Vollebak, a British clothing label for adventurous men with disposable incomes, aims to make products so simple and arresting that they can be pitched in two or three words. Take the Indestructible Puffer, a jacket claimed to be 15 times stronger than steel and pretty well impossible to rip. Or the 100 Year Hoodie, which would survive a blowtorching or a trip down a volcano, if that’s how you spend your Sundays. Or the Garbage Watch, a timepiece inspired by WALL-E and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and made from off-cuts of the 50m tonnes of electronic waste produced globally each year.
“We judge a lot of things by, ‘Can I explain it to my kid?’” says 41-year-old Nick Tidball, who founded Vollebak in 2015 with his identical twin brother, Steve. “And now I can explain all of our ideas to our children. Because if they don’t get it, I don’t think you have an idea. Or rather I don’t think you have a big, fun idea.”
Vollebak’s newest release, priced £895, is the Full Metal Jacket, which has more than 11km of copper thread woven into every coat. Unveiled during lockdown, the jacket is the result of a conversation the Tidballs had three years ago. A friend of theirs who worked at the European Space Agency asked them, informally, if they thought it was possible to design clothing on which bacteria and viruses could not survive. This is an important consideration for space exploration: Nasa has found that microgravity causes modifications in the human immune system, which could have an impact as the space agency explores long-duration, deep-space missions.
The Tidballs are obsessed with space: they are determined that when humans land on Mars they will be wearing Vollebak. But now they stumbled on to something else. Wouldn’t an antimicrobial, disease-resistant jacket be rather handy protection against viruses on Earth such as Covid-19?
Before your eyebrows shoot too far above your head, it should be noted that the Tidballs are not scientists. Steve has a degree in art history and Nick studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture; before setting up Vollebak, they worked for a decade in advertising. They cannot claim that the Full Metal Jacket offers actual protection against viral infections, because, as Steve accepts, “We don’t have access to Covid or a lab, so we have not done testing on what happens to disease when it lands on it.”
What they are, says Nick, is “magpies”, who bring a similar energy and disruptive divisiveness to fashion that Elon Musk has introduced to electric vehicles and aerospace. When their friend at the European Space Agency made the enquiry about disease-resistant clothing, Vollebak’s founders made a deep dive into materials and innovation. Steve, a history nerd, noticed that the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians had used bronze, an alloy consisting primarily of copper, to sterilise wounds and reduce infection, and that copper workers in Paris dodged the effects of the cholera outbreaks in the 19th century (even soldiers who played a brass instrument in the French army bands seemed to be resistant to it). Nick, meanwhile, studied why copper has traditionally been used in hospitals for taps and door handles and worked with a textile manufacturer in Switzerland to maximise the amount of copper that could be loaded into a garment: the Full Metal Jacket is, in fact, around 65% metal.
But really what the Tidballs bring to a project is their unstinting enthusiasm and a willingness to pick the brains of some smart and very famous people. “We have some very, very fun customers like Hollywood A-listers, tech CEOs, we have a lot of scientists and explorers,” says Steve. “And we use them a lot in a really cool way in our research and development.” Much of this takes place over WhatsApp. When Vollebak had a prototype of its Garbage Watch, but no idea how to scale production, the brothers sent out a message to their contacts asking for help. Almost instantly, they had offers from senior figures in R&D at Nike and Microsoft.
“Have you read the book Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson?” asks Steve. “He looks at the history of innovation and essentially it’s done in tight pockets, like Florence in the Renaissance and the coffee shops in the English Enlightenment. It’s dense clusters of similar-minded people who all work on similar problems. We’ve built a WhatsApp version of that.”
So how serious are the Tidballs that wearing their Full Metal Jacket could ward off Covid? “Starting literally in 2020 and beyond, clothing and technology is going to merge,” Steve says. “It’s absolutely inevitable. What you wear is going to enhance your strength. It will become a medicine-delivery system. Whether it’s the next five years, 50 years or 500, it might be a very long journey, but it will happen.”
The Vollebak brothers are well aware there will be scepticism about their proposition that the world can be saved by a fashion company selling jackets for £900. They describe theirs as “a Marmite brand” but with a smile that hints at something like pride. “There’s nothing worse than a brand no one thinks anything about,” says Steve.
“Elon made the joke the other day that he’s the best designer in the world for apocalyptic stuff,” Steve continues. “And people have laughed at us for the same thing, which is cool. But it actually kind of makes sense now: we really might need to leave the planet and we really might need to think about how we save it. The things extreme adventurers have been facing, now lots of people are facing them.”
Before meeting the Tidballs, I had been less worried about the survival of the human race than about telling the twins apart. But, this morning in their offices just north of the current wasteland of London’s Covent Garden, which is usually occupied by a staff of 16, it is not too hard: Nick’s hair is bouncier and he has patchier facial hair, and while they sing from the same sheet about Vollebak, they have different concerns and areas of control. Put simply, Nick designs the clothes (“I’m a horrible designer,” says Steve, and Nick agrees: “He’s dreadfully bad!”) and Steve oversees the company’s strategy. Or in corporate-speak, Steve’s the CEO and Nick is chief creative officer. They agree that their main disparity is that Steve thinks before he speaks, and Nick doesn’t.
