Vollebak’s Relaxation hoodie
Vollebak’s Relaxation hoodie
Vollebak’s Relaxation hoodie (Photo: Sun Lee/Vollebak)

What the World Needs Now Is Clothing Made for Mars

With fabrics created from alga, graphene, and copper, and hoodies built to last a hundred years, two British ad men are creating the apparel and gear of the future

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The first piece of Vollebak clothing I ever held in my hands was the planet earth hoodie, which landed on my New York City doorstep in late February 2020. The 30-person company was founded in London in 2015 by twin brothers Steve and Nick Tidball, who’d come from the world of advertising and displayed a penchant for highly technical, highly conceptual adventure clothing. The brand is small—“We’re not going to give Nike any sleepless nights,” Steve said—so the brothers rely on fervent word of mouth and offbeat marketing. In 2019, for example, to launch their incredibly niche Deep Sleep Cocoon—a “self-contained microhabitat” to help the wearer shut out the noisy world of long-haul space flight—they rented a billboard across the street from SpaceX, in Hawthorne, California, that read: “Our jacket is ready. How is your rocket going?” (No response from SpaceX founder Elon Musk, but the brothers said that they did get an invitation from NASA to give a talk.)

The Planet Earth hoodie, made from Australian merino wool with a brushed-fleece interior, struck me as well-made and comfortable, if hardly revolutionary in a world swimming with hoodies. There was one detail, however, that stood out: a hinged merino face guard of sorts, with small ventilation holes. “From NASA space helmets to explorers’ balaclavas,” read the company’s description, “protecting your face and head has always been high up on the list of priorities for people on a mission.” Fair enough, I thought, even if my “mission” rarely went beyond typing at my laptop.

And then, a few weeks later, the pandemic struck. Suddenly, the idea of covering one’s face no longer seemed extreme. Like most everyone, I spent a not insignificant portion of the next two years behind a mask. And at the height of the pandemic, when the sound of sirens filled my Brooklyn neighborhood, I often found myself throwing on my Planet Earth hoodie and pulling up the merino visor over my N95 for an added layer of protection. What I’d first dismissed as folly now seemed eerily prescient.

Flash forward nearly two years and I’m in the cozy Vollebak offices near the Soho section of London, hovering around a conference table with Steve and Nick, admiring their latest piece of space-inspired clothing, the Mars jacket. Sleek and shiny, it looks plucked from the set of Dune. The company describes it as “industrial workwear fit for any planet.” Nick, who trained as an architect and handles the design work, excitedly points out the details. It is made from ballistic nylon to resist the corrosive effects of space dust. There’s an abundance of Velcro straps, “a gravity surrogate in space,” he says. And there’s a 3D-printed “vomit pocket” containing an orange PVC sack, should you suffer space-adaptation syndrome, a type of motion sickness. “The vomit bags are really beautiful,” he says. They’re designed with large deployment tabs and are brightly colored because, he notes, “when you’re puking, your eyesight’s crap and the vomit bag has to be really, really recognizable.”

Steve, who sees to the company’s sales strategy, admits that the actual functional market for Mars clothing is precisely zero. “But the idea is, we’re probably not going there for 30 years,” he says. “If we’ve been designing clothes for Mars for 30 years, testing them on earth, I’ll reckon we’ve got a good shot at making decent clothes for Mars.” Not everyone who goes, he says, will be “a Russian cosmonaut who’s been training for 20 years.” Instead, he says, it will be regular people with regular human needs who won’t want to live in a space suit 24/7.

“No one,” he says, “has asked us to do this.”

Clockwise from top left: Black Squid jacket; Apocalypse jacket; Blue Morpho jacket; The Plant and Pomegranite hoodie ; Ice-Age fleece; Off-Grid shell
Clockwise from top left: Black Squid jacket; Apocalypse jacket; Blue Morpho jacket; Plant and Pomegranate hoodie; Ice Age fleece; Off Grid Dyneema shell (Sun Lee/Vollebak)

