If you’ve ever visited the site of the six-year-old, London-based direct-to-consumer clothing company Vollebak, you’ve likely marveled at the exaggerated descriptions of clothing it sells, including a jacket “designed for a world of megastorms, where ‘waterproof’ is not enough,” a hoodie that promises to repel rain, wind, snow and fire; and and an “ice age” fleece “designed to recreate the feeling and performance of the soft hides worn by prehistoric man.”
That marketing genius comes directly from CEO Steve Tidball, who co-founded the outfit with his twin, Nick Tidball — both of whom worked in advertising previously and both of whom are active outdoorsmen, though their families and the growth of Vollebak have kept them closer to home in recent years. Indeed, Steve Tidball writes the copy himself, he revealed last week in an interview about Vollebak, a brand that prides itself on making “clothes for the future.”
During that chat, he also answered our questions about how much tech is actually involved in the clothing’s production. And he let us know that Vollebak has so far raised around $10 million in outside funding, including through a Series A round that is about to close, led by the London-based venture firm Venrex, with participation from Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, and Headspace CFO Sean Brecker, among others. Our chat has been edited for length and clarity.
TC: You started this company with your twin, Nick. So much of its genius seems to be in how your clothing is marketed. Tell us a bit about how it came together.
ST: We launched the company five years ago. Before that, we’d been working together in advertising for 15 years, so I think one of the reasons the marketing is more fun than it might otherwise be is that was our job.
We’ve operated by an incredibly simple rule from a marketing perspective, which is basically: spend as little money as humanly possible. So, for instance, a couple years ago, we created our first piece of clothing for space, which was a deep sleep cocoon. And in marketing, you’re always [asking] who’s your audience, and really, our audience was one person here, which was Elon [Musk], so we found a billboard [space] opposite SpaceX, and we just took out a poster there, and it said, “Our jackets are ready. How’s your rocket going?” It doesn’t cost much money, but it was really great fun, and NASA called the next week, and then we got [to] chatting to them.
Your clothing is a reflection of the stuff that you think is going to happen to people over the next century, from space travel to sustainability. You have a solar charge jacket that you say can glow like a firefly in the dark, for example. You have a “black squid” jacket that you say recreates one of nature’s most brilliant solutions to high visibility, the adaptive camouflage of the squid. How much tech is really involved here?
Over the last five years, the angle of tech we focused on is material science. That’s the one thing that, as a startup, we’ve had access to, because if you’re going to look at much [complex] technologies like AI or exoskeletons, you need a really huge amount of funding to go tackle those, whereas any startup can really go and look at material science. So that’s the angle we’re really fascinated with . ..[because] that’s typically not been explored, how much material science could go into a product.
One of the most interesting things we ever launched was the world’s first graphene jacket. Even the scientists who isolated graphene for the first time can’t actually tell you what graphene is going to do. . . .[So] we said, well, one side has graphene and the other side doesn’t. Why don’t you go out and test it and tell us what it does? We had a theory that it could store and redistribute heat because graphene behaves in a very surprising way and there’s no limit to how much heat it can store. What came back were two particularly amazing stories, one of a U.S. doctor who’d been freezing at night in the Gobi Desert and who wrapped his graphene jacket around a camel, and after it absorbed the heat of the camel, he put his jacket back on and stayed warm through the night.
Another friend of ours, a Russian guy who was out in the Nepalese mountains and was in danger of freezing to death, used the graphene jacket to absorb the last rays of sun. It warmed up, and he put it on as his inner layer and credits it with keeping him warm through the night.
How do you manufacture a graphene shirt or ceramic shirt? Do you have a special loom? Do you make it out of a 3D printer? What’s the process?
You manufacture it with great difficulty is the answer, which is why our stuff costs more than regular clothing. What you really end up with is very specialist factories, typically in Europe, with really high-tech machinery that very few people have access to.
Do you typically do short production runs for your merchandise?
Yes, and at the start, that was really just a function of capital, meaning we didn’t have much, so we just made as many clothes as we could, they sold out really quickly, and we tried to make some more as the business has grown. There’s definitely stuff where it’s so complicated or so experimental, it would be reckless to make 10,000 of them. So yeah, we’ve made short runs of some of our most experimental stuff, just to see: Does it work? Could it be improved?
One of those experimental new products is the Mars jacket and pants. Where does one wear that?
Of the funny things about making anything for Mars is that the irony, of course, that you have to test it on Earth. But the reality of going to Mars or any space travel is there’s going to be an exponential increase in the number of people going there and the number of jobs they need to do when they go there. You’re going to need scientists, biologists, builders, engineers, architects, they’re gonna have to wear something. And so the reality is, we want to start working on it early, so what we’re doing is we’re starting to think about some of the tasks that need to be carried out, whether it’s on the moon or Mars or lower orbit stuff, and about: What are the jobs? What are some of the challenges that we’re going to face? This is why the jacket comes with a vomit pocket, because your vestibular system is thrown into disarray as soon as you encounter a lack of gravity.
How do you know about the vestibular system? You’re a marketing genius. Are you also a scientist?
I’m a pretend scientist [laughs]. But we have a lot of really interesting people around us, whether it’s people who think about the future of warfare, or people who think about the future of space travel, we often joke that our business is run on WhatsApp.
Where do you receive most of your customer feedback? Certain D2C brands are very active on social and Instagram and have Slack channels. How do things work over there?
I had this really early thought that if you could combine really cool innovative technology with really friendly people on the end of email, that could be a really cool thing.
You only sell directly through the Vollebak site. Will that ever change?
Not in the near-term future. One of the things that’s been absolutely central to the brand is getting that feedback, and I really worry about losing that connection to the customers. Let’s say someone has a cool experience with one of our shirts or one of our jackets, and they bought it at some wholesale store, and they have no real connection to us. I feel that’s lost information.
We will be doing more stuff in the metaverse space very, very soon, because I just find it so exciting, the idea that there’s going to be this competition or integration between the virtual world and real world. So we’re currently building some fairly crazy stuff in that space. We’re currently on the hunt for some supercomputers powerful enough to process some of the stuff we’re working on. But yes, basically, anything that we think is going to define the future, we’ll plow pretty heavily into.
(You can hear this conversation in its entirety, including about Vollebak’s plans to eventually launch a women’s line and its funding situation, here.)