Innovation That Matters

Nick and Steve Tidball on running a futuristic, sustainable clothing brand

Wise Words

Co-founders of Vollebak, Nick and Steve Tidball discuss the challenges and virtues of sustainable fashion and what inspires their creations.

Founded by twin brothers, designers, and athletes Nick and Steve Tidball, Vollebak leverages science and technology to create sustainable and truly innovative clothing. 

Vollebak was established in 2015 with the aim to create “clothing from the future”. We have since seen the company produce a solar-charged jacket that can store and re-emit sunlight, a t-shirt and hoodies that can be composted, a cocoon designed for sleeping in space, and the Black Algae T Shirt made with algae rather than petroleum that can hold carbon for up to 100 years. 

To understand better the key components and challenges that come with producing compostable futuristic apparel, we spoke to Vollebak’s co-founders Nick and Steve Tidball. They shared with us their valuable insights into the responsibility of business to lead the paradigm shift towards a greener future and how carbon negativity features in their design process.

1. Can you share a bit more about what Vollebak does, its purpose, and what change it aims to facilitate?

At Vollebak, we use science and technology to create clothing from the future. Since we launched in 2015, we’ve been asking questions that look into the near and far future. Questions around space travel, disease resistance, sustainability, and intelligence. And we try to solve them with pieces of clothing.

It’s why we have a Solar Charged Jacket that can store and re-emit sunlight, the toughest t-shirts on Earth made from ceramic and carbon fibre technology, and a Deep Sleep Cocoon designed to help you sleep in space. It’s why there’s over 11km of copper in our Full Metal Jacket, and why our Black Algae T-Shirt is made with algae rather than petroleum.

2. What was your background prior to this, and how did that shape your work?

Before Vollebak, my brother Nick and I had no experience in the clothing industry at all but had worked together in advertising for 15 years. It was an amazing education. We ended our advertising career working on Adidas and Airbnb which were brands we believed in and cared about, but by then we just weren’t interested in doing TV ads. Instead, we focused on creating stuff people would care about and tell their friends they’d seen. 

We went on to bring this same approach to our clothing designs – for us it’s always been about the ideas behind the clothes, why we’ve made them in a certain way and why this matters.

Co-founders of Vollebak, Nick and Steve Tidball discuss the challenges and virtues of sustainable fashion and what inspires their creations

3. Who or what inspires you personally? 

When we’re coming up with new ideas nearly all of our answers come from running and the outdoors. But we’re also inspired by the work of influential artists, designers and entrepreneurs in other industries. 

Elon Musk, René Redzepi, and Bjarke Ingles have all been creating the kind of ideas we’re interested in. While a lot of their work is highly technical and difficult to accomplish, the end result is spectacularly single-minded and thought-provoking. To be able to do that with clothing is where we want to be.

4. Through your work so far, are you seeing a genuine paradigm shift in how businesses and consumers approach retail and fashion?

From a business perspective, yes I think we’re seeing a genuine paradigm shift in the way that brands are thinking about sustainability in retail and fashion. But at the moment we’re seeing it in small isolated examples. A brilliant example would be Nike’s Space Hippie, made out of plastic bottles, t-shirts and post-industrial scraps. But that represents a small piece of the company. It’s the same for Adidas X Parley. So what we’re seeing at the moment is the start of a movement, not the middle of the movement. This is not the end game, this is people starting the game. 

Are consumers thinking about this paradigm shift? Some are. Some aren’t. In the same way that some people care about the climate and other people don’t. But I think it’s the responsibility of business to lead the paradigm shift and show consumers the thing that they don’t yet know they want. 

So in the same way that Ford had to show people they needed a car not a horse, it’s up to businesses to show people they need a t- shirt made out of black algae rather than one made with carbon black. Or that they need a sweater made out of recycled or bulletproof vests rather than a sweater made out of brand new material. 

5. What are the key challenges you face in your efforts to produce compostable apparel? 

The entire challenge is around the supply chain. The system is geared up for lowest common denominator clothing. What is the lowest price you can pay to get something made that people are still going to want? And the system is designed to perpetuate this type of clothing. 

So for every part of the process, you have to make or break the system. That includes finding, sourcing and inventing the material, getting that material developed, getting it into a factor that will use it, and making sure it’s dyed with non-traditional methods.  The result is clothing that takes far longer to make and costs much more to produce, because you can’t trade on the normal efficiencies that you would if you were making standard clothing.

7. Do you think it is enough to be sustainable? How does carbon negativity feature in Vollebak’s design process?

There are three ways to tackle sustainable clothing. You can use advances in material technology to make clothes with a longer life expectancy than the people wearing them. You can start digging into waste and trash streams to use the stuff people have already generated and discarded. Or you can go back to using nature to make clothes that require as little energy as possible and leave no trace of their existence at the end of their lives.

With our 100 Year range, our Garbage Watch, and Plant and Pomegranate Hoodie, we’re tackling all three routes at the same time. But with our Black Algae T-Shirt, which launched this summer, we’ve gone one step further. We’ve created the first-ever entirely black, carbon-storing t-shirt from renewable and sustainable algae ink.  For every 500 t-shirts we produce, we remove 59 kilograms of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In using algae as a replacement to a pigment called carbon black, we are also preventing 10.2 kilograms of petroleum from being used.

8. What is something exciting that is happening or has recently happened at Vollebak?

We’ve recently released the Vollebak Garbage Sweater which is designed to reframe the role of garbage in Earth’s future. It started with a very simple idea. What if garbage isn’t garbage? What if it’s simply pre-assembled raw materials that we can use to make new things. 

For a brand like ours, the most interesting bit of the dump is the stuff that was designed to never die. Because how do you get rid of something that’s literally designed to be invincible? So we’ve taken retired bulletproof vests and firefighter suits that were destined to spend the next few centuries on a rubbish pile, mashed them up, and transformed them into a warm, soft, fire-resistant sweater.

9. What is one book (podcast, documentary, etc.) that has inspired you and that you recommend?

If I’d be allowed to pick two, it would be Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler.

Both are fascinating for the same reason. They follow the lives of two of the world’s greatest creative visionaries, who have already had to reinvent the creative wheel multiple times, and the beautiful thing is just how hard it was. What’s interesting is that they didn’t do it sitting in an ivory tower. They faced all the day-to-day challenges that any business faces today but they managed to rise through it and invent something completely new.

So those two books, in their forensic detailing of the history of those companies and the individuals running them, show you that the challenges we go through on a much smaller scale are not unique to us, they’re simply what happens when you try to do something new.

10. Do you have any other thoughts or wise words for aspiring eco-conscious entrepreneurs?

When you start, understand that it’s going to be an incredible challenge; but also know that when you do succeed you’re doing something that almost no one else is doing.

Written By: Katrina Lane