Clothing’s precise historical origin point is still up for debate. But, Steve says, “essentially, prehistoric man built it to survive the Ice Age.” Apart from physical comfort, there was also status at play—“keep you warm, keep you dry, tell someone you’re the king.” Since then, he argues, “we haven’t really gone tremendously far past that.” Over the next century, however, he foresees a fundamental shift in what clothing does. “Could it,” he asks, “hack our parasympathetic nervous system? Could it light you up at night? Could it interact with technology?” Appropriately, the company’s mood boards, displayed on the walls of the office, look more like scenes from a science fiction novel—bristling as they are with speculative technology and “inevitable futures”—than the fashion runway. The racks are filled with T-shirts made from beech and eucalyptus fibers and dyed with black algae, and they can be added to your compost pile when you’re done. They also contain the 100 Year hoodie, Vollebak’s flagship product, designed to last an entire century. (It used to have an option for customers to pay $4.95 annually for the garment instead of the $495 one-time price listed on the website.) You’re more likely to find a copy of a materials-science journal lying around than the latest Pantone color-trend forecast.

The identical twins, who are 43 years old and whose faithful resemblance is underscored by their matching hair (tousled, sandy), function like a sparking, dual-carburetor engine, constantly erupting with thoughts, stories, and scenarios, taking pains to avoid finishing each other’s sentences (but not always succeeding). They brim with high-octane enthusiasm. Everything is “insane” or “absolutely brilliant.” Unabashedly wonky and refreshingly unfiltered, they come across like some combination of the brothers Wright and Gallagher. Steve tends to sketch the big pictures, while Nick will geek out on some detail, often self-deprecatingly declaring that he doesn’t read as many books as his sibling. They keep a playful banter on a constant low boil. “Is he talking shit?” Steve asked when he came into the room where I had been talking with his brother. “I’m just saying loads of quotes they won’t be able to use in the magazine,” Nick said.

At first glance, the company’s clothing resembles the austere, logo-less cyberpunk techwear produced by brands like Acronym or Veilance. And the pricing is on par. Its Off Grid Dyneema shell, “the strongest rain jacket there is,” will set you back a cool thousand bucks. Some of the hoodies, by contrast, seem a comparative bargain at $295, but most likely you will have to get on the waiting list. (The brothers wouldn’t share details about the company’s sales or revenue, but “the graph is going up and to the right,” Steve said.) What distinguishes Vollebak is an emphasis on cutting-edge materials and technologies. Scott Fulbright, the CEO of Colorado-based Living Ink Technologies, whose company supplies the organic pigments in Vollebak’s Black Algae T-shirts, says, “The first time I spoke to Steve Tidball, I could tell they were different. They were willing to take on risk and try new things, where very few groups actually do.” Appropriately, the name Vollebak is a Flemish term, often used in cycling, meaning to go all out.

Clockwise from top left: Copper base layer; 100 Year ski pants; Mars pants; Garbage sweater; Full-Metal jacket
Clockwise from top left: Copper base layer; 100 Year ski pants; Mars pants; Garbage sweater; Full Metal jacket (Sun Lee/Vollebak)

In 2018, the company produced a jacket made from graphene, a material comprising a single layer of carbon atoms, first constructed in a Manchester lab in 2003 by a team of scientists led by physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov. (The pair would go on to win the Nobel Prize for their work.) It’s the world’s thinnest, strongest substance. “This is not a single layer of graphene,” says Steve as I finger the jacket. “If it was, it would cost about $100,000.” Rather, it’s made of graphene nanoparticles, little cubes that cluster in unpredictable ways in a membrane. Apart from its strength, Steve notes, it has an unlimited capacity to store heat. Even though it was, and is, still largely a work in progress, the brothers thought the material was too compelling to pass up.

So they asked buyers to be guinea pigs—not such a stretch. “Our customers are people who are massively into the future,” says Steve. Those customers range from Hollywood director Christopher Nolan to architect Bjarke Ingels to Twitter founder and self-experimenter Jack Dorsey. They’re the sort who will take a chance on a molecularly unstable monolayer of carbon, knowing it might not work out. “No one else is launching $600 jackets saying, We don’t know what it does,” says Steve. But they got back encouraging reports from the field. An American doctor stationed in the Gobi Desert affixed the jacket to a camel during the day and captured enough heat to last him through the night. (The customer also reported that, helpfully, the graphene also seemed to resist the camel’s odor.)

There’s an abundance of Velcro straps, “a gravity surrogate in space,” Nick says. And there’s a 3D-printed “vomit pocket” containing an orange PVC sack, should you suffer space-adaptation syndrome.

