The CEO of the controversial company Palantir can frequently be observed sporting clothes covered with sponsor logos from Norwegian companies such as Veidekke and SpareBank 1.
DING! DING! DING!
The huge bell hanging over the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange reaches a deafening crescendo.
It is September 30th, 2020, and Palantir has just been listed on the stock exchange.
Their software for analyzing big data is used by the military, police and a range of companies around the world. Which is one of the reasons Palantir is surrounded by secrecy, and often characterized as controversial.
Palantir has contracts with Norwegian authorities as well, worth tens of millions of dollars.
«Palantir has the world’s foremost technology for monitoring terrorists, deporting people and splitting up families.»
This is how Palantir is introduced in last year’s Brage Prize-winning book Ekko written by Norwegian commentator Lena Lindgren.
«If Palantir wants to find you, you do not stand a chance.»
While Palantir disputes that the company has access to its customers’ data or have had any role in splitting families, there is no denying the success of their business.
But why is this American billionaire walking around in sponsored Norwegian cross-country skiing clothes? What is he trying to tell us?
A clothing conundrum
We were recently looking for a picture of Karp to illustrate an article about Palantir’s collaboration with the Norwegian police. Then we noticed something strange.
Palantir’s CEO is strikingly often depicted in ski clothing emblazoned with the logos of Norwegian companies.
The clothes start making an appearance on sunny days in the US in the summer of 2019. The Norwegian press agency NTB’s photo archive shows us that Karp has not only one jacket with Norwegian company logos. He has a wardrobe stacked full of them.
The photos are taken at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, annually attracting the elite in media and finance.
The sponsor logos reveal that the clothes come from one of the Norwegian Ski Association’s regional teams for athletes with elite ambitions, currently on a level just below the cross-country national team.
More specifically, they’re from the 2016/17 season of what was then called Regional Team Veidekke West.
Through international media coverage, we know that Karp is not afraid to stand out. Wearing cross-country clothing at a conference full of billionaires, he definitely does.
We also know a possible motive. He works out a lot, and does both tai chi and cross-country ski.
Weather permitting, he does four to six miles of cross-country skiing every day, writes the New York Times in a portrait from 2020.
Palantir has also sponsored the US combined national team, although Karp does not seem to prefer their clothes.
We first saw Karp donning the outfits in Sun Valley in 2019. In 2021 he was back at the conference again. So were the clothes.
An exciting eccentric
“This is another tech-founder from Silicon Valley who knows the norms for which style choices are giving their leadership position just the right and eccentric aura”, Ragnhild Brochmann concludes about Karp’s clothing.
Brochmann is an art and fashion historian, known from her column in Morgenbladet and the TV-show TING! by public broadcaster NRK.
She says garments such as turtlenecks, sandals, vests or sportswear are used strategically.
Apple founder Steve Jobs preferred jeans and a black turtleneck, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s go-to is a gray T-shirt, and former Oculus boss Palmer Luckey wears sandals for all occasions (while admitting it is a bad idea after going to Alaska).
– By taking a dull, ordinary garment and using it in all contexts, a recognizable, peculiar and bulletproof uniform is created, Brochmann explains to NRK.
A uniform that is so ordinary you can not be accused of being conceited, and just uncommon enough that people perceive you as someone special.
– As an exciting eccentric, Brochmann sums it up.
Clothes keep piling up
A quick search online reveals that the clothes pictured in the news agency’s archive are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Karp’s wardrobe from Team Veidekke West.
Surprisingly, Karp also uses these clothes during official appearances.
In a video on Palantir’s YouTube channel, Karp is participating in an interview (in French!) together with a former Airbus executive. In the video, the logo of the Norwegian construction company Veidekke is prominent on Karp’s cap.
In another video from April last year, Karp talks about Palantir’s future after the pandemic. On his left thigh it says Veidekke. This subsequently leads to speculation among anonymous users on the online forum Reddit as to whether Veidekke is one of Palantir’s new customers.
Fully-equipped New Year’s greeting
But it does not end there. A video Palantir made for its investors just before the bell was ringing at the stock exchange in 2020, opens – not atypically – with Karp doing an intense ski training session.
Karp is equipped with roller skis and training clothes without logos. Suddenly he swerves off the track and sprints up a grassy hill, before he begins his opening speech to the investors.
However, Karp is not alone on the track. He is tailed by another person, in training clothes with Team Veidekke West’s insignia.
The same thing happened again at the end of last year. In December, several new videos are uploaded to Palantir’s YouTube channel. They are New Year’s greetings from Karp, starting with him hitting the cross-country slopes.
In both videos, more recent clothes from Team Veidekke West make their appearance.
Thus, there is little doubt that Karp has had a refill of a new season of Team Veidekke West clothes since the first appearance in the photo archive from Sun Valley.
Veidekke is taken aback by these examples.
“We do not have a customer relationship with the company or any cooperation with them”, Veidekke’s communications manager Helge Dieset writes to NRK.
Dieset emphasizes that it is great that quality sportswear can be used and reused over time, but that it’s not only a positive thing that these clothes are being worn in such public settings.
“It’s just completely wrong when he appears to be an employee, a close associate, or someone sponsored by Veidekke.”
