Esquire (UK)

How Vollebak is dressing us for the future

According to the British brothers behind Vollebak, the future of fashion has already arrived


as company mission statements go, Vollebak’s is a good one. To make the future of clothing. Concepts that have never been seen, or even attempted, before. Take its Graphene Jacket. Made from the only material to win a Nobel Prize, it can conduct electricit­y and store heat, something Vollebak says has the same potential to change life on Earth as stone, bronze and iron once did. How about a pair of trousers so tough you can take a blowtorch to them without leaving a mark? You might try its 100 Year Pants, made of Kevlar, the same material used to protect the Internatio­nal Space Station from micrometeo­roid strikes.

Then there’s its Baker Miller Pink Relaxation Hoodie that zips up over your face, eliminatin­g all outside stimuli, “a portable isolation tank”, that comes with its own downloadab­le soundtrack of pink noise, intended to function as an off-switch from our congested lives. The Blue Morpho Jacket, constructe­d from more than two billion microscopi­c glass beads, meanwhile, might be considered the opposite. Inspired by the iridescent Blue Morpho butterfly, it shimmers in sunlight like the liquid metal T-1000 from Terminator 2. That one looks pretty cool on the ski slopes.

Vollebak, a three-year-old start-up, aims to do for outdoor clothing what Tesla did for cars and elBulli did for food. That is, to redefine a category so commonplac­e we mostly take it for granted. It has come at it from a new angle, using science, wit and imaginatio­n to create products no one thought possible, largely because no one had bothered trying. As Elon Musk and Ferran Adrià discovered, if you can do that, you will create a waiting list that will take years to satisfy. Vollebak has done this.

But Vollebak, a Flemish word from profession­al cycling that means “going all out”, does not employ 45,000 people like Tesla, or count on a crack team of specialist staff and researcher­s as elBulli did. It is run by two brothers. Nick and Steve Tidball, identical twins who grew up in the Midlands and oversee operations from a small office in London, having recently expanded to a staff of ten. Vollebak has never advertised. It does not employ a PR company. Its clothes aren’t available in any shops. With prices from £85 for a T-shirt (“Earth’s toughest T-shirt”; made with 100,000 ceramic particles) to almost £1,000 for their highestend jacket, Vollebak is not for everyone. But it routinely sells out within hours of announcing a new product, and has counted customers from 65 countries to its website in one month.

“The idea was: can you take on the Goliaths of Nike and Patagonia with only a handful of people,” says Nick Tidball when we first meet, in the autumn of 2018. “That was the aim. And the way we thought we could do it was through innovation. So instead of having an R&D department, what if the whole company is that? If every product is geared towards: ‘How do we redesign your wardrobe?’ If we’re going to make the ultimate pair of shorts, the ultimate shirt, the ultimate hoodie: how would we do this?’”

With their shaggy hair, outdoor complexion­s and effusive self-belief, not to say identical clothes (their own designs) plus a habit of talking over each other in a way that may be unique to siblings, the Tidballs can be hard to separate. The other thing they share is a twin passion for extreme sports. As well as endurance biking, skiing, climbing, surfing, kayaking and paddle boarding, they have raced ultra-marathons across deserts, through the Amazon basin and over the Arctic. Once, 23 hours into a 78-mile run in the 45°C heat of the Nairobi desert, after Steve spent the night before the next leg in his tent too full of adrenaline to sleep, a common problem for athletes, he realised he was passing blood. A doctor gave him Ibuprofen and he finished the race.

“We’ve been to some very dangerous places,” he says. “So we’re pretty good with risks.”

Still, they had no experience of running a clothing business. Or any business. But they agreed that most sports adventure kit was uninspirin­g and bland. Usually designed to blend in, it is produced in either red or black because that is what sells, and distinguis­hed only by a logo or the addition of fleecing, Gore-Tex or waterproof­ing. There was surely an alternativ­e to, say, Snow+Rock at one end and high-fashion at the other, with athleisure, which isn’t really built for performanc­e, and where “you’re kind-of buying your wife’s brand half the time anyway”, somewhere in the middle.

“It just felt like there had to be this place where it’s OK to be excited about a piece of clothing as a guy, but one that doesn’t make you a fashionist­a,” says Nick.

