From the LAVA-PROOF ‘Apocalypse Jacket’ to a £795 ‘cocoon’ garment for long flights (or trips to Mars) – discovering why UK firm Vollebak makes the world’s best travel clothes
- Vollebak says it creates clothing ‘that feels like you’re buying from the future’
- Its range also includes a jacket that glows – Brad Pitt owns one of these
- Carlton Reid tests some of the clothing out – and is mightily impressed
- READ MORE: You’ve been SITTING all wrong! Etiquette expert reveals why
In the second of the Back to the Future movies, Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly, wore a jacket that rapidly air-dried itself after a lake dunking. ‘Drying mode on,’ the jacket’s robot voice intoned before quickly confirming, ‘Your jacket is now dry.’ If real, this would be such a brilliant piece of travel kit, especially as it no doubt had warm-up and cool-down functionality, too.
We live eight years after the 1989 film’s ‘future’ date of 2015 but don’t yet have any instantly self-drying jackets. But we have hi-tech togs made from advanced fabrics that shed water, wick sweat and even block fire.
We also have ceramics-coated performance textiles that stretch but don’t scuff.
And we have a synthetic alternative to down feathers that’s an astonishingly effective insulator even when wet: Aerogel pads out Nasa spacesuits.
British company Vollebak uses many of these advanced fabrics and fillings to create what it claims is clothing ‘that feels like you’re buying from the future’.
The Vollebak Apocalypse Jacket (above) ‘can survive re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere’
FROM GERMAN ‘STEALTHWEAR’ TO SHIRTS FOR SWIMMING FREEZING LAKES: VOLLEBAK’S TECHWEAR COMPETITION
Vollebak doesn’t have this corner of the techwear clothing market to itself.
Acronym of Germany has been making urban military-feel tech garments since the early 2000s — black stealthwear popular with cyberpunks, hackers, and street protestors.
Veilance is a sub-brand of Canada’s Arc’teryx and has been making ‘climate control systems’ since 2009.
Seven Layer has been making parkas and action skirts that ‘fuse fashion with function and performance with style’ since 2017 from its base in Manchester.
Hamish Hamilton’s Buffalo pile-and-Pertex Mountain Shirt was a favourite with extreme outdoor types in the 1980s and 1990s because the wear-next-to-the-skin garment kept the wearer comfortable in all conditions, including during and after freezing lake swims.
Earlier than all of these is Rohan, which started in 1972 when research chemist Paul Howcroft and his wife Sarah made stretch nylon mountain salopettes from a small house in Skipton. By the end of the 1970s, the growing company made practical, zip-pocket-based travel togs with a fast-drying, lightweight polycotton fabric. Rohan Bags trousers first appeared in 1982 and are still made – a traveller’s favourite.
Vollebak is an adventure techwear brand, not a travel clothing marque, but many of its garments are ideally suited to travel. I wear-tested some of their garments on several recent overseas trips in challenging scenarios — from boiling heat and perishing cold to tropical rainstorm wet.
I’ve been testing outdoor kit to destruction for nearly 40 years, through deserts, rain forests, on continent-crossing bike tours, jumping off volcanoes, and slip-sliding down mountain water plumes. I can confidently state that Vollebak is the best travel clothing I’ve ever worn.
Bear Grylls, too, wears Vollebak. But that doesn’t mean wearing the stuff makes you look like an SAS-style survivalist: many Vollebak pieces are smart. Not just smart as in intelligent (think fabrics with blockchain traceability), but also posh hotel smart.
The downside? Vollebak gear is crushingly expensive. The company’s 100-Year Hoodie costs £445 ($562). But, as the name suggests, this garment should outlive the wearer, so, in theory, it’s a bargain compared to fast fashion.
Other products from the company are even pricier. The Apocalypse Jacket is a stonking £1,195 ($1,510).
But then, it’s ‘annihilation proof’, boasts Vollebak.
It’s 40 per cent polybenzimidazole, a material that can withstand temperatures of ‘at least 2,370F (1,298C), the same temperature as black lava’.
‘We don’t know of any other commercial pieces of clothing where the main material can survive re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere,’ says Vollebak.
The jacket is not only ‘insanely fireproof’, but also has ten times the tear strength of a fire-fighter uniform.
The Planet Earth Shirt — made from cotton mixed with a smidgen of synthetic fibres — is now the most expensive shirt in my wardrobe at an eye-popping £345 ($435). But it’s tough, dries fast, and also looks the business.
Amazonian explorer and conservationist Paul Rosolie swears by his.
‘When I am doing heavy-duty work and need something that will protect me against thorns and mosquitoes but also not limit my movement, I break out the [Planet Earth shirt],’ says Rosalie.
Vollebak’s 100-Year Hoodie (above) costs £445, but should outlive the wearer
‘The way it stretches and breathes, it feels like it’s made out of whatever superhero uniforms are made out of.’
