A Day in the Life: T-Michael

Bespoke tailor T-Michael derives as much satisfaction from the design process as he does from the end result.

“I used to go to secondhand stores and buy tailored jackets and suits just so I could rip them apart to see how they were built up”

From the crowded cobblestone streets of London to the quiet alleyways of Bergen, Norway, T-Michael creates hand-sewn menswear that may as well come with its own lovingly worn-in passport. Born and raised as the youngest of five children in Accra, Ghana, Michael Tetteh Nartey moved to London as a teenager before traversing the North Sea to Norway at the age of 23. After earning a degree in men’s tailoring, he launched his eponymous line in 1996 and now also collaborates with Alexander Helle on Norwegian Rain, a collection of hardy and sartorial rainwear with a Japanese approach. Though his work often keeps him busy, he makes time for a quiet breather on his couch or a spot of whiskey at one of his favorite neighborhood bars.

What was your first experience as a tailor and how did you get into the profession of tailoring?

When I moved to Bergen with my then-wife, the job opportunities weren’t great, and that forced me to rethink everything I’d done and choose a path that’d make me and my family feel comfortable. I decided to get into clothing and jumped right into it. It may not have been the most sensible choice, but it felt like the right thing to do at the time. When I graduated from my tailoring course, I opened up my first store on a street in the city that most people don’t frequent: It was a slow street, but the upside was that when people walked along it they slowed down and didn’t have a sense of urgency about themselves—I thought that might just get them inside. But then I got fed up with waiting for people to come and order navy blue two-button suits, so I decided to start my own collection. I stitched the pieces in the back room, put them on a dummy and displayed them in the window.

What advice do you have for someone undergoing a career change?

It’s a cliché to say, “Follow your heart,” because your heart doesn’t pay the bills, but things are going to get tough either way. And it’s much easier to keep going if you’re actually doing something you really have a passion for. It means you can stay up all night and work 24 hours a day, because it feels right. Of course you need to get your skills in order, but choose what you truly want to be working with.

How does your training as a tailor separate you from other clothing designers?

I think it’s made all the difference. I like to say that I design and build things up—I don’t just sketch and produce them. I know how to pattern cut, I know how to trim, I know how to fit and I know how to stitch. I understand the DNA of clothing. I used to go to secondhand stores and buy tailored jackets and suits just so I could rip them apart to see how they were built up. The reason why they’d been preserved all those years is because they were built well—garments that are built well mold better on the body and get better with age. You might not like my designs, but when you wear them the fit is bang on. I think that’s what sets me apart from other designers that may not have a tailoring background.

How is the world of tailoring going to change with the next generation?

I was part of the last batch of pure tailoring students to study at the school I attended in Bergen. After that it revised its program to blend tailoring with design. The problem with how tailoring and design are taught today is that there isn’t enough emphasis on spending time getting to know the craft: People want to create things because they want to be known, not because they truly want to build something.

Why is it important for you to focus on getting the little details just right?

I think I do it more for myself than for my customers. Sometimes I put details in my garments that people will either probably not notice or won’t really take the time to figure out, but for me, those tiny details are what make the garment. For example, I could make a suit and take away all the pinstripes except for a single one that runs down the left sleeve. To me, that’s absolutely beautiful. It changes everything. It goes from being a simple, classic gray suit to being something different. That’s what finishes a product.

What was your experience of growing up in Ghana?

I was my parents’ last kid, so by the time I came along they had already tried every way of parenting and were sort of like, “Whatever, mate!” But it was brilliant having four older siblings to look up to. I don’t go back to Ghana very often, but when I do, I get that feeling of being home and being back where I grew up—it’s the vibrancy of being a Ghanaian. Sometimes that disappears when you live as far away as Norway, but it only takes a few hours of being in Ghana before it flashes back.

What parts of your childhood have had the biggest influence on your work?

I reckon the small things you see and experience growing up really make an impact. My dad was always well turned-out: He used to constantly polish his shoes, and I personally never want my shoes to be dirty because of that. Little things like that stay with you and form you in the later years.

Do people have many preconceived ideas about Ghanian culture?

Many people expect my designs to have bold, loud colors or patterns because that’s what’s supposed to be Ghanaian or African. And I beg to differ. Sure, we have certain parts of our culture that are bold and bright, but we have loads of other things as well. People like to ask me, “What’s Ghanaian or African in your collection?” And I tell them, “Well, that’s the baseline.” It’s where everything stems from. Everything I do is Ghanaian—it resonates deep inside of me and dictates all that I do. Ghanaians have a certain sense of subtlety and humbleness, and we have a deep sense of respect for the elderly in our society. I see a lot of similarities when I go to Japan. This attitude or sentiment just sort of lies there—you don’t talk about it, but it binds people together. For me, that’s the most valuable asset of Ghanaian culture.