So instead of making clothes for a proven market, what about if they made clothes people had no idea they wanted? What would happen if they started with an idea (“Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”) and worked backwards? The plan was to release something new — in the sense of something never before seen, anywhere — every month. They are fond of using the stars of molecular gastronomy as references: Heston Blumenthal, the Roca brothers, René Redzepi. “Because they’ve just gone for it, on every level,” says Steve. “Heston’s gone, ‘If I steam these onions down for 96 hours...’ — and that’s one ingredient. ‘They’re the best at 96 hours. Not 95 or 97 — 96’. Our thing was to do that, but with materials.”

The pair’s North Star was Nike’s Mayfly trainer that weighed 135g and was designed to fall to bits after 100km of wear, an outrageous and delightful conceit, a new bit of technical thinking, whose inbuilt obsolescen­ce seemed to poke fun at the slavish desires of trainer collectors, while being a slavishly collectabl­e trainer in its own right. Nick and Steve consider it “one of the best things ever created”.

The more they studied the clothing business, the less sense it made. “We looked at the indoctrina­ted practices of the fashion industry, and thought: ‘This is crazy’,” says Nick.

“It just really blew our minds,” says Steve. “We weren’t trying to be disruptive. We just looked at it and thought: ‘That cannot be right’.”

“Clothing operates through seasons, right?” says Nick. “Because clothing has been an historical­ly wholesale model. A brand takes a collection to a buyer, the buyer says, ‘I like this, this and this’. But seasonalit­y in a globalised world is absolute madness. We never want to do wholesale because a) I don’t know any shops I’d actually put our stuff in, and b) as soon as you do that you lose control. Someone wants to buy products from you at a certain price at a certain time… Well, innovation doesn’t work like that. Say you want to buy my pieces in September at £50 or whatever, that doesn’t mean they’ll be ready. Some of our pieces take three years to develop and some of our pieces we don’t know the price [of] until it’s finished.”

Their Graphene Jacket, for example, was launched in August last year.

“When everyone’s on holiday and no one needs a jacket,” laughs Steve. “Everyone would tell you, ‘You’re fucking insane’. But that was when it was ready.” It sold out in five days.

This is by no means Vollebak’s only issue with the business of fashion. Its clothes are

produced in Portugal and Greece, in conditions that meet certain criteria. If the factories aren’t places Nick and Steve feel comfortabl­e showing their families around (they each have two young children), if they would have a problem with any element of them splashed on the front of a newspaper, they aren’t interested. “There’s a huge amount of hidden parts to the fashion world: Bangladesh, truly terrible things going on,” they say. “With all sorts of brands.”

This was not some mealy-mouthed nod to sustainabi­lity that has become 2019’s biggest clothing trend: multibilli­on-pound companies producing shoes from recycled bottles to do their bit. “We’re building a brand from scratch, so therefore we had to accept we’re going to pay four-, five-, six-times more than a normal brand might pay. We’re OK with that. Because then it’s our job to tell the consumer, ‘Here’s why you should feel good about the thing you’re wearing’. It’s another part of the story. Then it’s our job to work with the factories and go, ‘Right, these are the orders we’ve got. How can you go about creating it?’ And then it’s up to us to be good business people.”

Then there is the quality of the clothes. “In fashion, typically what happens is someone starts with a price they believe they can sell something for, then you design backwards,” says Nick. “They’ll get a prototype and de-spec it. Every zip you put on is like pinning a £5 note to a top. So the designer and the product team will literally go through taking bits off: zips, swapping out materials… They make a piece of clothing worse, but only change the things they don’t think the consumer will see.”

“We do the opposite,” beams Steve. Consider the buttons on their Planet Earth shirts (“the most technical shirt ever built”), a garment designed to be worn anywhere: mangrove swamps, rainforest­s, savannahs. They fasten using buttons made of tagua nuts from the mountains of South America, that slide up and down military tape on a shirt held together by 62m of reinforced stitching and welding. The nuts’ properties were exploited by German sailing boats in the 1800s when they were used as ballast. Resistant to extreme temperatur­es and shatterpro­of, their validity was proven when one customer sent the Tidballs a video with a 20-stone deadweight hanging off his.

