvent ourselves, it’s the same mission and always will be the same mission. Luxury performance wool and cashmere, waterproof wool and cashmere, that is our story but as things change in the weather or work habits, we’ll adapt to what the customers want.

Fabian Geyrhalter: And does that story and that mission, how does that work for you as a brand when you go into, slightly different products right as you expand because I know you expanded into women’s wear women’s fashion, which is amazing. And I think that that is doing really really well, but I also heard you would maybe do beanies and they have the same kind of mission. They have the same quality, they have the same material. So are there enough products that you can expand into or do you not even plan on expanding on the product?

Michael Berkowitz: So first on the women’s side that was actually brand-wise very easy. Product wise not so easy because women really wanted shape. Our customer wanted it to be where there’s still a waist. Women would shop very critically to make sure there wasn’t extra bulk. So they wanted the warmth. In general women’s clothing is not as warm as men’s. If you think about if you go to a fancy party, a guy could wear a heavy flannel suit over a turtle neck over a T-shirt and all those things are warm and a party dress is very very thin and you’re already cool.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: I think scientifically women tend to run about two degrees colder than men. So there are a lot of reasons why the demand in women’s wear would actually be stronger. So took a few years to develop it and we got there but brand-wise that was the same thing we were doing for men’s luxury wool and cashmere coats with the down insulation waterproof and just put it into a very timeless women’s silhouettes and look at who were the leading brands in terms of the most beautiful wool cashmere coats without any sort of down insulation take their designs, that are timeless designs and see how we can infuse it with all of our performance, but then we talk about brand extensions into other products. We’re very disciplined. You have to always pass the litmus test of is this really much better than what’s out there on the market. So when you talk about a cashmere beanie, that’s a commodity item. If it’s just the cashmere beanie. Lots and lots of brands have them and they’re gonna go on sale and you could get them for whatever price. We can’t operate that way. We have to make it that it’s extra special and different so we have to put in an element of windproof into our cashmere beanies because that was the number one complaint, again going back to what do customers actually tell us, don’t just come with preconceived notions, ask customers and people were saying that a lot of their cashmere beanies the wind would come through, that it was nice and soft and warm but if it started having that wind chill, it would penetrate. Two, a lot of people said that they were too small, that they didn’t go around their ears, that they were constantly pulling them down and that they weren’t the right fit and then three that if it got wet that they would really get soaked. So you wanted an element of wind, water resistance in there as well. And that’s not easy. You can’t put a membrane in a knit product but we were able to use certain coatings to make it much more water resistant, same thing with our cashmere baseball caps, another very Succession item there by the way, so for all those things if it’s gonna be a commodity item, if it’s a, you’re not gonna see Norwegian Wool make it. If it’s just nice but a little bit better, different you can’t make it. If someone would come in and say look I have five other of whatever it is of X in my closet. But this one is the one that does the trick. This is the one I would wear every day. If that’s for a pair of wool lined shoes or a pair of water resistant wear to work cashmere pants, there’s a lot of different ways you could go but it has to be something really special and then all these items we’re not going to make 20 different skews. We’ll make three or four and make sure that they’re really very very special and yes, there are a bunch of other items that are actually already baking in the oven that are on brand, that same idea so that the goal is one day you could pretty much do all of your accessory outerwear shopping in Norwegian Wool for someone who appreciates that. Even summer wear things, the lightest raincoat for hot days but something they’ll keep you really warm and looking really good, I’m sorry, not too warm on summer wear stuff. So all those things are on brand but staying away from the things that are not within the brand.

Fabian Geyrhalter: I think it’s really interesting. The reason why I was going a little deeper into that, it’s usually, people’s purpose, people’s mission, as a company right is usually, not centered around the product or the materials and yours was so I was questioning is that bulletproof? Is it future-proof? And it really is and I like the idea of how you’re so focused on this is what we bring into this world. And this is how we differentiate and we’re gonna double down with whatever we do. I think it’s really great. On that note and as we’re slowly coming closer to an end here the big question, what does branding mean to you? It’s such a misunderstood term. What does it mean to you?

Michael Berkowitz: I think all about emotions. I think that there’s a lot more that a product or service does for you beyond just what meets the eye and I really think a lot about luxury branding in particular not just for Norwegian Wool, but luxury branding when it comes to wine or cars or watches and the emotions that they evoke. For us we really think about a brand is something that evokes an element of excitement, if you have let’s say a pair of snow tires that you just got for free. You’ll have it in your garage. And if you need to put it on, you put it on and perhaps you would prefer never to use it. For us, our customers are looking at their weather app to say, tomorrow’s gonna be cold in the morning. I could wear my Norwegian Wool. I’m looking forward to it. That you feel better about it.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: And there’s a lot of other products out there, again watches and wines and restaurants and travel. You’re looking forward to it. And that’s what I think a brand could do that it brings you into a new state of mind that you feel better about yourself that you want to do something because there are other things that can keep you warm, but then there are things that keep you warm and also just make you feel excited. You want to be seen.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: So that’s what I think about when it comes to branding what emotion.