It’s an ‘indestructible’ field shirt he lauds as a ‘second skin’.
Rosalie wears his while handling giant snakes in jungle settings. I first wore mine on a posh trip to a five-star hotel in London. It’s a versatile garment suited to the tropics as well as the high street.
It might look like a regular shirt, but it’s packed with practical details, such as a hidden secure breast pocket big enough to stash a large smartphone, zipped bellows for ventilation, and a collar that can be raised and closed to keep the sun and bugs out. It also sports press-stud-fastened hanging loops to ease drip drying.
The £295 ($370) Equator poly cotton trousers I wore on a bike-and-train trip to Milan shed dirt and, after being washed in hotel sinks, dried quickly and didn’t need ironing. Hidden zipped pockets — perforated to let all the flavour flood out or, more accurately, to drain water — gave me the confidence I wouldn’t lose stashed valuables. Hidden air vents behind the knees keep me cool while cycling in the heat.
The £795 Deep Sleep Cocoon – a ‘self-contained microhabitat’
Way to glow: Brad Pitt owns a Vollebak Solar Charged Jacket (above)
The discreet Vollebak marque (so discreet it can take a while to find the logo on a garment) is a signifier of functionality rather than fashion.
Some of Vollebak’s products are deliberately bonkers, such as the £495 ($625) Solar Charged Jacket. This is so progressive (Brad Pitt owns one) that it’s a past winner of Wired Sports Gear of the Year and Time Magazine’s Best Inventions.
There’s also the not-yet-for-sale Thermal Camouflage Jacket clad with wonder material graphene billed as a step towards a Harry-Potter-style invisibility cloak. Vaporware, of course, but it’s also an envelope-pushing provocation that might, one day, actually be made to work.
Carlton Reid riding a bike in Paris wearing the extremely water-resistant Vollebak Waterfall-proof jacket and Equator trousers
Carlton in a suite at the five-star Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair, London, wearing a Vollebak Planet Earth Shirt
Nick and Steve Tidball, co-founders of Vollebak
WHEN DID I FIRST TRY ‘CLOTHING FROM THE FUTURE’? IN THE 1980S…
My first experience with ‘clothing from the future’ was in the mid-1980s, wearing Rohan clothing on solo bicycle expeditions into wild, remote places such as the sands of the Sahara. My mountain bike trip into the Kalahari desert of Southern Africa was featured in the Survival Aids catalogue, a 1980s purveyor of extreme expedition kit (think water-carrying condoms, button compasses, and wire saws).
Lightweight, fast-drying kit was a boon to the traveller then, and it’s still a boon now. Today, I’m just as likely to review five-star hotels on European city breaks for Travel Mail as bivouacking under the stars somewhere exotic, so I need clothing that looks smart but also performs.
Vollebak has, therefore, been a revelation. I can turn up at luxurious lodges looking smart, yet I might have plodged there through monsoon mud.
The company’s £525 ($660) Waterfall-proof jacket is stealth-black (black is good for hiding travel muck) and looks perfectly presentable as a jacket-you’d-go-to-the-pub-in but it has an off-the-scale hydrostatic head. This is the height of a water column on a fabric before it fails. Water-resistant and waterproof materials are usually rated from 2,000mm to 30,000mm — the Waterfall-proof jacket is rated at a staggering 40,000mm.
As a comparison, a top-of-the-range ocean racing yachting jacket — which you’d think would be the last word in waterproofness — is typically rated at 35,000mm.
The Waterfall-proof jacket also has a front pocket that is fully watertight, perfect for protecting a passport after you’ve fallen into a swollen river.
Steve Tidball said that the jacket isn’t waterproof through the use of hydrophobic chemicals that’ll wash out.
‘It’s made from a self-drying nanomaterial that mimics a lotus leaf,’ he remarked matter-of-factly.
‘I see Vollebak as a unique opportunity to do some quite extraordinary things and invent things that haven’t been invented before,’ he said as we talked in the company’s trendy London HQ near King’s Cross station. (The company has a staff of 43.)
‘Our Mars Jacket has a 3D printed vomit pocket with a bright orange sick bag — you might call it provocative, but for us, it isn’t – it’s experimental.
‘We’re designing for space, we’re designing for climate change, but we’re also designing sustainably, and we’re designing for health,’ he said.
Steve wasn’t dressed in a Mars Jacket, but he’s rarely out of the company’s Race to Zero puffer, an insulated jumper with Buffalo-style full-length side zips for ventilation.
‘It’s one of the least dramatic-looking things we’ve ever made,’ he admitted.
‘There’s nothing fancy about it: it’s not made out of metal, there are no vomit pockets, but it’s very, very light.’
‘We’re working on clothing and innovation designed to help us survive the next century – whether that’s exploring the most remote corners of Earth or colonising Mars,’ said Vollebak co-founder Steve Tidball.