As well as groundbrea­king material technology, Vollebak may be the first adventure sports company to incorporat­e elements of physiology, neuroscien­ce and biotechnol­ogy. The twins have worked with Mark Hannaford, founder of World Extreme Medicine, which collaborat­es with organisati­ons like Nasa, Médicins Sans Frontières and Everest ER, the adventurer Aldo Kane, a former Royal Marines NCO, and the biological engineerin­g research institute of a famous blue chip US college.

Its first product was the Baker Miller Pink Relaxation Hoodie, launched in November 2015. It took more than three years to develop, from a process that began with Steve reading Jon Krakauer’s book Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains. Krakauer suggests that climbers experienci­ng the phenomenon known as “tent rage” could benefit from a shelter made in a particular shade of pink: Baker Miller Pink. Stare at it for long enough and it will affect your central nervous system, lowering your pulse and forcing you to relax. (During the Eighties, some military prisons were painted the same colour, which rather than wind up the most aggressive inmates, apparently had the opposite affect.)

Since no one had ever devised clothing aimed at enhancing the parasympat­hetic nervous system before, the Tidballs were starting with a blank page. They eventually created a mesh visor that floods your field of vision with the colour, positioned in such a way it encourages you to breathe through your nose, which slows your breathing. The hoodie’s pockets are designed at the “wrong” height, with your left hand going in the right pocket, and vice versa, so it acts as a sling, and you hug yourself. Hugging relaxes the nervous system and lowers oxygen consumptio­n.

The final element, the pink noise, a frequency that slows and regulates brain activity, was inspired by Heston Blumenthal’s “Sound of the Sea”, a dish of sashimi and edible tapioca “sand” that is delivered to tables at his restaurant The Fat Duck with an iPod tucked inside a conch shell. Listen to the seascape soundtrack on headphones as you eat, and the fish has been proven to taste “fishier” and fresher. For that, Vollebak worked with the sound engineer Michael Powell, a specialist in the field of brainwave sound design. The hoodie was exactly what Steve needed before his Nairobi desert race. A serious piece of sports kit, it was designed to help high-level athletes looking to stay calm, before or after risking their lives, with sound scientific research to back it up.

of course, it also looks absolutely ridiculous. Vollebak could scarcely have hoped for better publicity than when the American actor-comedian Jon Glaser chose to conduct a 2016 interview on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon wearing his, inviting the host to zip up himself. “Jimmy, stop laughing and relax please,” said Glaser, as they dimmed the studio lights and chatted, looking like a pair of pink Power Rangers in straightja­ckets, over the audience’s guffaws.

With its head-turning designs, tweetable one-line sells and ideas liable to make you break into a grin, Vollebak’s clothes might have been dreamed up by a high-level advertisin­g agency, rather than extreme sports athletes. There’s a good reason for this. Before they started Vollebak, Steve and Nick spent 13 years working in, yes, advertisin­g agencies. For Airbnb, they sailed a 70-tonne house down the Thames: draped in wisteria, it had two bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom and a garden featuring a real lawn, a bird table and an apple tree. (You could “book it” online.) For Adidas, they drew tens of thousands of teenagers to its D Rose Jump Store, a pop-up in east London, in which then-Chicago Bulls basketball star Derrick Rose took up residence, and where the shoes were free — so long as visitors could reach them on a 10ft high shelf.

“We shut down Hackney,” says Nick. “It was pandemoniu­m”. (Clips on YouTube pretty much back this up.)

“One of our friends once said, ‘When you have an idea that makes you smile or laugh, you should probably do it’. You know that story of the sun and the wind, trying to make the man take his coat off ? Well: be the sunshine.

Vollebak aims to do for outdoor clothing what Tesla did for cars and ElBulli did for food, using science, wit and imaginatio­n to create products no-one thought possible

We’re the sunshine! When we started to make the hoodie… it’s stupid, right? It’s not commercial in any way.”

