Unknown Brand Vollebak – The Interview
Vollebak is the world’s most experimental adventure brand. It launched in November 2015 with just two products – the Baker Miller Pink Hoodie, which is designed to help athletes rest and recover, and the Condition Black Jacket, which increases your chances of survival in the mountains. Vollebak has been featured in publications around the world since launch including Wired, The New York Times, The Economist, The Week, and The Times.
How did you come up with the idea to create Vollebak?
There were two really key moments – and both came from pushing ourselves to our physical limits. The first happened when we were out training in Tarifa on the south coast of Spain. At the end of a long training run I got dragged out to sea by a rip. I remember losing all hearing within seconds, and my vision narrowing down into this tiny black and white tunnel. At the exact moment that I really needed to rely on my senses to help get me out of the situation, I effectively lost all meaningful access to them.
The second came out in the Namibian desert the night before a 78 mile ultramarathon. Knowing we’d spend the next 24 hours racing in 45 degree plus heat, I spent almost the whole night awake in our tent with my mind racing and feeling totally wired. This is such a common problem for athletes. During the 6 hours that I really needed to be conserving energy, my body and mind were just burning through it.
The upside of these stories is that they both turned into really formative moments for the brand. It’s no coincidence that one of our launch products helps you slow your pulse and brainwaves to help you relax pre and post sport, and that one of our launch experiments is designed to enhance your sensory perception in life and death moments.
Ultimately these experiences made us realize that no brand was tackling these fundamental issues you face when you’re out there pushing the limits of what’s possible. As athletes we couldn’t see anyone experimenting in this space, and as designers we believed we could find ways to solve that.
What does the name mean?
Vollebak is Flemish for “going all out.” We think of it as a willingness to go past the point most people consider fun, and into the moments where you find out who you are. Over the last 30 years action and adventure sports athletes have pushed human performance further and faster than at any point in history. Whether speed climbing the Eiger, running across deserts, or surfing waves bigger than most buildings. These leaps require extreme commitment. And we wanted a word that captured that feeling.
Who is behind the company / brand?
So it’s two of us – twin brothers, Nick and Steve Tidball. We’re both designers and multisport adventure athletes. We train and compete in ultra marathons, adventure races, triathlon, surfing, cycling, skiing, paddlebaording, climbing and kayaking. We’re run through deserts, raced over mountain ranges and crawled through jungles. So we really understand just how well sports kit needs to be able to perform.
At the same time, because of our background, the design process is what we love. Before launching Vollebak we 15 years in advertising as Creative Directors on some of the world’s biggest brands sports and tech brands like Adidas and Airbnb. So creating things is second nature to us.
We also we work with an amazing team. Our designer has led design at some of the world’s top sports brands. Our factory in Portugal, Petratex is possibly the most advanced technical factory in the world. And we also work with some of the world’s best materials manufacturers like Schoeller of Switzerland.
How did finance the start?
One of the things the advertising industry gave us was amazing opportunities to meet people who think in quite original ways, and have had the good fortune to make money doing it. So very simply we approached people with more money than we had and pitched them the idea. Our first ever pitch was to one of the key guys to build the Apple brand to what it is today. So we went after people whose work we admired.
What you are most proud of?
I think trying to make things that are so new is what we’re proudest of. We haven’t tried to copy successful formulas or other brands. Instead we’ve tried to ask really interesting questions and come up with answers that solve the problem – even if they look or sound very different and unusual.
No market research would ever tell you that what guys who like adventure need is a pink hoodie that zips up over their face. But after years of working on the problem it was the best solution to the problem for athletes of how to rest and recover faster.
It’s the same with the Condition Black Jacket. One of our friends had been at the snow kiting world championships and needed clothing that was practically bullet proof for moving across cold hostile terrain at high speed. Our solution is heavier than your average jacket, it uses complex new technology that other brands felt was too expensive to work with, but we felt that by experimenting with it we could learn new things as it was so different.
What is your vision for the future? Or the next products?
For us the most exciting space is where science meets adventure. One of our original starting points was the idea that if NASA swapped space for sport, Vollebak should be the result.
I remember first seeing the glove that Neil Armstrong wore on the moon for his space walk, and sewn onto it was a small patch of Betacloth with a series of instructions for his moon walk – how many rocks to collect, where to walk, what to photograph, when to set up his experiments.
The sheer pragmatism of that amongst the cutting edge technology of the day was something that really struck us. Even though he was Commander of the mission, NASA chose not to rely on something as basic as his memory working. The key to his survival was not just in the materials he wore. It was in how he responded psychologically to the unknown. Knowing that he would be in a dangerous and stressful environment he had never encountered before, they decided it would be better if he didn’t have to think. He simply had to look at his clothes and do what they said.
And that’s why you’ll find the same solution on our Condition Black Jacket, which comes with glow in the dark instructions on your left forearm for when your brain and body start shutting down under extreme duress. Like NASA we’ve combined today’s most advanced material technology with a design process informed by human physiology and psychology.
This is a really exciting space to be working in.
Where can I get products from Vollebak currently?
We only sell our clothes on our website www.vollebak.com. Knowing we were offering something very different to the market, we wanted to make sure we controlled the experience athletes would have when finding out about us for the first time. We knew we’d be demanding a lot of the athletes who came to us, so we wanted to be the ones that took them on that journey. Most brands don’t try to extend your life expectancy, re-engineer your brain or teach you how to hack your own central nervous system. And that would be almost impossible to replicate in someone else’s shop.
It was also really important to us that athletes didn’t simply see the clothes in isolation because that’s not how they’ve been designed. The Baker Miller Pink Hoodie comes with its own soundtrack that you download from our site. And the Condition Black Jacket comes with its own training program designed to enhance your senses in life and death moments
What is planned in terms of sales in Switzerland or Germany?
We’d love to become one of the most loved European brands. The Highlands of Scotland and Alps are the testing grounds for our products, so it’s only natural we want to do well here. But right now we want to continue to just sell products from our website rather than through other people’s shops. One of the things we love is the direct relationship we have with our customers. Many have already gone on to become friends. This also has a direct impact on the new products we’re developing as we know the people we’re designing for.
Where do you produce?
Both the Condition Black Jacket and Baker Miller Pink Hoodie are made by Petratex in Portugal. We wanted to work with the best technical factory in the world – and they are at the heart of so much innovation it was the perfect fit for us. They were the guys who took all stitching out of Michael Phelps’ swimsuit that he used to shatter so many world records. The technological leaps they’re making in production there are really unique.
Thanks for the interview.