Fabian Geyrhalter: I love that. Yeah I totally love that and it’s that emotion very often comes with the experience that you create and the story that you tell and all of that then in your mind when you become a part of that product, you suddenly, it all replays in your mind and it is actually something really cool and something exciting and it can actually bring a lot of joy to people. So that’s how I see branding. I don’t see it as something like you stick a logo on it and especially talking with you, I thought it was really interesting to see what you have to say about this, where you are this quiet, understated brand yet branding in itself, the philosophy thereof is so important to you as a company. So I think that’s really important. If I take the entire Norwegian Wool brand which has now been around almost 10 years from the beginning to now if I take it through a funnel and out comes only one word or two words that can describe the entire brand, what could those words be? Like for Everlane it would be transparency, they’re all about radical transparency. What is it for Norwegian Wool?

Michael Berkowitz: Sure, the word that I would come to is for sure confidence. We think about the life journey and most of our customers want to accomplish things and that comes back to something I said earlier that you want to have your own story and it could be a lot of things, that could be in your career for a lot of people. There’s a lot of accomplishing drawn from their career. But as I mentioned before it could be your family. It could be your charity work. It could be your volunteer work. It could be, just your gardening in your backyard, whatever really gives you a sense of fulfillment, but usually associated with some level of accomplishment that you’ve done something you have something to speak to. And we all need help boost to get there and we’re all insecure about different things and the way you’re dressed is the way people are going to see you, and that’s telling your story even before you open your mouth. So you want to be judged in a certain way. You want to feel better about yourself and weather and travel and all these things sort of come into contradiction with wanting to look your best. It’s something that could sometimes make it that you feel like I’m wearing something to stay warm, but I don’t want to be seen in. I remember when I only had a puffer coat before Norwegian Wool and those cold days and I would go into a dinner or lunch which would happen all the time, I would try to get there earlier and check in my coat or put it behind my back so people wouldn’t see me wearing it. I’m sure a lot of people can understand that, you feel like you’re not properly dressed. You’re not putting out your best.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: For us if you want to say one word that would make us feel proud and I think a lot of customers feel, is confidence. And it can even be in relationships. You’re going out on a date, you’re going to Thanksgiving and you’re gonna meet your potential future in laws. What’s that first impression you want to make when you’re standing at the door as they open it, and is this something you want to be seen in or are you taking off your coat and hiding it behind your back so that your future father-in-law looks at you and says this guy looks good. So it’s all about confidence confidence confidence.

Fabian Geyrhalter: And I remember after the pandemic which now seems like a mighty long time ago. But the first time me and my wife went out to dinner the theater or whatever it was and we got back into the clothes that we used to wear all the time and suddenly we put on the nice jacket and a nice shoes and we’re like, wow it’s a totally different life like you just feel so different right, than when you’re hanging out at home in your lounge wear all day long, like we all did. So what’s next for the Norwegian Wool brand. What are you excited about in the next six months? Obviously, this is a very timely question because here we are recording this in November before Black Friday and the holiday season and the winter season. It’s all happening for you right now, but as far as product or any kind of marketing things coming up, what are you excited about?

Michael Berkowitz: Sure, so very excited about we’ve been doing a lot of sales and a lot of selling into Europe and that is something that opens up another big market to us and a lot of customers even in the US are happy to hear that we’re doing very well in Europe because that adds an element of sophistication.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah totally.

Michael Berkowitz: So markets like Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France, Italy, these are places that become very very strong markets for us. We just finished a pop up in Rinascente, one of the best stores in Milan and that was quite successful.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Amazing.

Michael Berkowitz: And you’re catering to that European luxury customer so that is a fun thing for everyone to partake in. We also are very excited because yeah, these are the cold months coming up. This is when people get to really test out. We sell a lot of stuff very early a lot of our customers come already August September which is nice and good for sales, but we like it when they’re really able to test it out and you’re gonna see a lot more in the streets. I love walking on the streets and seeing all these Norwegian Wools and other customers people have no idea.

Fabian Geyrhalter: That must be amazing, right?