The Tidball twins set up Vollebak with a “laughably small” amount of money: some was their own, more came from angel investors. Still, even before you consider the money-no-object production costs, the material innovation, their invention of a product category while inverting the establishe­d norms of the business, not least ignoring seasonalit­y and trends, the two biggest factors that keep people buying more clothes, “taking on the Goliaths of Nike and Patagonia” does not seem like a good idea for making money. They didn’t even have a business plan.

“You have to have a massive liking for risk,” says Steve.

“You really do have to like risk,” agrees Nick. “Some people say they like risk, but actually, they don’t,” says Steve, who has read and re-read biographie­s of Steve Jobs, Walt Disney and Phil Knight, among many others. “I love looking at these patterns of innovation because there’s a giant history of the rejection when it’s brought to market, versus the Wikipedia version which is, ‘Well, that must have been a winner from day one’. But people didn’t want colour animation, they didn’t want musically-scored films, they didn’t want light bulbs. Why would you want a light bulb if there was no infrastruc­ture? No one had electricit­y in their houses, there was no street lighting.

“We’re not doing anything new, nothing people weren’t doing 1,000 years ago. You just have to frame innovation in a way that makes people go, ‘Yeah, I really need that’. Phil Knight and Steve Jobs, everything went wrong for them, everything, it was just fucking crazy. And those are two of the best businesses in the world. I don’t think we went in with the expectatio­n it was all going to work for us, because they are the greatest brands in the world.”

Perhaps the difference is, once you attempt something radical these days, it’s easier to get the attention of like-minded people.

“The easiest place to get an idea over is the middle of the road,” says Nick. “And we really don’t do that. We go very far to the edge, and you attract people who are drawn to that.”

Just as few of Ferrari’s customers will ever drive their 488s at 200mph, or Breitling’s buy their deep-sea dive watches to descend to 1,000m below, we can assume that only a percentage of Vollebak’s customers are hardcore adventurer­s. Not many of them actually need a pair of blowtorch-proof trousers. (The Relaxation Hoodie turns out to be popular with long-haul flyers in first class.) While the twins say their customer is “everyone from a physicist at Stanford to the most adventurou­s athletes in the world”, plenty of them are also rich guys who like cool, techy stuff.

But part of the appeal is: they could be adventurer­s. Vollebak cite plenty of examples of people who are: someone who wears their trousers to descend into volcanoes; the person whose life was saved in the desert after he wrapped his Graphene Jacket around the belly of a camel, its heat-absorbing properties in turn keeping him alive through the sub-zero night. This turns out to be particular­ly handy when it comes to cash. Investors, particular­ly those from Silicon Valley, have been falling over themselves to help Vollebak out.

“There’s a difference between something being future-y and something being quite obviously ‘The Future’,” says Ben Hammersley, the broadcaste­r and science writer. “You hear about the Tesla Model S and then you actually get in one and drive it and you go, ‘Holy shit’. Vollebak is the same. From an early adopter point of view, it certainly scratches that itch. But it’s also thinking quite deeply about what clothes are for. Psychologi­cal interventi­ons are definitely the way to go.

“I’m forever being invited to ‘The Future of Fashion’-type events, with clothing brands who try and do future-y stuff, and it’s always the same. It always has LEDs in it. Or a jacket battery pack that drives an interface in your phone. You look like someone who bought T-shirts from Cyberdog back in the day,” he says. “If you want to get pretentiou­s, what does it mean to have a garment that will outlast you? In a world of extreme fast fashion there’s an examinatio­n of zeitgeist going on with Vollebak.”

“Believe us, money is not a problem,” says Nick. Their problem is turning it down. “It’s gone absolutely mental. When people offer you huge, huge amounts of money, £20m, it’s because they want you to ramp really fast so they can get you to £100m revenue within 18 months and as soon as we do that, we can’t do any of the interestin­g things. Because how can we if we’re trying to get to £100m revenue?”

It’s for this reason you will never see a Vollebak beanie hat or slogan T-shirt.

“What those guys have,” says Joe Staples, a partner at the Mother advertisin­g agency in Los Angeles, who has counted Coca-Cola and Sony as clients, “is the narrative department of a multibilli­on-dollar company without the excess of a multibilli­on-dollar company. The weirder and more expressive their narrative is, the faster their product sells. As long as they can scale excellence and weirdness, it will just get bigger and bigger. When a brand does something that well, that elegantly, they define themselves but they also redefine everyone else. Brands have been designing for hegemony: they’re designing for excellence. They don’t really strike me as clothing company. They’re something else. It’s a space that hasn’t existed.”