It’s easy to think of all this as attractively packaged high-concept marketing, befitting the brothers’ panache for garnering attention in unconventional ways. It’s no surprise that people aspirationally buy technical gear that exceeds their everyday requirements (think: tech bros in Arc’teryx jackets), but that aspiration is taken to a whole new level when the pursuit in question is manned Martian exploration. There is, however, no denying the energy and earnestness they devote to the cause. “By its nature it has to be speculative, as no one’s on Mars yet,” Steve wrote me in an email. “But at the same time, there’s all sorts of known problems that we will encounter up there that can easily be tested down here. And those are really concrete, not speculative at all. So we’re looking at basic problems like how can your clothes help you when you’re in zero gravity and need to puke?”

I don’t know how it will fare in space, but the clothing I’ve wear-tested on earth seems skillfully constructed. The company does make more recognizable adventure clothing, incorporating familiar materials like merino wool in the hoodie I purchased. And people like Paul Rosolie, the Amazon conservationist, do sing the praises of products like its Planet Earth shirt. But what Vollebak really has in mind, Steve says, is a vision of the next century in which, given climate change, global pandemics, and any number of related catastrophes, everyday life itself begins to look pretty adventurous.

Steve Tidball
Steve Tidball (Adam Hinton/Vollebak)
Nick Tidball
Nick Tidball (Adam Hinton/Vollebak)
The author and Darren Roberts on the Isle of Skye
The author and Darren Roberts on the Isle of Skye (Adam Hinton/Vollebak)
From left: Nick, Steve, Darren, and the author at Black Cuillin
From left: Nick, Steve, Darren, and the author at Black Cuillin (Adam Hinton/Vollebak)
The only retail shop that carries Vollebak clothing, in the Great Victoria Desert, Western Australia
The only retail shop that carries Vollebak clothing, in the Great Victoria Desert, Western Australia (James Dive/Vollebak)

The next time I see the brothers, we’re clad in wetsuits, about to rappel down the vertiginous face of a sea gorge on the Isle of Skye, a rugged, volcano-and-glacier-formed landmass in the west of Scotland that’s often used as a training ground for the UK’s military. I am here on what is ostensibly a gear-testing weekend but what also seems to be a psychic recharge for the Tidballs, a chance to unleash a sense of adventure that’s been restrained by the demands of raising kids and starting a company. They’d already gone for a harrowing trail run that morning, up to rocky, windblown Old Man of Storr, a regional landmark, clad only in Vollebak’s Race to Zero kit, an ultralight “running system”—T-shirt, shorts, jacket, and puffy—weighing in at about 600 grams, or about as much as a pair of jeans. Under our wetsuits, we all wear Vollebak rash guards and swim trunks.

Standing on the cliffside, tying a rope to a tree, is Doug Brady, an ex-soldier who runs the outfitter Skye Highland Adventures. As I await my turn to descend, Steve tells me a story about his grandfather’s wartime escape from the former Yugoslavia. After several years on the run, foraging and evading capture, he finally made it to the UK. “He was an incredibly tough, philosophical man,” Nick adds. “He spoke five languages.” Steve remembers having lunch with his grandfather when he was eight or nine. “I didn’t finish the apple I was eating,” he says. “And he told me off and said, ‘You have to eat the whole apple—the flesh, the pips, the core.’” You had to do this to avoid leaving any trace, his grandfather said. “But also because you didn’t know when you were going to eat again.”

What Vollebak really has in mind is a vision of the next century in which, given climate change, global pandemics, and any number of related catastrophes, everyday life itself begins to look pretty adventurous.

Once the brothers and I have rappelled down the cliff and into the gorge, we wade toward a cave opening as Brady descends face first, commando-style. Inside, the cave has sheer, seemingly machine-carved walls. With the tide rising, we soon swim out of the grotto and then clamber up rocky outcrops before leaping back into the frigid sea. After emerging, we walk a few hundred feet to Brady’s van for warm tomato soup. The brothers brim with adrenaline. Brady, who speaks in a military staccato peppered with Cockney slang, is equally excited. “Lovely jubbly!” he says, before announcing it’s time to “crack on.” A short drive away, we ascend a hill toward a deep river canyon, the imposing profile of a peak called Blà Bheinn in the distance. We rappel to the base of a waterfall. After sitting for a moment in a natural rock pool filled with bracing Scottish mountain water, we make our way down the river, which is churning after a few days of rain.

