It’s a big leap, from your mum’s basement to the forefront of sustainable design, but that’s exactly where Jo Egil Tobiasson’s journey has taken him. In the beginning, he was just looking for a way to avoid sweaty boxers when out skiing or hiking; these days, his brand, Northern Playground is pioneering new recycled fabrics and supporting social development projects, as well as planting trees in Ethiopia to combat climate change. How and why are equally good questions, both with compelling answers.
Most brands will claim humble origins, but that’s exactly where Northern Playground come from, with Jo designing baselayers in his spare time using an old sewing machine and YouTube tutorials to guide his hand. His solution to the aforementioned underwear problem was to fuse boxers with an insulated top, allowing him to take both off when he got warm while on the slopes. By all accounts, those early prototypes were hilarious in looks (they’re in display in their Oslo office these days) but, more importantly, they did the job. Jo had created an early version of the Zipbody.
Alone among his friends in seeing through the eyebrow-raising aesthetics was Magnus, who saw the creative vision behind Jo’s design. Together, they attempted to solve another recurring issue in outdoor adventure - whether or not to wear long johns while in the mountains. You know the drill: put them on and you risk being too hot and sweaty, leave them behind and risk being too cold. The solution they settled upon, after several more YouTube videos and a good helping of whisky, was to sew zips into the leggings, allowing them to be removed without taking your boots off.
As soon as that first prototype was created, they knew they’d solved it (who got to test it out was allegedly a hotly-fought contest) and a winter spent careering around Norway’s mountains proved the theory. Confident in their design, they started producing the Ziplongs in small quantities and ran Northern Playground in their spare time, with encouraging results. By December 2014 they were featured on Norwegian breakfast TV and, that same day, the Ziplongs sold like hotcakes. Jo quit his full-time job the same day.
From those early beginnings, Northern Playground has continued to grow and develop; they’ve refined the materials, for one, and expanded the range to include both woolen and fleece products. In 2015 they won a German Design Award and a year later took home the prestigious Scandinavian Award for apparel at the Outdoor Show. Innovative design has been at the forefront of their success - in 2016, Jo spent several months skiing while wearing a bra to “properly understand the topic”. It’s an amusing image with serious results: the Zipbra is now the brand’s second best-selling product, raved about by women in the outdoors across Europe.
Their latest venture in outdoor adventure design is arguably their most ambitious and definitive so far. Recognising that Northern Playground was growing, and fast, Jo decided to expand their range into lifestyle apparel - but, as you might expect, they were going to do things their way. Sourcing organic wool to improve the products’ sustainability was the first step, and blending it with silk to improve its strength and durability - increasing the clothing’s longevity - was an another master stroke. They didn’t stop there, though. Jo refused to add a logo to any of the products, from their Long-Sleeve Tops to the casual Tank Tops, to allow Northern Playground’s customers to avoid becoming “living commercials”. It’s a difficult decision for a company to make but as with everything that Northern Playground do, it was a move based on steadfast principles.
Before venturing into outdoor adventure apparel, Jo was a political scientist; “my real education is from the jungles of Latin America, and I’ve done a lot of political development work with NGOs and governments...it’s been hard to run a consumer company knowing that we pretty much fuck up the environments that I tried to protect”. That’s why Northern Playground strive to improve the ecological sustainability of their products to the nth degree; why they plant trees in Ethiopia for every product sold on their site; and why they employ Somali immigrants in Oslo to work with recycled wool. This is a brand who are determined to create the best products possible but for whom the real struggle is to make their impact on the world an unequivocally positive one, however difficult that might be.
To reiterate, that’s a pretty big jump from trying to avoid sweaty boxers while skiing. But it’s that ambition, determination and passion that distinguishes Northern Playground from the rest of the field, and why we’re so stoked to be working with them. With plans for more zipped and organic products in the pipeline, this Norwegian collective is just getting started; we can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.
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