Maybe it was “a bit roller-coaster” at first, the twins say, with all the “normal problems” of a start-up, not to say leaving very well-paid jobs when they had young families. But last summer, Nick’s wife, a doctor, was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer (she has since fully recovered).

“I thought I was going to lose the mother to my children,” he says. “That was the most frightened I’ve ever been in my life. What you have to admit is loads of the stuff here just pales into insignific­ance. Compared to that, the problems of staying in stock, they’re not too horrific.”

when the tidballs were six years old, Nick drew a picture of a fox that upset Steve so much it took him a year to get over it. He can still see its silhouette today. It was so good and it wound him up so much that, of course, Nick kept on drawing it again and again. “I thought it was an owl,” says Nick.

It is December and the Tidballs have arrived in east London to have their photo taken for this story. With Vollebak stock running perilously low, they have resorted to mailing out their own personal stash of unused items. They have just received an order from a new customer, someone to add to a client list they describe as a “Who’s Who of Silicon Valley”. They show me an iPhone snap: a hastily bundled package in their office with a note Sellotaped to the side: “Save for Brad Pitt”.

Whatever woodland animal it was that Nick drew, it was a big deal because for years drawing was pretty much all the Tidballs did. Their parents — “hippies from Cambridge” — had banned TV and computer games, so the twins would sit at opposite ends of a table and sketch, sometimes for six hours day. (The lack of computer interactio­n was so total that on Steve’s first day in advertisin­g, aged 22, he had to ask someone how to turn on his computer.) And so Steve got into books. “That’s what happened. It was probably some kind of Darwinian instinct to make sure mum and dad loved me, too. ‘Look mum and dad, I can do words!’ Steve continues to devour two or three books a week.

“I read one book a year, just to put that into context,” notes Nick.

Their other passions were the piano, and sport. “We just fought each other, to be honest,” says Nick.

“Honestly, life was one perpetual competitio­n,” sighs Steve.

“Whatever we were doing: art, sport, music — we just competed against each other and desperatel­y wanted to beat each other. That’s all we cared about.”

But ultimately in a fraternal, loving way? “No. In a deeply competitiv­e way.”

Nick would study at The Bartlett School of Architectu­re, Steve got a First in Art History at the University of Nottingham, before the pair joined forces a few years later in advertisin­g. The complement­ary discipline­s of visuals and words proved useful to both that profession and one that involves starting your own conceptual online clothing company.

“The way I think is different to the way Steve thinks,” Nick says. “Steve thinks in a much more strategic way. There’s a whole bunch of businesses where the power of partnershi­ps has been critical. You think about Nike and you think about Phil Knight but you don’t think about Bill Bowerman. You think about Apple, you think about Steve Jobs but not about Steve Wozniak. If you attack the same problem in two different ways, that’s a phenomenal thing.”

As copywriter and art director they proved an immediate hit in advertisin­g, devising a set of TV idents for Radio 4, which was then launching comedy programmin­g in the drivetime slot. Their idea was based around the concept of finding comedy in unexpected places, and included putting Johnny Vegas in a fridge and Armando Iannucci in a kennel.

“He complained vociferous­ly about his dog food,” recalls Nick.

At the time they were fans of The Fast Show, so they asked its director, Mark Mylod, if he’d film the slots. They were flabbergas­ted when he said yes. It was their first gig.

“We just thought, ‘Advertisin­g’s easy’,” says Steve. “And then we didn’t work again for 10 years.”

“We were let go from a different agency every single year,” says Nick.

Part of the problem seemed to be a natural churn in the profession, but part of it was also that the Tidballs were bored. They just couldn’t get excited about a car they didn’t care about, or come up with a radio advert for a cleaner full of unsavoury chemicals.

“There’s this phrase: ‘The quickest way to kill a bad product is with good advertisin­g’,” says Steve. “Because you’re conning people to buy something that they will never buy again.”