The next morning, we join Martin Welch and Tim Blakemore, two renowned local climbers, for a hike up Black Cuillin, the island’s iconic ridge. The brothers bound this way and that, chattering the whole time. “They are smiley lads, aren’t they?” Welch says to me. Stopping for a handful of stream water, he points across the valley at the steep, slickrock-covered mountainside. “That’s where Danny MacAskill did his ride,” he says, referring to The Slabs, a startling 2021 film by the Scottish trials rider. “It looks incredibly dangerous,” Nick says. “Aye, it’s a thousand-foot drop,” Welch says laconically. “You’d bounce, but you wouldn’t stop.” Welch inspects Steve’s coat; it’s Vollebak’s Waterfallproof parka, the name cheekily suggesting that in a world of increasingly extreme weather, waterproof simply won’t cut it.

“It’s made from a self-drying nanomaterial that mimics a lotus leaf,” Steve says.

“So it’s not coated then?” Welch asks.

Steve shakes his head; it’s the structure of the material that provides the waterproofing. Welch gestures with a grimace at his own coat, noting places where the hydrophobic coating has worn away.

We descend from the ridge and walk to a small stone hut at the ocean’s edge. We break for lunch and then suddenly a Eurocopter AS355 comes chattering across the water, landing on a nearby patch of grass. We zip to Portree Harbor for the weekend’s big finish: jumping from the helicopter into the sea. It’s a favored pastime of the elite Special Air Service, a unit of the British army, but Vollebak pulled some strings to get permission from the civil air authority. The pilot gives us a run-through on the ground; as I step onto one of the skids, I nervously eye the rotors overhead. The pilot reassures me that I won’t be decapitated. Then we’re off. I get a brief aerial tour of Skye, made easier by the absence of the passenger door, and then I’m on the skid and stepping into nothingness, trying to stay vertical, until I feel the cold slap of the harbor.

Clockwise from top left: Garbage sweater; Full Metal jacket (2); Off Grid shell; Lumberjacket; Apocalypse jacket; Copper base layer; 100 Year ski pants
Clockwise from top left: Garbage sweater; Full Metal jacket (2); Off Grid Dyneema shell; Lumberjacket; Apocalypse jacket; Copper base layer; 100 Year ski pants (Sun Lee/Vollebak)

This whole Boy’s Own fantasia was arranged with military precision by Brady and Darren Roberts, Vollebak’s chief operating officer and a longtime friend of the brothers. Although Roberts, a tough ex-infantry man, 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’d met years before, in the world of advertising. “We adopted Darren,” Nick says.

In 2009, the three men came across an irresistible challenge. A magazine had put out a call looking for a few guys to take on a series of famously grueling and hazardous endurance events. “We said, ‘Yeah, we’ll do that,’” says Steve. They knew that with their advertising prowess—they were then heading up the Adidas account in the UK—they could convince the magazine to pick them. But they first needed to compete in some local footraces, so they began training in earnest, getting “reignited into sport,” as Nick says. The magazine chose them, and over the next year, they competed in the Namibian 24-hour Ultra Marathon; the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, which circumnavigates the tallest peak in western Europe; and the Jungle Marathon, held in the Brazilian Amazon.

“That just took our life experiences instantly up to the next level, with a lot of stuff Steve and I have never experienced before,” says Nick. “What does running through the night feel like? What does running through the desert feel like? What does pissing blood feel like?” In Namibia, Steve says he got into trouble early on. Temperatures were hovering around 115 degrees, but “I was so cold my teeth were chattering, there were goose bumps on my arms. To this day, when I have a hot shower, my reaction is goose bumps.” Darren, he recalls with a laugh, told him—in the face of what was quite evidently heatstroke—not to tell the medics. “And I was like, I am definitely going to fucking tell them, because this is definitely wrong,” he says. “The doctor told me if I carried on, I’d have 20 minutes to live.” He decamped for a while to 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 if, as Steve puts it, they’d been “living life at 25 percent.” Advertising “simply wasn’t as demanding as running ultramarathons,” he says. “It was boring. You could do your work in a couple of hours a week.” The second was that time spent in the company of ultramarathoners made them realize that the 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 at this mile?” And yet, Steve felt, so many of the brands catering to them were “relatively conservative, relatively predictable.” He remembers being in a tent in Namibia on the eve of the race, and being so wound up he couldn’t sleep. “I wondered, could a piece of clothing help me relax, help me sleep?”