He founded the company in 2015 with his identical twin brother, Nick. They are adventure athletes, competitors in long-distance endurance events such as 78-mile marathons through the Namibian desert and week-long Amazonian ultra races.
They are also creatives, working in advertising together for 15 years, including four years as creative directors at the renowned TBWA agency in London, an international advertising agency ‘with disruption at its core’.
As thrill-seeking, highly-paid advertising execs, the 44-year-olds spotted a gap in the market for the kind of progressive yet rugged clothing they craved for their adrenaline-fuelled adventures.
‘While surviving heatstroke, broken bones, bullet ants, angry snakes, tarantulas, hallucinations, and falling asleep while running, we decided that setting up our own company wouldn’t be so hard,’ said Steve Tidball.
The idea for the glowing Solar Charged Jacket came while the pair were running the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in low visibility. The jacket has a membrane with a phosphorescent compound that lets it absorb and store light then re-release it at night, like a firefly — no wiring or electronics is involved.
The two billion disruptively structured microscopic glass spheres on the Black Squid Jacket give it adaptive camouflage capabilities: it changes colours in different settings, just like the sea mollusc it’s named for.
The company’s Plant and Algae T-shirt is made from pulped eucalyptus and beech from sustainably managed forests and algae grown in bioreactors — it is compostable and sprang from the brothers competing in a six-day Amazonian ultramarathon and seeing their fellow competitors burning their filthy, post-race clothing. This T-shirt can be simply buried afterwards instead – it fully biodegrades within three months.
Vollebak is the Heston Blumenthal of clothing. Innovative. Controversial. Out there. ‘Vollebak’ is a Flemish term coined by hardcore cyclists that means ‘smash yourself — go as hard as you can’, says Steve Tidball. It was chosen for its all-action inscrutability rather than any connection with Belgium.
Currently, Vollebak clothes are designed for men, although the jumpers and jackets are unisex.
The Tidball brothers freely admit to using their early adopter customers as lab rats. These hardcore users enjoy being R&D testers willing to spend handsomely on prototype garments that might need many versions before becoming fully practical.
In that way, Vollebak is more like a technology start-up than a traditional clothing company.
‘We see our gear tested in the extreme scenarios for which they’re designed and in some of the most remote parts of the world,’ Steve has said.
Adventure medic Grant Holley strapped a prototype Graphene Jacket to a camel’s belly to capture heat that enabled him to survive a cold night in the Gobi desert.
And could the clothing of the future protect against disease? In 2020, Vollebak customers were willing to try, buying the world’s first anti-viral jacket. It’s made out of copper. Not embedded with a few strands of the stuff, but 65 per cent copper. Producing a soft and wearable copper textile is not something fabric factories are normally asked to do. The £995 Full Metal Jacket — with seven miles of copper in every garment — can also conduct heat and electricity without a power source.
This is a jacket that could one day feature intelligent connectivity — or perhaps power its own blow drier — but it’s not terribly practical right now.
The £795 ($1,000) Deep Sleep Cocoon – a ‘self-contained microhabitat’ – was designed to help astronauts sleep in space, stripping out light like an isolation tank, but the practical application right now is as the perfect garment for getting shut-eye on long-haul flights or dozing in public areas. Just so long as you don’t mind wearing a jacket inspired by the exoskeleton of a woodlouse.
VOLLEBAK DOESN’T HAVE ANY SHOPS, BUT IT DOES OWN A REMOTE ISLAND – THAT’S YOURS FOR £7.5MILLION
Where can you buy Vollebak kit? From the company’s website only. Steve Tidball said that there are no plans for any Vollebak high street shops because that would involve considerable expense, which would consume the company’s R&D budget.
There is one unofficial stockist, but it’s a truck stop in the Australian outback, a set-up for a company video flagging the world’s ‘most remote store’.
Also remote is the company’s 11-acre island off the Canadian coast. Bought for a song in 2021 and now on sale for £7.5million ($9.5million), Vollebak Island sits in an inlet near the lobster fishing community of West Jeddore, Nova Scotia. (It’s named Leader Island on the local land registry.)
Vollebak Island off the Canadian coast – yours for £7.5million
There are no buildings on Vollebak Island right now, but the Tidball twins believe it could be a template for off-the-grid future living. They commissioned plans for a billionaire’s bolthole from famous architect Bjarke Ingels, who earlier worked on Nasa’s plans for a 3D-printed moon base.
Vollebak Island is marketed as a ‘powerful vision of how we might live on Earth in a self-sustaining way.’ The purchaser will get the plans and planning permission for a cluster of high-tech sustainable dwellings with thatched roofs, bathhouse tubs carved from the rock and a greenhouse for growing the island’s food.
Adventurous Vollebak customers can stay on the pristine, undeveloped island right now for $1 night. But you have to travel there in your own kayak or packraft. And you get extra Brownie points if you arrive in a Race to Zero puffer.
Source: Read Full Article