Of course, at the start of your agency career, you’re not allowed to play with the big fun clients like Adidas or Airbnb — you’re going to be handed the domestic cleaning products of this world. Having been hired and fired from agencies including AMV, Grey, CHI, Fallon and Dentsu, their “Floating House” for TBWA was recognised at all the major award shows, while the Jump Store received more than 60 internatio­nal prizes and nomination­s. Scroll far enough back through TBWA’s Instagram and there’s a picture of the pair holding aloft their gold Cannes Lion in France. They are beaming wildly.

If advertisin­g could be frustratin­g, it could also be inspiring. At TBWA, the Tidballs worked under John Hunt, who orchestrat­ed Nelson Mandela’s first election campaign, Lee Clow, who in a three-decade partnershi­p with Steve Jobs came up with Apple’s “1984” Macintosh commercial and the dancing silhouette iPod ads, and Walter Campbell, who created the Guinness “Surfer” campaign, with the director Jonathan Glazer.

“Walter Campbell would just make impossible things happen,” says Steve. “He had this amazing reality distortion field, he would say, ‘I’m going to get the best people in the world to shoot for free’. And then they would. People who would normally charge a million pounds would buy into his vision by sheer force of personalit­y. Because the vision was brilliant. And he did it in a very fun, maverick way. Watching that for a few years, it rubs off on you.”

Working on a big pitch in America one day, Steve and Nick were chatting to Lee Clow about some of their own ideas: how futuristic materials might be used to influence behaviour. Clow, an LA-born free spirit who favours double-denim, sports an impressive white beard and has a passion for surfboards, considered their sketches. “Guys,” he said. “I think you’re a clothing brand.”

The Tidballs politely demurred. Then, having ignored his suggestion for a year, had a rethink.

“We thought, ‘You know what? Seeing as he’s helped out Steve Jobs quite a lot, this Lee Clow might be onto something’. And then we just started to look at how we could do this.”

How they could do it while working two jobs at once — planning Vollebak on the side and in secret, officially “in the evenings and weekends”; in reality taking consecutiv­e sick days and making European factory visits when they should have been going to work — was something that eventually backfired when they launched the company two months after quitting their ad jobs and were promptly sued for breach of contract.

To raise capital they took a leaf out of the playbook of Richard Reed, who before setting up Innocent Drinks, the juice and smoothie company, was also an advertisin­g account manager. “He sent out an email that just said, ‘Who knows rich people?’ says Nick. “We essentiall­y did the same thing,”

“And it worked,” says Steve.

‘When we’re 90, we’ll look back and go, ‘When we were 39 we made the 50,000BC Jacket. Will it still make us smile and laugh and think, ”What the fuck were we doing?” Yes, it will’

the last time i see steve and nick is at London’s Design Museum. It’s March. The plan is for them to show me some of their favourite products, and to discuss why some designs endure while others fade away. But first they have some new designs of their own to show off.

They have just launched the Black Squid Jacket, a £795 waterproof shell designed for skiing and snowboardi­ng, that appears black like oil but shifts into an acid rainbow when light hits it, based on the squid’s adaptive camouflage capability. In true Vollebak style, it is being sold on its website as “The colour-shifting jacket based on 500m years of evolution”. Except you can’t buy it. Like nearly every other product on its website, the six size options are all crossed through. You’re only possibilit­y is to join one of the waiting lists. Nick and Steve find this highly amusing.

“It’s not on purpose!”

“We’ve lost millions and millions of pounds because we haven’t got the stock. It all went!

So, one way of looking it is: ‘Isn’t this cool? We don’t have any stock.’ Or: ‘We’ve lost so much money’,” says Nick.

“You feel like the receptioni­st at elBulli,” says Steve. “Every email: ‘Have you got this?’ ‘No’. ‘Have you got this?’ ‘No’. We don’t like turning people away.”

But following another round of investment, Vollebak has just “raised a ton of money” and “bought a fuckload of stock”. By the time you read this all of it should be available, in all sizes. “Graphene Jacket, Black Squid Jacket, 100 Year Trousers. Everything will be there. We will not be able to move for stock.”

