Garbage watches and full metal jackets: Vollebak versus the fashion industry

The label talks processes, science, why fashion houses won’t touch their materials and the importance of getting final sign-off from the kids.

“We didn’t set out to disrupt, but once you get here it’s hard to ignore just how ripe the fashion industry is for disruption,” says Nick Tidball, co-founder and creative director of fashion brand Vollebak.

The path that led Nick and twin brother Steve into fashion was not the most conventional of routes. But then the clothes the pair design for Vollebak aren’t your run of the mill garments either.

Creators of the world’s first Graphene Jacket, the fully compostable Plant and Algae t-shirt and, most recently, the Garbage Watch, the brothers are confronting fast fashion in their own way. And they’re doing it with materials that most fashion houses wouldn’t, or couldn’t, go anywhere near, in some cases making clothes to last 100 years.

Nick (left) and Steve Tidball

“There’s always a danger of knowing too much”

Originally trained in architecture and art history respectively, Nick and Steve’s first incarnation in the creative industry was in advertising. But as many advertisers and designers will know all too well, continuously working for “someone else” had the twins wanting more.

“Truthfully, it was getting increasingly difficult for us to get crazy and fun ideas out into the wild,” Tidball tells Design Week. “And the more we considered it, the more we thought about how great it could be to have our own brand, whatever that brand would end up being.”

Having never gone to business school was in some way a positive thing for the duo. Namely, Tidball says, this is because they didn’t know enough to be wary of the challenges ahead.

“I think there’s always a danger of knowing too much – if we’d have gone to business school, we could have pointed out a bunch of reasons why what we were about to do was a bad idea,” he says. “But because we hadn’t, we were able to say: ‘Fuck it, let’s just go for it’.”

The Full Metal Jacket, made from 11 kilometres of naturally antiviral copper

“If I can’t explain it to them, there’s no idea”

Little by little Vollebak came into being, powered by the pair’s mission to make “interesting clothes with interesting stories behind them”. The label’s first pieces, including the Relaxation Hoodie – a so-called portable self-isolation tank which zips up over the face – were “interesting enough for the world to take a tiny little bit of notice,” Tidball says.

As time has progressed, Tidball and the 15-strong Vollebak team have increasingly turned to innovative materials and concepts – think t-shirts made from ceramic particles, coats covered in microscopic glass spheres to mimic a squid’s camouflage reflexes, and a literal full metal jacket, with each one using with more than 11 kilometres of copper.

Each piece comes with its own unique material process and manufacturing method. In the case of the copper jacket three layers of lacquered copper yarn need to be drawn together on rapier weaving looms. It is then scoured, heat-set, dyed and dried – a process that takes six days but ensures the longevity of the product. “Disease resistant”, it also has sterilising properties.

The concepts that Nick, as leader of the creative side of the business, comes up with are so often mind-bendingly complex. But as he stresses to us, they don’t start out that way.

“My current way of doing things is to come up with an idea that I think is really simple and fun, and then try to explain it to my two children, who are five- and seven-years-old,” he says. “If I can’t explain it to them, there’s no idea.”

Such a test is a good lens to put ideas through, he says, and while his creative heroes (chef Heston Blumenthal, engineer Elon Musk and architect Bjarke Ingels are just some that he mentions) may not necessarily have two discerning mini co-workers to impress, he states their work is similarly rooted in simplicity.

The Indestructible Puffer Jacket in action

“Science and art are completely intertwined”

So how does an architect-turned-advertiser-turned-fashion-designer go about working with such materials? Tidball says much of the work he and his brother does comes from “asking lots of questions that aren’t normal for clothing brands to ask”.

“There are lots of crazy materials out there in the world, and most typical brands can’t go near them because of what they cost,” he says. Rather than worrying about tight margins, as bigger clothing companies do, Tidball says the focus is on the “inherent amazing properties that different materials offer”.

With such a focus on materials, its unsurprising that the brothers have an interest in the science behind them – though Tidball emphasises that this is largely in spite of how the subject was taught to them at school.

“Science was taught to us so appallingly at school and we both thought that it wasn’t interesting, not cool,” he says, “But then when you realise what science can be, and you look at the work that is coming out of MIT or the Jet Propulsion Lab, you see that science and art are completely intertwined – but at school they wrench them apart from each other and teach arty kids and science kids separately.”

The world’s first Graphene Jacket

“Just because it hasn’t been done, doesn’t mean it can’t be”

Taking Vollebak’s grand ideas to the factories the brand works with is one of the highlights of the job, according to Tidball.

“You explain you want to make a jacket out of copper and a look of fear comes over their face,” he says. “But that’s good because then you know it’s something that hasn’t been done before – and just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it can’t be.”

Often, Tidball says, the design process will begin with an almost-fully-formed idea or image. This is then “reverse engineered”.

He likens the challenge to being a conductor of an orchestra: “You have to persuade the cellist to do something new; and the drummer to do something new; and the woodwind to do something new; but you know that if that comes off, it’s going to be brilliant.”

The Garbage Watch, made entirely of e-waste

“Design owes the world some answers”

When Design Week speaks to Tidball, it’s as the label is in the process of creating its newest product: the Garbage Watch. The timepiece was originally designed in response to a brief from magazine Wallpaper for its Re-Made initiative, and speaks to Vollebak’s intention to be an agent for change, and not just in fashion.

Inspired by photographs he’d seen of e-waste mountains (huge piles of discarded electronic devices), as well as the likes of the Pixar film Wall-E and Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Centre, the Garbage Watch is made from, you guessed it, garbage.

“We wanted to make the piece from things that people throw ‘away’, because as any astronaut will tell you, there’s really no such thing as ‘away’ – it’s always somewhere on Earth,” he says.

Every piece of the watch has been sourced from e-waste because, as Tidball explains: “I believe in taking rubbish and using it.”

“I can easily picture my grandkids or great grandkids asking me what plastic was, in the same way kids today have no idea what Bakelite was,” he says. The way Tidball thinks the world will get to that stage is by re-using our rubbish in a way that is “cool”. Making things look cool, he says, is a challenge that designers will need to step up to.

“I think we’re at a point in time now where design, as much as anything else, owes the world some answers in how to tackle these problems, and if everyone has a go at trying to crack it, things will change,” Tidball says. “We’re quite happy to be some of those people starting things off.”

Video showing Vollebak Plant and Algae T-Shirt being returned to Earth

“Vollebak has somehow managed to challenge nearly every rule”

With a practice that is part-environmentalism, part-science and part-fashion, how exactly then does Tidball see Vollebak – especially within the wider context of the fashion industry?

He tells us that products like the Garbage Watch are a statement of intent: “I don’t believe in any way that any of this is just a step into the world of sustainability, only for us to then step away again,” he says.

Though the twin brothers may have had an unconventional route into the fashion world, Tidball thinks in many ways this has helped Vollebak.

“We never set out to disrupt but Vollebak has somehow managed to challenge nearly every rule that fashion has – coming at it as outsiders, we just seem to be able to see what we think needs changing,” he says.

“We didn’t rebel as teenagers, so I guess now we’re making up for lost time.”

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