Vollebak – a Flemish cycling term that means “going flat out” – was born in part from the brothers’ frustration with advertising. They worked latterly at TBWA, which bills itself as“the disruption company”, and their campaign with the basketball player Derrick Rose for Adidas won a prestigious gold Cannes Lion. Another ad, for Airbnb, involved them sending a two-bedroom floating house down the River Thames, with a garden complete with a dog kennel and wisteria, and the services of a Michelin-starred chef, which you could book for five nights only.
Around this time – “I just don’t think my life was that full,” says Nick – the brothers began competing in “crazy” ultramarathons in places such as the Arctic, the Amazon basin and the Namibian desert. Before they started training, they had never run more than 12 miles, but now they were faced with 80 miles in extreme heat and cold, hallucinating and peeing blood. “We both came quite close to dying quite a few times in our early 30s,” says Steve flatly. “Probably me a couple of times more. It was super, super out of control.”
Starting Vollebak, and having kids – they each have two – has led the Tidballs to scale back their adventure racing. Pre-Covid, Nick was invited by friends to climb Mont Blanc this summer and he actually thought about it for 10 minutes. (He still agreed to do it mind you, but he did at least mull it over first.) Both brothers, though, are sure that this period frames the way they run Vollebak now. “We’re very, very highly risk-tolerant,” says Steve. “We will tolerate intellectual risk, we will tolerate financial risk, we tolerate physical risk in a way that might scare quite a lot of people.”
This attitude also feeds into the guerrilla ethos of how Vollebak is promoted. Instead of regular advertising, the Tidballs mainly curate stunts, much as they did in their agency days. The company received a major boost early on when the American comedian Jon Glaser wore one of the brand’s Relaxation Hoodies, in a fetching shade called Baker-Miller Pink, when he was a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2016. Millions watched as Fallon and Glaser sat in matching hoodies – which zip up over your face and look vaguely prophylactic – riffing about how preternaturally calm they felt.
In 2016, Vollebak also launched their Extreme Discount Card, a small block of hand-carved rosewood that endowed the finder with free Vollebak clothing for life. The only hitch was that the treasure had been hidden by hardcore adventurers Jason Fox and Aldo Kane, both ex-Royal Marine commandos, and the only clues to its location came in a wordless, five-minute video of them hiding it, which mainly involved numerous activities with an elevated chance of imminent death. The Tidballs cheerfully admit that they thought “no one would go look for it”, but within a week there were Reddit boards and multiple teams – including a former SEAL Team Six operative and a retired FBI agent – were flying around the world on the hunt. “Was it fun? Yes,” says Nick. “Did people have fun trying to find it? Yes. Has anyone found it? No.”
More recently, to promote the launch of their Deep Sleep Cocoon jacket last year – “a cross between a cocoon and a spacesuit” that was part-inspired by the exoskeleton of a woodlouse – Vollebak presented their first ever billboard. It could be found in Hawthorne, California, across the road from Elon Musk’s SpaceX HQ and read: “Our jacket is ready. How is your rocket going?” It’s unclear what Musk made of the poster, but others did take notice. Steve shakes his head: “The next day Nasa calls and within a month we were giving a lecture at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”
Certainly, Vollebak is not short of influential, high-profile admirers. When they were over at Nasa, the Tidballs dropped in on Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and CEO of Twitter. “He’s very austere and monk-like,” reports Steve. “And then he goes: ‘Do you have doors?’ And I was like: ‘What?’ And he said again: ‘Do you have doors in your office? Do you have doors?’ And I’m like: ‘Yes, we have doors.’ And he was like: ‘Lose the doors.’” The brothers fall about in hysterics: “Because if they’re closed, people don’t know what’s happening behind doors,” Nick explains. (For the record, Vollebak’s office still has functioning doors. “But we always keep them open now,” says Steve.)
While the Covid pandemic has hit many in the fashion industry hard, it has been business as usual for Vollebak. The company has always traded online, only selling through its own website, so has not been impacted by the reduced footfall in shops. The Full Metal Jacket has been doing brisk trade. “You wouldn’t know anything,” says Steve. “The numbers are normal. We’re still growing, we’re doubling every year.”
As to the appeal of Vollebak, the Tidballs believe their gear taps into something primal. The company recently did research with its regular customers that found an astonishing 56% would sign up for a manned flight to Mars “with no guarantee of return”. Steve says, “Clearly, someone’s only having to click ‘yes’ or ‘no’, they’re not actually having to go through with it, but the level of appetite for risk taking and future-facing stuff was extraordinary. We definitely plug into a whole escapism thing. The people we serve are ones who are looking to do extraordinary things before they die. And we might be one of 100 extraordinary things they’re interested in. That’s the need we serve: a fulfilment of adventure, which is that we’re creatures who left the Rift Valley and left caves and constantly pioneer stuff. That’s always going to exist in people.”
Both brothers insist that Vollebak is not about money. Mainly, they just want to keep coming up with bizarre, experimental, stylish clothing that their kids think sounds funny. Steve says, “You don’t want to be a billionaire from making red ski jackets, basically.”