Vollebak to the Future
Sometimes you have to look back into your past to discover where you should go next. In important ways, childhood memory is the source of Vollebak’s most recent fashion technology innovation — the extraordinarily lightweight Race to Zero range of sportswear.
The shorts-T-and-jacket system comes in black, khaki, purple and aerospace orange. On the hem of each item is a black zero — a hidden pocket. To pack the gear, you turn the pocket inside out to create a pouch that fits into the palm of your hand. Weight for all three items? Just 600g.
Haute spoke to Steve Tidball, who co-founded Vollebak with twin brother Nick, about their vision for the future of lighter luxury clothing, sci-fi and science fact — and the meaning of life, of course!
What’s the zero in Race to Zero?
My brother and I come from a background of running, and the brand really was born out of a series of ultramarathons in the Namib Desert, the Alps, and a small part of the Amazon.
Basically what we experienced in those races is that what we wore wasn’t very advanced. It ripped, it smelled. It was too heavy. It did all the things you didn’t really want it to do.
We took a very, very simple childhood premise — when you’re sprinting across the green hills and you’re barefoot, you probably have a pair of shorts on and someone is chasing you with a water gun! That’s the fastest you ever ran. And so what we were asking is, what’s the closest you can get to zero? What’s the closest you can get to your kit weighing absolutely nothing?
The minute you’ve got a T-shirt, shirt, middle layer or a pair of shorts, a lightweight jacket, you’re into the territory of having a bag. And that bag might weigh like five to ten kilos. Instantly you’re not running light. And so the idea was to make a complete running kit, all of which could be as close to zero as possible in terms of weight, but also could all pack into itself in these black circular pockets. That was our zero.
I’M FREE WHEN I RUN. AS LONG AS I CAN RUN BAREFOOT ON THE BEACH, I’M HAPPY.
So, for you, less weight is a luxury? Where does that lead Vollebak?
Our customers choose products they want to engage with very carefully, because the price isn’t the chief consideration. Instead they’re asking, how was it designed? How has it been built? Who built it? Do I agree with the philosophy?
We’re absolutely seeing a trend towards minimalism, a trend towards capsule wardrobes, towards stripping stuff out, towards having a collection that’s ready to go for your travels and a home collection. And there’s also a shift in the luxury market towards utility, towards doing more. Basically, I think you’re going to see much more of a mixture of very high fashion and very high utility.
We have a lot of customers in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area and all of them are stripping things out. I think we’re moving past the era of collecting lots and lots of stuff to prove stuff.
One of the things we look at quite closely is the trends in food. The restaurateur we relate to most is Nick’s friend René [Redzepi] at Noma. Whilst it’s quite an outrageous menu, it’s also very minimalist. Like, you are going to eat ants. Are they going to be on ham? And it’s all going to have sourced from five miles away.
What’s the most you can do with the least resources, is a good way of describing it. We’ve started building a collection of raw clothing. It’s a sort of interesting counterpoint. We just started making completely raw clothing. What you realize is that all clothing is obviously dyed, or bleached. What happens if you don’t do any of these processes? What happens if you don’t treat it? If you don’t bleach it, if you don’t dye it? And so we started to make a range of raw clothing where we’ve done less. But ironically, it actually costs more to do that because in Britain the process is all the factories can do.
The other trend that I think is going to hit more and more is in-situ utilization, which is an idea borrowed from space. If you’ve ever seen Matt Damon in The Martian, he has to grow potatoes in his own poo. That’s in-situ utilization, right?
We see that movement in architecture. You see it in food. And I think you’re going to start to see it more and more in clothing as well. It’s incredibly hard with a globally distributed chain of factories and stuff. But I think you will start to see more in-situ utilization, which is what we’re doing with garbage.
You clearly have a strong value system that came from somewhere — and you talk about running barefoot as children. But were you into sci-fi? Where did this future-focused value system come from?
We were brought up in quite an unusual way. No TV, no computers. We were just allowed to do sport, music and art. And so as a result, we sort of excelled at sport and music and art. Our adult obsessions are very much geared towards the people who excel in creative fields: Pixar, Noma, Heston Blumenthal, Christopher Nolan — icons. And essentially our only mission is to build a company that’s one of the most basic companies on earth. That’s all we’re interested in because that’s what our heroes do.
I’ve never unpicked why I hold that value system versus a value system where I’d love to be a billionaire, which I have no interest in. My value system is in leaving a contribution in a field. This year and next year, we’re starting to work on projects that will fundamentally change how clothing brands work.
