Vollebak is the pioneering tech-based clothing startup with monthly drops, which is arguably the most innovative adventure sportswear brand in the world
1 January 2020
Nick and Steve Tidball couldn’t be more alike – nor more dissimilar. Twins and business partners, they’ve always been attached at the hip. The British brothers cut their teeth in advertising where they came as a pair – where architecture-trained Nick Tidball was an art director and Steve Tidball, a former art history student, was a copywriter, and the pair became creative directors of the renowned TBWA agency in London. Now they’re co-founders of Vollebak, arguably the most innovative adventure sportswear brand in the world.
When we meet at their office in Tottenham Court Road, a barefoot Steve gives me a warm greeting, his big grin and friendly persona echoed in his brother, who is identical but wearing shoes and a better-maintained beard. Their mannerisms are uncanny. As we chat, they finish each other’s sentences, although Steve – “the one who thinks before he speaks” – shakes his head when his brother gets carried away in spilling tales about their quirky countryside upbringing with hippie-esque parents.
Vollebak was “born out of frustration,” says Nick, reflecting on the pair’s previous careers developing campaigns for global brands. “We were in advertising for 15 years and success was dependent on two factors – how good you are and how persuasive and political you are,” he says. “We didn’t do anything for a decade apart from get fired,” adds his brother, with a grin. “We didn’t want to do average stuff. If we were going to do it, it had to be the best in the world, but everyone is scared of innovation. People are comforted by a 30-second TV slot or a celebrity because it feels familiar – people didn’t know what to do with our ideas.”
In 2015, after yet another idea was killed, the brothers decided to blend their passions for branding and sport (specifically ultra-marathons) to launch Vollebak. “We were 40 and had young kids so it wasn’t the most sensible idea, but our wives were understanding,” says Nick.
Far from being just another athletic-wear label, Vollebak draws on the newest innovations in science, technology and art to create the sportswear of the future. Their first product was a pink hoodie that zips all the way up over your face. It’s designed to be used by athletes as a meditation device ahead of mentally intense activities such as freediving and ultra-marathons. Described as a “portable isolation tank,” the Relaxation Hoodie uses colour therapy inspired by the research of 1970s psychologists and a pink-noise soundtrack to lower your heart rate and slow your brainwaves, creating a feeling of calm that helps athletes get in ‘the zone’. If you need an extra boost, the pockets are positioned to make it feel as though you are giving yourself a comforting hug when both hands are placed in them.
The invention, which admittedly, looks a bit ridiculous, was met with scepticism. “We wanted to find out if clothing could actually affect how you feel,” says Steve. “But we quickly realised that the last thing you should use to launch a sports brand is a pink hoodie!”
Everything changed when Jimmy Fallon got his hands on one and demoed it alongside actor and comedian Jon Glaser on The Tonight Show. “Nobody thought we were crazy after that,” Steve says. With Fallon’s seal of approval, the brothers turned to nature for inspiration. They began exploring the world of biomimicry, analysing living things and using science to recreate their survival techniques and make clothing for adventure enthusiasts.
They started with a jacket that mimics the blue morpho butterfly, an incredible insect with shimmering blue wings that can be seen from more than a kilometre away. The brothers reverse-engineered this process, embedding two billion tiny glass spheres on the jacket’s surface which reflect light and make the jacket look as if it is glowing. You’d never be missed by a headlight, or a search helicopter for that matter.
Another of the brand’s innovations is the Solar Charged Jacket, which glows in the dark like a firefly, and is a night trekking essential. Leave it out in the sun to charge it up and and, once the sun sets, watch as the highly reactive material changes from a subtle grey to a ghostly “kryptonite” green. It’s fun to draw on with a torch, too, as I discovered.
The brothers’ creations go beyond scientific quirks – they can save your life. Tech CEO and adventurer Nikita Gushchin has first-hand experience of this. In early 2019, while trekking alone in the mountains of Nepal on his way to the Muktinath temple, Gushchin found himself lost at sundown. Exhausted, with no tent, sleeping bag or fire source, he thought he was going to die, describing his mood as “ice-cold acceptance without a shadow of emotion”.
Then he remembered his Vollebak jacket, made from graphene – the lightest, strongest, most conductive material ever discovered. Made in collaboration with the same team behind Michael Phelps’s 2008 Beijing Olympics swimsuit (which was later banned for giving wearers an unfair advantage), the bionic jacket can, theoretically, absorb an unlimited amount of heat.
In a last-ditch effort to avoid death, and with just 30 minutes of daylight left, Gushchin turned the jacket into a solar panel. He held it up to the sun, using the graphene to capture the last remaining rays. With the jacket heated, he reversed it and wrapped it around him. The trapped heat was enough to get him through the night and, in the light of day, he was able to find his way back to safety.
The brothers have many similar tales, including one of another adventurer, Grant Holley, who used his jacket to capture the heat of a camel and transfer it to himself in order to survive a cold night in the desert. We reckon it’s only a matter of time before the jacket – which they hope will one day be able to survive gunfire – shows up in a James Bond film.
“No one knows the true limits of what graphene can do yet,” says Steve. “With a super-material like graphene, the research and development phase may never be finished, and we could still be improving on this jacket in 10 or even 50 years’ time. Our first edition of the Graphene Jacket is the very first step towards our end goal of creating bionic clothing that is both bulletproof and intelligent.”
While durability is the cornerstone of much of what Vollebak manufactures, one of the brand’s most pioneering launches isn’t intended to last forever – quite the opposite in fact. “There’s a principle in ultra-marathons called ‘leave no trace,’ which is basically the idea of running an entire race and only leaving behind footprints. It’s a really beautiful concept. So we thought ‘what if a piece of clothing could do something similar’?” Steve adds.
The outcome is the Plant and Algae T-Shirt. It’s made of 100 per cent natural materials – pulped eucalyptus and beech from sustainably managed forests and algae grown in bioreactors – and inked with algae that constantly changes colour with exposure to light and air. Best of all, it totally biodegrades within three months when buried in the ground, leaving zero footprint on the planet.
“The idea was to create this completely circular thing that started as plants,” adds Nick, “became a T-shirt and ended up back in the ground. At the end of its life, there is nothing left – nothing to end up in landfill.”
Other Vollebak products have a significantly longer shelf life. So far, the company has made a hoodie, a military-style utility vest and a puffer jacket that the brothers claim will last for 100 years. The puffer, which launched in November, was the trickiest to create. “Puffer jackets are really expensive and they tear easily, so we made one that’s indestructible,” says Steve. “You should be able to ride a tank over this – and we plan to.” The jacket is also fireproof and impenetrable by a blade. It’s a new solution to the bulletproof vest and could, one day, be a solution to all-weather body armour.
Owing to its radical commitment to shaping the future of consumerism, the company has been compared to the likes of Tesla motor company and elBulli restaurant. In every industry there’s someone building the future. In clothing, that’s Vollebak.