Vollebak, which makes ‘clothes for the future’, closes its Series A – TechCrunch
If you’ve ever visited the London-based direct-to-consumer clothing company six years ago Vollebak, you’ve probably marveled at the exaggerated descriptions of the clothes he sells, including a jacket “designed for a world of megastorms, where ‘waterproof’ just isn’t enough”, a hoodie that promises to repel rain, the wind, snow and fire; and an “Ice Age” fleece “designed to recreate the feel and performance of the soft pelts worn by prehistoric man.”
This marketing genius comes straight from CEO Steve Tidball, who co-founded the outfit with his twin, Nick Tidball – who have both worked in advertising before and are both active outdoor enthusiasts, although their families and the Vollebak’s growth have brought them closer to home in recent years. Indeed, Steve Tidball writes the copy himself, he revealed last week in an interview with Vollebak, a brand that prides itself on making “clothing for the future.”
During this conversation, he also answered our questions about how much technology is actually involved in the production of clothing. And he let us know that Vollebak has so far raised around $10 million in outside funding, including through a Series A round that is about to end, led by the capital firm. -risk based in London. Venrex, featuring Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia and Headspace CFO Sean Brecker, among others. Our chat has been edited for length and clarity.
TC: You started this business with your twin, Nick. Much of its genius seems to be in how your clothes are marketed. Tell us a bit about how it happened.
ST: We started the business five years ago. Before that, we had worked together in advertising for 15 years, so I think one of the reasons marketing is more fun than it otherwise could be is that it was our job.
We operated on an incredibly simple rule from a marketing perspective, which is basically: spend as little money as possible. So, for example, a few years ago we created our first space garment, which was a deep sleep cocoon. And in marketing you are always [asking] who is your audience, and really, our audience was one person here, who was Elon [Musk], so we found a billboard [space] across from SpaceX, and we just put out a poster there, and it said, “Our jackets are ready. How’s your rocket? It doesn’t cost very much, but it was really fun, and NASA called the next week, and then we had [to] chatting with them.
Your clothes are a reflection of what you think will happen to people over the next century, from space travel to sustainability. You have a solar charging jacket that you think can glow like a firefly in the dark, for example. You have a “black squid” jacket that you believe recreates one of nature’s most brilliant solutions to high visibility, adaptive squid camouflage. How much technology is really involved here?
For the past five years, the angle of technology that we have focused on is materials science. That’s the only thing that as a startup we’ve had access to, because if you look at a lot [complex] technologies like AI or exoskeletons, you need really massive funding to tackle that, whereas any startup can really lean into materials science. So it’s the angle that really fascinates us. ..[because] it hasn’t generally been explored, how much materials science could go into a product.
One of the coolest things we ever launched was the world’s first graphene jacket. Even the scientists who first isolated graphene can’t quite tell you what graphene will do. . . .[So] we said, well, one side has graphene and the other side doesn’t. Why not go test it out and tell us what it does? We had a theory that it could store and redistribute heat because graphene behaves in very surprising ways and there’s no limit to how much heat it can store. What came back were two particularly amazing stories, one of an American doctor who had frozen overnight in the Gobi Desert and wrapped his graphene jacket around a camel, and after soaking up the heat camel, he put his jacket back on and stayed warm all night.
Another friend of ours, a Russian who was in the mountains of Nepal and was in danger of freezing to death, used the graphene jacket to soak up the last rays of the sun. He warmed up, and he put it on as his inner layer and credits it with keeping him warm all night.
How is a graphene shirt or a ceramic shirt made? Do you have a special loom? Do you do it with a 3D printer? What is the process?
You make it with great difficulty is the answer, that’s why our clothes cost more than regular clothes. In reality, you end up with very specialized factories, usually in Europe, with very high-tech machines that very few people have access to.
Do you usually run short production runs for your goods?
Yeah and in the beginning it was really a capital function ie we didn’t have much so we just made as many clothes as we could they sold out really fast , and we tried to do more as the company grew. There’s definitely some stuff so complicated or so experimental that it would be foolhardy to make 10,000 of them. So yeah, we did small runs of some of our most experimental stuff, just to see: Does it market ? Could it be improved?
One of these experimental new products is the Mars Jacket and Pants. Where do we wear this?
The irony, of course, is that you have to test it on Earth. But the reality of going to Mars or any space travel is that there will be an exponential increase in the number of people going there and the number of jobs they have to do when they will go there. You’re going to need scientists, biologists, builders, engineers, architects, they’re going to have to wear something. And so the reality is that we want to start working on it early, so what we’re doing is we’re starting to think about some of the tasks that need to be done, whether it’s on the moon or Mars or lower orbit stuff, and on: What are the trades? What are some of the challenges we are going to face? That’s why the jacket comes with a vomit pouch, because your vestibular system is disorganized as soon as you encounter a lack of gravity.
How do you know the vestibular system? You are a marketing genius. Are you also a scientist?
I’m a fake scientist [laughs]. But we have a lot of really interesting people around us, whether it’s people thinking about the future of war or people thinking about the future of space travel, we often joke that our business is run on WhatsApp.
Where do you get the most feedback from your customers? VSSome D2C brands are very active on social media and Instagram and have Slack channels. How does it work there?
I thought early on that if you could combine really cool innovative technology with really nice people at the end of email, that could be a really cool thing.
You only sell directly through the Vollebak site. Will that ever change?
Not in the near future. One of the things that’s been absolutely critical for the brand is getting that feedback, and I’m really worried about losing that connection with customers. Let’s say someone has a cool experience with one of our shirts or one of our jackets, and they bought it at a wholesale store, and they have no real connection with us. . I feel like this is lost information.
We’ll be doing more things in the metaverse space very, very soon, because I find it so exciting, the idea that there’s going to be this competition or integration between the virtual world and the real world. So we’re building some pretty crazy stuff right now in this space. We are currently looking for supercomputers powerful enough to handle some of the things we are working on. But yeah, basically anything that we think will define the future, we’ll put a lot of effort into it.
(You can hear this conversation in its entirety, including Vollebak’s plans to eventually launch a women’s line and its funding situation, here.)