I am massively fascinated by sci-fi. I love it today and I think that’s one of our guiding principles. We have an internal mantra that my brother and I operate on — turning sci-fi into reality. We ask ourselves: Is this thing we’re working on going to be inevitable in the future? Then let’s go do it now. We have that value system, but it’s definitely not from my parents. They were young hippies at Cambridge who had us accidentally at 22!
It feels as though one of your drivers is freedom. Freedom from weight and excess and waste …
I’m free when I run. As long as I can run barefoot on the beach, I’m happy.
And you want to be free from conventional ways of working?
Everyone’s designing for the next season. I’m asking, why don’t you design for the next century? We have all of these things heading towards us. We really are going to be a multiplanetary species. The climate is going to affect us to an astonishing degree and we’re going to run out of natural resources. And we still have brands asking if you want a red or blue jacket. I find that fundamentally fascinating.
I was inside various clothing brands [with ad agency TBWA] and there was all this talk about innovation. But no one is actually innovating against anything relevant. You’re innovating for how this guy runs slightly faster on a football pitch … kicks the ball slightly harder. But if we’re all dead, that’s kind of irrelevant!
So I felt that there is an inevitable seismic shift coming where clothing is going to move from a thing you wear to a tool you inhabit. That’s just absolutely inevitable. If we come back in 100 years’ time, we will ironically still be in bits of wool and bits of cotton and bits of polyester and the things we’ve always had. But you will know if you’re going to have a heart attack in the next six months. There are so many parts of your clothing that will make you stronger even if you have some deficiency in one of your limbs. There are so many ways in which clothing will become a tool or an accessory to your life.
I’m actually kind of really anti-technology! I am a person who really likes to be just in a pair of shorts on a beach. And so my view was if someone was going to work on that technology that we’re going to inhabit it should be someone who kind of is only interested in how it can help, not how it could make someone rich. I love it because it’s going to be a lot like the early computer market, which is all sorts of competing kinds of applications and systems and platforms. And we’re going to have that. How does an exoskeleton help someone with a bionic limb, how does that translate to a piece of heart monitoring technology? How does that relate to a brain sensor? All of these things are going to have to start interacting.
So you’re an anti-technology futurist?!
The futurist in me is super-super fascinated by these things. It was my personal fascination with seeing this as an inevitable future of clothes and technology merging. And I guess there is a level of ambition there for me personally. I want to be the person who starts to solve some of these things or at least think about the challenges. The way my brother and I look at it is when you get to 80 or 90 or whenever on your deathbed, do you look back and think: Wow, what we did there was insane? That’s what I want to try and get to. I don’t want to get to, you know, loads of money or whatever. I want to say, The things we did were crazy and no one else tried them.
You talk about the vast scale of time, in terms of space travel, for example. For you, it feels like the present isn’t a sufficiently extreme environment for your work?
For me, that’s where the magic is. Hey, let’s build a jacket for the apocalypse. What does that have to do? And you ask: Well, what’s the hottest substance in a volcano? You think, Okay, how is it going to withstand that? That’s the wonderful bit.
That’s the area I love to sit in because that’s where you find out if you’re good or not. There’s a wonderful quotation, possibly misattributed to Benjamin Franklin. It was the flight of the first hot air balloon. And someone turned around and said, What use is this? And he turned round and said, Madam, what use is a baby? As we saw in advertising, it’s so easy to kill an idea. Giving birth to it, getting it out into the world is really hard. Really, really difficult. So that’s the area we’re most comfortable in.
We’re about to start executing through architecture, data, robotics, all sorts of areas where our vision of helping humanity in an extreme future will be brought to life.
Your work is very much focused on the material world. How do you feel about virtual worlds?
I think it is absolutely unarguable that within the near future, five or 25 years, many people on Earth will be able to lead incredibly rich virtual lives and incredibly rich physical lives.
And I think there will be a choice, where you have people who commit very, very hard to those virtual worlds. Naturally, as a designer, I look at that world. I do not personally identify with it because my world is very rich and very physical and I’m at my best when I’m barefoot in a stream or on a beach, and I’m at my worst when I’m on a computer. And so it’s not a world that I seek out for me.
But Vollebak will be exploring it because there is going to be a real connection between that and space travel. When we think about space exploration timescales, we imagine those astronauts will face very limited sensory environments. They’re going to be in small, high-powered metal tubes hurtling through space to another planet which has nothing on it! They will escape into rich sensory worlds. I’m currently designing projects for that because that is fascinating. Am I going to design a virtual pair of shoes tomorrow? No, absolutely not, because it has no bearing at all on our actual future.