Then there are two products that haven’t launched yet. Nick pulls out his laptop with photos of the first one, an outsized red poncho in heavy waterproof material that resembles a monk’s habit. A model’s eyes and nose are visible through a letterbox where the lapels meet the hood. This is the 50,000BC Jacket. Having accelerate­d into the future, Vollebak has now rewound into prehistory. Steve shows me the marketing text on his iPhone: “Part-coat, part-cave, the 50,000BC Jacket borrows as much from architectu­re as it does from material science… a bonded, four-layer, Ice-Age-proof jacket”.

“We had this idea three years ago, that was perfect at conception,” he says. “I was working with a psychologi­st, a friend of mine, from the Department of Experiment­al Psychology at [the University of ] Oxford, and we were saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a cave again?’”

For inspiratio­n, they looked at tents constructe­d 50,000 years ago, from mammoth tusks and animal skins. The result is a piece of clothing that traps layers of warm air around the head.

“And it was that idea of being inside a tent with a fire and just going like this [rubs hands together] and being all closed off. It was like: ‘What if a piece of clothing could do that?’”

“I feel like when [legendary trainer designer] Tinker [Hatfield] started playing with the early Nike shoes and going, ‘Ah, I can stick air in a sole’. Hoods in clothing is a similar thing. I don’t think it’s been explored in its entirety with adventure and sport. I love hoodies. We will forever be trying to make a hoodie for as long as we exist, whether it’s using some amazing thing that’s not been invented yet, that’s in some amazing American lab, in a Petri dish.”

A case in point is another jacket pencilled in for September release. This one is the Relaxation Hoodie in reverse, inspired by the magnificen­t light installati­ons of the artist James Turrell. Instead of calming you down, it is designed to make you hyper-alert by bathing the wearer in a halo of blue light — the same stuff our phones emit that stops us dropping off at night — inside the hood.

“If you’re an adventurer at a base station, you don’t want to go to sleep: you want to get to the top,” reasons Steve. “You want to wake up.”

Vollebak sees the convergenc­e between adventure sports and health as inevitable. Clothing that will go from a category that has historical­ly been used to maintain stasis, to one that concentrat­es on self-enhancemen­t: a platform on which technologi­cal innovation can sit, helping health move from a reactive industry to a predictive one, through constantly monitoring, for example, your heart rate and your breathing.

“Essentiall­y,” Steve says, “clothing is going to become a crystal ball.” (If you wondered, as I did, why Apple made quite such a fuss about the latest version of its Apple Watch being able to take an ECG reading, a function surely less useful than, say, GPS, or a decent battery life, it makes rather more sense when you appreciate that it has embarked upon a road where it can now obtain a sample of the world’s health data, and what that might mean. There is no more valuable commodity than our health.)

Vollebak is making in-roads into this area, too. The more technical its gear gets, the more its mission to create the future of clothing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: science institutio­ns now get in touch to work with the brand.

“What we’re doing now is finding the world’s best scientists and partnering with them,” says Steve. “Now, the reality is, we’re a small company and Apple is a really, really big company. But I do think we have an advantage. Because everything we do, we shoot through an adventure-sports lens. And that’s a very strong reason to exist. One of the things about being small is that we can move extremely fast.”

As we ascend the spiral staircase to the exhibits above, it hardly troubles Nick, despite the fact he is only just off crutches, having first shattered his wrist and broken four ribs coming off his bike on his wife’s 40th birthday, then broken his leg skiing, spending five hours crossing Switzerlan­d being unsure why he was in quite as much pain as he was. It’s Nick’s wife who’s the doctor.

“Yeah, she’s not massively impressed,” he says. “Not terribly sympatheti­c.”

The Design Museum houses a permanent collection of what it calls “key designs which have shaped the modern world”. We wander around. Nick singles out the Game Boy, now 30 years old, as a highlight — “Just so simple: A button, B button, go left or right, on/off, and you’re done” — before they both rubbish a more recent design from a well-known architect, an update of an historical icon, for being ill-considered and slapdash.

“Look at all the shit he used to make that. Just… boring.”

Finally, we alight on something that delights them both: Philippe Starck’s lemon squeezer.

“Is that good? Yes. Because no one needs a lemon squeezer, you can fucking squeeze a lemon with your hand,” says Nick. “But is it fun that it exists in the world? Yes. It’s very, very fun.”