So how did Karp get the clothes? Were they a gift from the Norwegian authorities? Does the Norwegian Ski Association have a hitherto unknown sponsorship agreement with Palantir?
Unknown to the Norwegian Ski Association
The Norwegian Ski Association says that they have no knowledge of how Karp got hold of the clothes. They state that such sets of clothes are typically given to athletes, support staff and the national cross-country committee.
On some teams, athletes can receive clothes worth over $10.000 during a season. Afterwards, they quickly find their way to friends and acquaintances.
“Clothes are distributed annually in connection with the selection of new teams. In addition, athletes representing the national team internationally receive outfits when they’re selected”, according to Gro Eide in the Norwegian Ski Association.
“It is up to each recipient whether they give away used clothes when a season ends.”
The regional team’s management has no knowledge of Karp.
“He is totally unknown to me and the others on the team board”, Geir Olav Håland answers when questioned by NRK.
“Our athletes are not allowed to sell any of the clothes they have received, but we do not think it matters if they pass on some of the clothes to friends or acquaintances for reuse. There is so much good clothing that would otherwise go to waste.”
Karp’s unknown encounters – and skiing – in Norway
Our next lead comes in the form of Palantir’s most high-profile customers in Norway: the Norwegian Police and the Customs Service. Have they met Karp and provided him with these clothes in connection with their agreements with Palantir worth tens of millions of dollars?
The National Police Directorate claims not to be aware of any meeting with Palantir’s CEO.
We also ask Atle Roll-Matthiesen, who was one of the directorate’s envoys at meetings with Palantir in the US in 2016, and who at an earlier point led the Youth Olympics at Lillehammer the same year.
“I have never met Karp, as far as I know”, Roll-Matthiesen answers.
At the Customs Service, we get a different answer.
NRK can now report previously unknown meetings between the Customs Service and Palantir.
Representatives from the Customs Service have met Karp a number of times. Both abroad, and in Norway.
In Oslo in March 2018 and in Lillehammer in March 2019, Karp participated in what the Customs Service describes as «outdoor team-building events» for Palantir and the government agency.
NRK has gained access to the extensive correspondence between employees of the Customs Service and Palantir in connection with the event planning. This included ski relays, with Karp in the forefront.
«Dr Karp and Jan Erik are the first out in the track,» Palantir’s Helen Haglund writes in an email, as the planning is approaching its final phase.
Director of the IT section in the Customs Service, Jan Erik Ressem, confirms that ski relays were held between them and Palantir both in 2018 and 2019.
The Customs Service lost both races to Palantir.
“The customs service has not provided ski clothing to Karp and has not heard of employees who have done so”, says Ressem.
“On Palantir’s own relay team they had some skilled skiers who were Palantir employees. It would not be surprising if any of them have relations with Norwegian elite runners or elite teams, but that is not something the Customs Service is aware of.”
The archives of the international photo agencies contain many photos of Karp over several years. The Norwegian sponsored clothes do not start to appear in the pictures until after the visits to Norway.
The solution stopped short of the finish line
It seems we are very close to uncovering the connection between Karp and the clothes.
After a round of calls to the athletes at Team Veidekke West (which is currently named Team Elon West (no affiliation to Musk), we get confirmation that one of them is the source of Karp’s clothes.
The person in question does not want to be named or provide information about how the contact with Karp arose.
Palantir is tight-lipped too.
“We have an office in Norway, and Alex is passionate about cross-country skiing”, is the only answer given by Palantir’s communications manager Lisa Gordon.
The company’s Norwegian and international spokespersons did not respond to NRK’s inquiries before the Norwegian version of this story was published.
After publication, Jan Hiesserich of Palantir did reach out to dispute some of the characteristics by Lindgren. But mentioned nothing about the clothes.
“For those of us who work at Palantir, it is not new that the CEO loves skiing, but please understand that as a matter of principle we won’t comment on any private matters of our board members”, writes Hiesserich.
And so, the mystery surrounding Palantir’s CEO lives on.
A carefully crafted style
Still, Ragnhild Brochmann helps us understand what motivates a CEO like Karp to use clothes like this.
“Karp and his peers, like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, want to symbolize several things at once”, the fashion historian answers.
“First, that they know and accept the deeply conservative constraints of modern menswear. The ideal is to flag an unassuming, masculine and purposeful identity through the use of unassuming, masculine and functional garments.”
“There are garments that can be said to be utilitarian, without being fashionable – like a black turtleneck or a down vest”, says Brochmann.
Brochmann says that fashion has historically been perceived as a superficial female occupation that removes focus from the important tasks in life.
“This choice of clothing says both that you don’t spend time on fashion and, in a cunning way, that you are aware of another well-known fashion strategy: anti-fashion.”
“That is the art of sporting a seemingly ordinary and boring style, in such a strikingly personal way that it seems impressive, cool and – in the case of Steve Jobs – iconic.”
“This gives the impression that the person – the shape, the silhouette, the content – is as recognizable as a bottle of Coke.”
“Karp probably wants something like that”, Brochmann thinks.
“He is probably aware that an alliance with an obscure Norwegian cross-country team and ditto obscure logos is a kind of silly commentary on the contemporary logo mania.”
“A kind of joke saying aspirational billionaires must flex their financial muscles by wearing GUCCI across their chest, while those who already have billions in the bank can simply say: Veidekke.”