Michael Berkowitz: It does feel great. It really does and we do have slight branding on the sleeve just for the people who need to know, know and it’s sort of like this little secret club that you could see that’s a Norwegian Wool, and you sometimes get that head nod or that little wink that like two Norwegian Wool guys next to each other waiting for the Metro North train or whatever it is. And then we launched some new lines this year that are very exciting. It’s our first time to have a peacoat that was actually hard because peacoats have been around forever, tons of brands do it. It’s very very timeless that double-breasted look but they’re not conducive to being performance. It has a very open chest, very simple. The double-breasted thing doesn’t necessarily lend itself to closures for keeping out the cold air. So we really had to analyze, how do you keep it to look like your classic peacoat but get all those things we usually put in down, waterproof, a neck that closes really well. Hand pockets that are extra deep. Peacoats very often have very shallow pockets because the way the buttons get in the way of the pocket placement, they can’t be that deep. So that was like a fun challenge and it’s off to a strong start and we’re doing it just in the classic navy and black and we hope to launch a women’s peacoat next year because of the initial success we’re having so far. So it’s fun to see something you’ve been working on for a few years come to life and seeing customers trying it on and liking it. So those are some of the things we’re really excited about we even have this other coat. I think that this one that, we call it our hooded Euro coat. Our Euro coat is one of our most classic, one of our strongest sellers we do it in every color, we do it in every fabric wool, silk cashmere or pure cashmere. So every price point but there was a customer that really wanted a performance hood. But hoods sometimes could detract from that little bit more of that elegant look so we have to work in this secretive hood. That was a real hood. It’s a downline hood, but you can’t really see it.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Super cool.

Michael Berkowitz: And then you could actually hide it in the coat itself, but we’re not talking about some paper thin, those things again really exciting and off to a strong start and I think when you try it on you’re like, my gosh, I understand all that went into it. They may not understand all the blood, sweat and tears and pulling out your hair along the way but at least conceptually they get what we were trying to do and how successfully we achieved that.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Well Michael, I’m glad that you moved your careers because you’re so passionate about what do you do that you’re constantly the best salesperson ever. I think there’s no one listening right now who doesn’t want a Norwegian Wool coat or jackets. Absolutely awesome. Where, talking about which, where can people get to know Norwegian Wool? Where can they follow either you personally on social or the brand.

Michael Berkowitz: Sure, so we are sold in a bunch of different places. There’s some great stores around the country that sell us around the world but we do recommend if you want the full experience come to our website NorwegianWool.com, come to our store in Fifth Avenue if you live in the New York area or coming through. We’re open seven days a week. We have every style here in our store. So it’s the best selection and we really pride ourselves on having very good customer service. So if you come to our website and you have questions, there’s a live chat function. We have put a lot of money into this interactive guide. We make a lot of coats already. So if you just answer a few questions,

Fabian Geyrhalter: Yeah, I tried that. Yeah.

Michael Berkowitz: It’ll sort of tell you what our top three choices are. You have no idea how much beta testing we did on that, where we would go through the five questions with customers before we would get to the final page which gave the answers. We would ask all of our team, what would you pick, if you were really speaking to them, what answers would you give? Which are the top three and in what order? It took a lot of strategy to really understand again, what questions matter to people? Are you wearing this while sitting down? Are you commuting with it? Or are you wearing it mostly walking outside where you would like it to be longer? Is this something where you’re really just care about max warmth, or do you care a little bit more about that versatility like we touched upon before. Really just trying to understand and then, based on that giving our suggestions. So if you come to our site or come to our store, I hope you got that full experience, but you can even write to us either on Instagram or Facebook or on our website and just tell us what ZIP code or what country you’re in and we’ll try to find you something local if you want to try things on, we really try to put a lot into the whole customer service. A lot of people are buying for gifts and that’s hard because you want to surprise someone so you don’t have all their measurements. You don’t how something will fit but you also don’t want it to be returned. You don’t want it to just sit in a closet. So we do training sessions with our people all the time. What are the questions to ask a customer if they’re buying for their girlfriend, they’re buying for their boyfriend, they’re buying for their kid? My son is starting a graduate school at the University in Michigan, is gonna go on interviews, but I know if it doesn’t fit he’ll never wear it. But I’m spending 2,000 bucks. I want him to wear it all the time. Not a problem here. Let’s answer all these questions, go into his closet, whatever it is, we work with you so that’s the experience we try to give that’s special and in any of those platforms, our site, our store or our social you should hopefully find that experience is there for you.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Fantastic, fantastic. Well Michael, this was a really inspiring conversation. I loved your stance and your brand stance on quiet luxury
and how it came about so organically and naturally. Thanks for, thanks for your time. And thanks for sharing your stories.

Michael Berkowitz: My absolute pleasure and Fabian it’s a pleasure to join with you. You ask really really thoughtful questions that took me back through my journey, things that I like to think about. We continue to think about, so it’s just a great, great pleasure to be with you.

Fabian Geyrhalter: Appreciate it.


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