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Extreme measures

26/05/2020

Vollebak’s high-performance clothing lines resonate with strength and adventure. The brand’s co-founder tells WSA about their sport-inspired rationale.

Vollebak is accustomed to hype around product launches, but with its latest design almost selling out during a three-day pre-sale took even its founders by surprise. The Indestructible Jacket, made from 100% Dyneema, was snapped up by followers before it was offered to the public. “We thought staying in stock might be an issue,” they admitted.

The UK brand has sneaked in under many radars, launching four years ago with just two products. It uses a different model to many clothing brands, operating a quality-over-quantity ethos and attempting to “create product that didn’t exist”. Its founders, brothers Nick and Steve Tidballl, don’t shy away from using high-performance expensive materials: Kevlar, Dyneema and graphene have featured heavily in collections. 

The designs are also rooted in extremes: fibres in the Indestructible Jacket and Puffer are said to be 15 times stronger than steel; and a ceramic hoody launched in February features 60,000 ceramic particles “second only to diamonds” for abrasion resistance, and which are traditionally used in missiles and jet engines. 

Last year’s offerings included The Deep Space Cocoon, based on a woodlouse’s exoskeleton and using materials from Schoeller Textiles to create “a cross between a jacket and a spacesuit”; long haul flights, the International Space Station and the first flights to Mars are not designed for sleep, they reasoned. The brand also launched coats made from bioluminescent material, and hoodies and pants constructed with flame-resistant materials from Polartec that are made in Portugal in a process that takes more than 40 weeks.

WSA caught up with Steve Tidball to find out what drives the company to create their cutting-edge products.

What is it about the brand’s DNA that makes you launch ‘extreme’ designs, rather than ‘standard’ products and choose materials like ceramics, Dyneema and graphene etc? 

Vollebak comes from our own background in extreme sports. Over the last 10 years my brother Nick and I have competed in some of the most extreme ultramarathons in the world. From a seven-day ultramarathon through the Amazon jungle, to the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc across the Alps, and a 78 mile race across the Namib desert in Namibia – it’s here that we actually first came up with the idea for the brand. 

Taking part in these super hardcore adventure races made us realise that the sports gear we were wearing wasn’t as advanced, progressive or as smart as we were made to believe. While other fields of technology like phones and electric cars were advancing really fast, clothing seemed to be a little bit stuck. So we launched with one question: what does the future of clothing look like? 

We then set such crazy goals for our clothing, like storing sunlight, or helping slow down your brainwaves, conducting heat, or being impossible to set on fire, that we have to work with ideas and materials that no one else is thinking about. 

When we’re coming up with new ideas nearly all our answers come from sport. We go on long runs or rides where your brain makes connections it might not otherwise make. Or we go paddleboarding out at sea. We also go on adventures and chat with friends who are amazing adventure athletes —   from freedivers, to mountaineers or big wave surfers. The best ideas always come from getting stuck into the reality of a situation and talking it through until you come up with something interesting. 

How does the idea of tough materials and indestructible clothing fit into sustainability and the circular economy?

We come at the issue of sustainability from two different angles. The first one is very simple: how do you make clothes that last for a really long time, and get people to wear them for a really long time? This is why we created our 100 Year range, which is clothing designed to outlive you. By being really explicit about what this clothing is designed to do, we’re helping people think about their clothing in a different way. This is stuff you hand down to your kids rather than throw out with the trash in a couple of years. 

The other angle we’re looking at is what happens to clothing at the end of its life. And this is why we made our Plant and Algae T Shirt. The t-shirt is made from pulped eucalyptus and beech from sustainably managed forests, and algae grown in bioreactors. So when you’re finished with it, you can either put it in the compost or bury it in your garden to biodegrade in the soil and it will be gone within 12 weeks. And it leaves no trace of its existence. 

What conversations do you have with materials suppliers when researching new designs?

We work very closely with partners who are also interested in exploring what the future of materials and clothing will hold. But they can come from extremely disparate fields, all the way from academic research, to fabric mills, to military psychologists. So in reality there is never any single thing that we are attracted to as we work on so many projects simultaneously. Certainly, when we do work with fabric mills we ask them very unusual questions!Sometimes we find a material where the development has stalled because it’s too expensive or too crazy and we can kick-start it with a completely different idea we’ve had.

What sort of customers are attracted to Vollebak?

We never actually set out with a particular target audience in mind. Instead we started out with the question ‘what happens if we make the world’s most advanced clothing?’ The reality is that this approach has been a magnet for people interested in the future. We obviously have extreme sports athletes, adventurers and the military. And at the same time we have a lot of scientists, doctors, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs – people who are actively shaping the future in their fields. This has helped us grow incredibly quickly from a brand that started with just two pieces of clothing four years ago, to one where you can kit yourself out for most adventures anywhere on Earth.

Finally, while it is obviously too early to know a final outcome, can you tell us any initial thoughts about potential fallout from coronavirus, and what your thoughts are for the industry?

Two things are clear. This will hit every industry across the world. And the ripple effects will be felt long after the event, financially and psychologically, and it’s this which will potentially up-end the way in which every industry is built.  

While it seems logical to look back at other large events that have affected so many people so rapidly —  from other pandemics, to wars, to the great depression —  the world is so radically different in the modern era that these comparisons are not hugely useful. The economies and production of every nation are now so intrinsically linked, and the margins of error are now so razor thin with our reliance on just-in-time delivery, that something like this shows the massive vulnerabilities on which our modern system is built. 

An event like this brings you back down to the very basics of business – can you still make your product, will people buy it, and can you get it to them? It doesn’t matter if you’re Vollebak, Nike or Chanel. The same fundamental challenges are being faced by everyone. And these are not challenges that a lot of these companies have had to think about for a very long time. 

Right now of course it’s simply a matter of survival. But I think in the longer term this will force a lot of companies to examine their business models and ask how resistant to shock they truly are. And the answer might be that they’re not.