“Imagine the brief to create a really famous utensil: ‘Make a very famous lemon squeezer’. That is possibly the hardest brief in the world! It looks like an alien spaceship. It’s ridiculous. And to get your lemon squeezer in the Design Museum… Ask most people in the world who built that and what it is for, and they will tell you.”

But if there’s one piece of design Vollebak celebrates above all others — Nike’s Mayfly shoe aside — it is the spacesuit. “No one started out saying, ‘Let’s build the coolest thing we can build’,” says Nick. “It was: ‘Let’s keep people alive when they’re 90,000 miles above the Earth, and maybe doing a space station walk. It just happens that it looks cool as shit because they’ve got this material called Beta cloth, which is a 12-layered material made out of glass and Kevlar and all these things. I don’t believe we’ve made anything as cool as a spacesuit yet. But I do believe in the next five or 10 years we might.”

“So the agenda is,” says Steve, “when people eventually go to Mars — and within our lifetime we will be living on Mars, because there’s enough rich people trying to get there — they’ll be wearing Vollebak. Because no one else is standing up and going, ‘We’ll do that’.”

They mention a direct-to-consumer brand that’s recently earned a fortune with reasonably priced, but essentiall­y identical, footwear.

“I don’t care how rich they are, I would just be bored,” says Nick.

“For the rest of their life, that’s all they can talk about,” says Steve. “‘I invented slippers’.”

“When we’re old, we’ll look back and go, ‘When we were 39, we made the 50,000BC Jacket’. When I’m 90 will I still think that’s a good, fun idea? Will it still make me smile and laugh and think, ‘What the fuck were we doing?’ Yes, it will.”

 ??  ?? BLACK SQUID JACKET, £795
Light-sensitive ski and snowboard
outer which mimics the squid’s
adaptive camouflage techniques
A pioneering reversible garment
made from the only clothing
material to win a Nobel Prize
BLACK SQUID JACKET, £795 Light-sensitive ski and snowboard outer which mimics the squid’s adaptive camouflage techniques RIGHT: GRAPHENE JACKET, £525 A pioneering reversible garment made from the only clothing material to win a Nobel Prize
 ??  ??
The original Baker Miller Pink edition; the
top is designed to keep athletes in a cocoon
of calm while waiting to compete in events
RELAXATION HOODIE, £220 The original Baker Miller Pink edition; the top is designed to keep athletes in a cocoon of calm while waiting to compete in events
 ??  ?? Nick and Steve Tidball, twin-brother founders of the innovative British adventure clothing brand Vollebak
Vollebak’s range of shirts is highly technical,
with anti-mosquito collars, concealed air vents,
hidden pockets, gadget loops, stitching reinforced
with welding and shatterpro­of buttons
Nick and Steve Tidball, twin-brother founders of the innovative British adventure clothing brand Vollebak MOUNTAIN SHIRT, £210 Vollebak’s range of shirts is highly technical, with anti-mosquito collars, concealed air vents, hidden pockets, gadget loops, stitching reinforced with welding and shatterpro­of buttons
 ??  ?? PLANET EARTH SHIRT, £245
The toughest adventurer’s shirt known
to man, constructe­d to be suitable for
every environmen­t on Earth
PLANET EARTH SHIRT, £245 The toughest adventurer’s shirt known to man, constructe­d to be suitable for every environmen­t on Earth
 ??  ?? 50,000BC JACKET, £POA (WAITING LIST)
‘Part-coat, part-cave’ this tough
garment has human survival at its
core and references the shelters
of prehistori­c man
50,000BC JACKET, £POA (WAITING LIST) ‘Part-coat, part-cave’ this tough garment has human survival at its core and references the shelters of prehistori­c man
One of Time magazine’s Best Inventions of 2018,
this glow-in-the-dark running jacket instantly
charges using any light source. Waterproof,
stretchy, breathable, it rolls up into your
hand too
SOLAR-CHARGED JACKET, £345 One of Time magazine’s Best Inventions of 2018, this glow-in-the-dark running jacket instantly charges using any light source. Waterproof, stretchy, breathable, it rolls up into your hand too

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