This thinking ultimately led to the full-zip Relaxation hoodie, which, as the company website notes, came from a “brutal insight”: “Faced with cramped and isolated living conditions during any exploration or adventure, normally rational people would be tempted to stab their teammates with a fork just for the way they were chewing.” The Relaxation hoodie was designed to be like a go-anywhere tent in which you could nominally shut out the world. Vollebak went a step further and produced the first models in Baker-Miller pink, named after two military officers at the Naval Correctional Center, where a psychologist named Alexander Schauss reported that painting certain cells the namesake color had a calming influence on inmates. The actor Jon Glaser, who sported the hoodie as part of his short-lived TruTV show Jon Glaser Loves Gear, took it on The Jimmy Fallon Show in 2016, where he and the host, fully zipped up in pink, listened to chill-out music. “That was a conceptually complex piece of clothing,” says Steve, “in a really crazy sugar-pop-pink wrapper.”

If Namibia seemed like a revelation, Steve cautions against the tidiness of the story as he told it. It is true, he says, that there was a realization “in the desert, in the mountains, and in the jungle that, Hang on a minute, clothes aren’t as advanced as we’re made to think—maybe there’s something we could do there.” But there was no 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 beginning.” Even from the point when they decided (with some guidance from noted Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow), “Hey, let’s launch a clothing brand,” says Steve. “It was two and a half years until we could get a product to market.”

The company tried to create a jacket that emanated blue light, inspired by the lighting system on the International Space Station. The only problem: Vollebak didn’t have the resources to run the proper tests to make sure it 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 the stuff they were trying to make. Their other initial product, the Condition Black jacket, was partly made from, as Steve describes, “these crazily tough three-dimensional ceramic panels.” It was, he says, “like a suit of armor—the factory broke literally thousands of needles trying to stitch this stuff on.” They spent four years on their Solar Puffer jacket, because, Steve says, “you’re trying to do so many different things in one piece of design—get it to glow, keep out rain, keep you crazy warm, and be white.”

Curiously, for a company so oriented toward the future, Nick says that he spends a lot of his time in the archives of materials companies. “Within archives are some of the most fascinating experiments—experiments that have gone wrong,” he says. The company’s Full Metal jacket, for example, was inspired by a material lurking in the bowels of the Swiss textile company Schoeller. It’s made mostly of copper, some 11 kilometers of bundled strands of the stuff. “You put a microscope onto each strand, which you can barely see, and inside, beneath the lamination, it’s got 50 or 60 more strands,” he says. “At which point you’re like, what the fuck machine built that?” They chose the material for its virus-resisting properties as well as its conductive properties; as much as material, the company envisions it as a sort of operating system, able to power the connected clothing of the future.

Not everything works out. Carbon-fiber hoodies were a failure. (“You can’t put that much carbon fiber in a hoodie,” noted Nick, “without the hoodie pretty much stopping moving.”) Clothing made from wood was also a nonstarter. The company tried to create a jacket that emanated blue light, inspired by the lighting system on the International Space Station. “If there’s a fire, the astronauts need to be really awake, and you can’t wait for them to have 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 it wasn’t going to blind people.

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

To that end, Vollebak, backed by funders ranging from Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia to ex-Rapha head Simon Mottram, is expanding. When I visited in October, it was on the verge of moving into a larger London office. The brand’s products are not sold in any stores, save for a truck stop in the Australian outback, a gag effort at being stocked in the world’s “most remote” store. And the brothers have even remoter digs in mind. They’ve purchased a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia for what Nick describes as “the cost of a garage in London.” Along with architect Bjarke Ingels, they want to run experiments on “in situ utilization,” as Steve calls it. “When we get to Mars, we’re going to have to use the stuff that’s there,” he says. “You’re not going to be dragging building materials there.” So, too, will the island feature architecture made from what’s there, from rock to kelp to thatch. They envision it as a sort of lived experience of the brand, reached via kayak by “people who like us.” It might be a prophetic statement about how we’ll have to live in a more extreme tomorrow, or it might be sheer quixotism. “No one’s got a crystal ball into the future,” says Steve. Everyone “is just having a crack.”