How did living in London as a teenager affect your creative approach?

Living in Southwest London had a huge impact on me. There were just so many amazing and exciting subcultures in every corner—the skinheads, the punks, the goths. The music scene was fresh, things weren’t mass-produced yet, hip-hop was just coming out and the culture was rather radical and anti-establishment. It was a great time in my life, and it sits really well with me. It sowed the seeds and nurtured the belief that I could do anything I wanted, as long as I did it the right way. Comparatively, Bergen is really quiet, subdued and slow. But as I moved here to raise a family, it was also the perfect place to be in that moment. It’s shaped the way I think and do things more than anything or anywhere else.

What’s the design community like in Bergen?

The beauty of Bergen is that it’s a very small place. It rains often, but the weather helps you bond with the rest of the community as you spend a lot of time indoors, creating things and collaborating. We’re all trying to do what we can—individually and together—to enhance the cultural atmosphere of the city.

How has living in these different places influenced your approach to the world?

I’ve learned to think of people as individuals and not as of different nationalities. It simplifies everything. There are good people everywhere!

Do you feel more comfortable working alone or as part of a team?

In the past, I only liked to work solo—I just couldn’t see myself working with anyone else. The design process has nothing to do with democracy: As a designer, you need to dictate how things should be, and hopefully people will get it. But when Alexander Helle and I started Norwegian Rain, the synergy was right. We have a mantra: If I can’t convince Alexander about an idea, then it’s not a very good idea.

Are you a methodical worker or more impulsive?

I’m definitely a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type. I get inspired when I least expect it, and while working methodically can help to spread out the workload, it doesn’t really aid my creative process. Sometimes an idea hits me and I have to turn on real quick! I don’t fight it—I take it. When I feel really worked up because of a little idea, that’s a nice feeling to have.

How do you challenge yourself?

I’m never really content with what I produce. I make notes of thoughts that come up when I’m working on a collection so I can return to them and pursue those ideas as my next projects—it’s the only way forward. I feel like I’m constantly challenging myself and don’t always need an outside impetus to motivate me, because it’s all happening internally. That’s what makes it fun.

Please describe your neighborhood.

I live about 60 meters from my store, so I basically just roll out of bed and am at work. My street’s pretty hidden and not a lot of people know about it, but it’s there for those who know, and that’s what I like about it. We don’t get hordes of people walking into the store just to avoid the rain—instead we get people that actually want to come in. I’ve been living on the street for about 18 years now, so it feels like it’s my street in a way. It just feels right.

Is your home furnished in a similar aesthetic to your designs?

My home is very much like the way I think. I live in a pretty small flat near the center of town, and I’ve decorated it with lots of vintage pieces and some items made by friends. Most of the artwork has been bought from people that I know. It only takes about five or 10 minutes to clean it up—it’s a pretty portable flat, which is just what I think a flat should be.

Please tell us a bit about your children and what they bring to your life.

My kids are super cool. I bet other parents say that too, but I’m not kidding—mine are super cool. They’re different in their own ways but they’ve got the best parts of my ex-wife and me. They really complete me. My daughter is 25 and she’s finishing up her master’s degree in film studies, and my son is 19 and he starts business school next year. They keep me well-balanced. I’m a proud papa! My son comes to live with me every other week. It’s a wonderful arrangement for us, and parenting at home really helps me take my mind off work. I cook dinner every day of the week when my son’s here and my daughter also joins us from time to time. It’s very therapeutic.

Do you have any morning routines or favorite coffee shops?

The thing is that I don’t drink coffee! I’m one of those people that heads into a coffee shop and thinks, “Oh, this smells so nice,” and then says, “One hot chocolate, please!” I drink tea if I’m away from home and people offer me a drink, but I definitely drink more hot chocolate than tea. Bergen is so small that I tend to wind up at the same places every time: I’ll go to a coffee shop and end up talking to people I know, or I’ll go to the bar and sit down and 10 minutes later my friends will come over. That’s what’s nice about it—it’s almost effortless in a way, and you don’t have to plan things too much. My work and my personal life converge, and most of the people I hang around are probably related to my industry in one way or another.

How do you recharge given your hectic lifestyle?

Even though there’s a lot of work to be done, it never feels like work. So there’s no need to press pause, per se, but it’s always nice when I’m not traveling to just sit on the sofa and take a breath—to be there for an evening without really thinking gives me the opportunity to let my mind wander. I feel like I’ve got the right balance in my life at the moment. It feels really good. I like a good whiskey, a good cigar and good food.

What is the driving force that keeps you going when the going gets tough?

Design isn’t an easy business—everything that can go wrong in the fashion business usually does. But at the end of the day, I truly love what I do. Just picking up a piece of fabric and thinking, “What can I do with this?” keeps me going every single time. It’s an ongoing conversation, and I’m so glad it is.

ISSUE 52

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