Hope couture - The Forecast 14 - Magazine | Monocle

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“Bjarke [Ingels] and I laugh about how people use paint,” says Nick Tidball, co-founder of London-based Vollebak, a fashion start-up specialising in new-age materials. It’s easy to miss the joke if you’re not part of Vollebak’s fast-growing innovation team but for Tidball and Ingels (architect and friend of Vollebak), the notion of coating concrete or cotton in oil-based colouring rather than producing a better raw material is laughable. This attitude highlights Vollebak’s commitment to producing a new generation of low-waste materials and establishes the label as both an innovator and an outlier. 

Launched in 2015 by twin brothers Steve and Nick Tidball, Vollebak quickly built a reputation as an industry rule-breaker, repurposing a vast range of materials (including spaceship interiors, bulletproof vests, algae and carbon nanoparticles) into familiar wardrobe staples such as chore jackets, waterproof vests and hoodies. “The style is industrial workwear fit for any planet,” says Nick of the brand’s ambition to design garments made to last for hundreds of years and survive any conditions. It’s a novel concept for fashion, challenging the industry’s obsession with renewal and encouraging its stakeholders to set new manufacturing standards. 

monocle meets the Vollebak team at its King’s Cross office, a sprawling, brutalist space filled with whiteboards and prototype jackets dangling from the rafters. It’s a cross between a technology lab and a fashion studio, with an eccentricity in the air that’s indicative of the Tidball twins’ varied inspirations. “We admire people seeking to change industries,” says Nick, referring to heroes-turned-confidants such as Ingels, urban designer Neri Oxman and chef René Redzepi of Copenhagen restaurant Noma.

The twins also look outside the fashion industry when making new hires – a key part of building a future-proof team. “There are certain skill sets you need in fashion: two thirds of your team need to know the industry inside out and the rest need to believe in what you’re doing but have no experience of the sector,” says Nick, a former architect who came into fashion with an open mind about what could constitute a luxury material. “If your journey isn’t typical, you need people who appreciate your motivations and have the same goals.”

Vollebak’s Martian Aerogel jacket
Co-founders Nick (on left) and Steve Tidball

One of the Tidballs’ recent goals was to engineer a jacket built to survive on Mars, using ballistic nylon, typically the base of flak jackets. This sceptical reporter would assume that the market for such an item is nonexistent, yet the team at Vollebak have been able to attract clients, including filmmaker Christopher Nolan, who share the same spirit of adventure. They might not be travelling to Mars any time soon but are drawn to the concept of purchasing a garment that has been designed to last and not end up in landfill. “There are millions of people who want to buy into something that will outlive them,” says Nick, optimistic about the scale that these indestructible, zero-waste products will soon achieve.    

Building a community of fellow adventurers and futurists is integral to furthering Vollebak’s mission. The firm isn’t aiming to only speak to the fashion-conscious but to all those willing to share a vision of what it calls “Fourth Age clothing”: garments that leave a positive impact on the environment. Adherents include powerful investors – The Alpina Gstaad’s Nachson Mimran and Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia – as well as discerning luxury clients willing to bet on the label’s early-stage experiments. Some Vollebak products have gone to market before the Tidballs were able to determine a material’s full potential, with customers becoming field testers and even sharing useful research with the brand. One loyal client recently introduced the team to a new type of aerogel – a material most commonly found inside rockets and spacesuits and now used by Vollebak in foam form to create waterproof jackets. The new Martian Aerogel jacket for instance, weighs a mere 700g and can still keep your core temperature stable at minus 20c.

“There are millions of people who want to buy into something that will outlive them”

Elsewhere, materials such as Dyneema, usually spun into anchor ropes on icebreakers, is woven into hoodies to increase their lifespans. The result is the aptly named Indestructible Hoodie, which might be a mere 1mm thick but can survive a 75km/h fall and drag on concrete. This might all sound a little extreme but the idea is to address climate change head-on – with products guaranteed to leave no trace behind – or perhaps to prepare ahead for the apocalypse.

Wares on display in the Vollebak office

Vollebak now has access to numerous materials but the challenge of turning them into wearable products remains. “It doesn’t matter what you’re drawing, someone has to build it,” says Nick of the need to find mills and factories that have the patience for these complex production cycles. The business is not yet in a position to build its own factory but has managed to establish a number of trusted partnerships with European manufacturers, including a factory on the outskirts of Florence that specialises in making clothing for the Italian military. 

For now, many of these material innovations might be confined within Vollebak’s London studios – and the wardrobes of a handful of forward-thinking clients – yet the Tidball twins are convinced that a shift is happening on a larger scale. An increased demand for collaboration is fuelling their optimism. Colour-dye company Colorifix, for example, recently spotted the opportunity to revolutionise the dyeing industry with sustainable materials, and turned to Vollebak to help dye a range of T-shirts using genetically engineered indigo-plant dna. “The world has to experience something new before it decides its old ways are no longer good enough,” says Nick. “More and more brands are looking at how we dye our clothes, the materials we use and how artificial intelligence can work out the most efficient way of growing hemp or cotton.”

There’s still a long road ahead until any of these novelties infiltrate the mainstream – Nick views this as “a 40-year project”. But Vollebak is willing to go on the journey, keeping its eyes on the prize and enjoying the experiment along the way.

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