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What the world needs now is clothes made for Mars

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This all own boy fantasia was arranged with military precision by Brady and Darren Roberts, Vollebak’s COO and a longtime friend of the brothers. Although Roberts, a tough ex-infantryman, only joined the company in 2020, he played an implicit if indirect role in its founding. The brothers jokingly call him “Dad”. He gets things done. They had met years before, in the world of advertising. “We adopted Darren,” Nick said.

In 2009, the three men took on an irresistible challenge. A magazine had called for a few guys to take part in a series of grueling and dangerous endurance events. “We said, ‘Yeah, we’ll do it,'” Steve explains. They knew that with their publicity prowess – they then ran the Adidas account in the UK – they could convince the magazine to choose them. But first they had to take part in some local running races, so they started training in earnest, “getting back into the sport,” as Nick puts it. The magazine picked them, and the following year they ran the Namibian 24-hour ultra marathon; the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, which circles the highest peak in Western Europe; and the Jungle Marathon, held in the Brazilian Amazon.

“It instantly took our life experiences to the next level, with a lot of things that Steve and I had never experienced before,” Nick says. “How does it feel to run all night?” What’s it like running in the desert? How does it feel to pee blood? In Namibia, Steve says he got into trouble early on. Temperatures hovered around 115 degrees, but “I was so cold my teeth were chattering, I had goosebumps on my arms. To this day, when I take a hot shower, my reaction is goosebumps. Darren, he recalls with a laugh, told him – in the face of what was obviously heat stroke – not to tell the doctors. “And I was like, I’m definitely going to fucking tell them, because that’s really wrong,” he says. “The doctor told me that if I continued, I would have 20 minutes to live.” He decamped for a while in an air-conditioned Land Rover. Darren, for his part, won the race.

Going through the events produced a series of epiphanies for the brothers. The first was that they suddenly felt, as Steve puts it, that they had “lived 25% of their life.” Advertising “just wasn’t as demanding as running ultramarathons,” he says. “It was boring. You could do your job in a few hours a week. The second is that the time spent in the company of ultramarathoners made them realize that people who do extreme sports “are some of the most experimental people in the world. “He says. “They make themselves test subjects: how far can I go if I eat this bar? What happens if I listen to this music from this mile? esteemed Steve, so many of the brands that served them were “relatively conservative, relatively predictable.” He remembers being in a tent in Namibia the day before the race and being so pissed off that he couldn’t seem to “I wondered if a piece of clothing could help me relax, help me sleep?”

That thinking ultimately led to the full-zip Relaxation Hoodie, which, as the company’s website notes, was born out of a “brutal hunch”: “Faced with cramped and isolated living conditions while exploring or adventure, normally rational people would be tempted to stab teammates with a fork just for the way they chewed. The Relaxation Hoodie was designed to be like a go-anywhere tent that you could theoretically close the world to. Vollebak went further and produced the first models in Baker-Miller pink, named after two military officers from the Naval Correctional Center, where a psychologist named Alexander Schauss reported that painting certain cells the color of the same name had a calming influence. on detainees. Actor Jon Glaser, who wore the hoodie on his short-lived TruTV show Jon Glaser loves geartook it The Jimmy Fallon Show in 2016, where he and the host, all zipped up in pink, listened to relaxing music. “It was a conceptually complex piece of clothing,” Steve explains, “in really crazy pop-pink sugar packaging.”

While Namibia seemed like an eye opener, Steve cautions against keeping the story clean as he told it. It is true, he says, that there has been a realization “in the desert, in the mountains and in the jungle that, wait a minute, clothes are not as advanced as we are made to think. — maybe there’s something we could do there. But there wasn’t a single lightbulb moment.” It was a series of very gradual lightbulb moments over the course of three years,” he says. “It was a very messy start.” Even from the moment they decided (with some advice from famed ChiatDay adman Lee Clow), “Hey, let’s launch a brand of clothes,” Steve says. “It took us two and a half years before we could bring a product to market.”

The company attempted to create a jacket that emits blue light, inspired by the lighting system of the International Space Station. The only problem: Vollebak didn’t have the resources to run the proper tests to make sure he wasn’t going to blind people.

Part of the reason was that they had full-time jobs, families. But another reason was the huge learning curve required for what they were trying to do. Their other initial product, the Condition Black Jacket, was partly made from, as Steve describes it, “these incredibly tough three-dimensional ceramic panels.” It was, he says, “like armor – the factory literally broke thousands of needles trying to sew this stuff”. They spent four years on their Solar Puffer jacket, because, says Steve, “you try to do so many different things in one model: make it shine, protect you from rain, keep you warm and be white. ”

Surprisingly, for such a forward-looking company, Nick says he spends a lot of time in the archives of material companies. “In the archives are some of the most fascinating experiments, experiments gone wrong,” he says. The company’s Full Metal jacket, for example, is inspired by a material hidden in the bowels of the Swiss textile company Schoeller. It is made mostly of copper, about 11 kilometers of bundled strands of this material. “You put a microscope on each strand, which you can barely see, and inside, under the layering, there are 50 or 60 After strands,” he says. “At what point you’re like, what the fuck machine built this?” They chose the material for its virus-resistant properties as well as its conductive properties; as much as hardware, the company envisions it as a kind of operating system, capable of powering the connected clothes of the future.

Everything does not work. Carbon fiber hoodies were a failure. (“You can’t put that much carbon fiber in a hoodie,” Nick noted, “without the hoodie practically stopping moving.”) Wooden clothing was also a no-start . The company attempted to create a jacket that emits blue light, inspired by the lighting system of the International Space Station. “If there’s a fire, the astronauts have to be really awake, and you can’t wait for them to get their coffee,” Steve says. And blue light – the glow also emanating from our smartphones that we’re supposed to avoid at bedtime – “makes you very alert very quickly”. The only problem: Vollebak didn’t have the resources to run the proper tests to make sure he wasn’t going to blind people.

From shock troops to next-wave apparel, the company wants to evolve into an “innovation platform,” with what Steve describes as a “crazy series of projects outside of apparel that take us into new realms. incredible in architecture, robotics and space.”

To that end, Vollebak, backed by backers ranging from Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia to former Rapha chief Simon Mottram, is growing. When I visited in October, he was about to move to a larger London office. The brand’s products are not sold in any store except for a truck stop in outback Australia, a gagged effort to be stocked in the “most remote” store in the world. And the brothers have even more distant excavations in mind. They bought a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia for what Nick describes as “the cost of a garage in London”. Together with architect Bjarke Ingels, they want to experiment with “in situ use”, as Steve calls it. “When we get to Mars, we will have to use the elements there,” he says. “You’re not going to drag building materials there.” Likewise, the island will feature architecture made from what’s on it, from rock to kelp to thatch. They envision it as a kind of lived experience of the brand, accessible by kayak by “people who love us”. It could be a prophetic statement about how we will have to live in a more extreme future, or it could be pure quixotic quixoticism. “Nobody has a crystal ball in the future,” Steve says. Everyone is “just cracking up”.

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