Nick and Steve are twin brothers and former creative directors at TBWA. The pair devised the brilliant floating house which cruised down the River Thames this summer to promote Airbnb to Londoners, a project that was featured in our July issue. They are also extreme sports enthusiasts and for the past few years, have been working on a clothing brand aimed at adventurers and athletes.
Vollebak launched online yesterday with two products: the Baker-Miller Pink hoodie, which is designed to put wearers into a state of relaxation and the Condition Black jacket, named after the military term for the fight or flight mode we experience during life or death situations.
The hoodie is named after the shade of pink which was proven to have a calming effect on prisoners in the US in a series of psychological experiments conducted in the 1980s (also known as P-618 and Schauss Pink). Tests carried out by Alexander Schuss at a correctional facility in Seattle concluded that just 15 minutes of exposure to the colour was enough to suppress feelings of aggression or violent urges.
A mesh visor floods the wearer’s field of vision with Baker-Miller Pink and aims to reduce oxygen intake by encouraging slower breathing. A pair of deep ‘sling’ pockets, meanwhile, encourage more efficient breathing through the diaphragm rather than the chest. “Sliding your hands into these pockets positions your forearms over the base of your stomach, so you can feel it rising and falling with each breath,” says the brand.
The garment aims to induce a state of relaxation by stimulating the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for lowering heart rate and regulating the digestive system. Vollebak claims the hoodie will help calm athletes before and after physical challenges, when they need to recharge or conserve their energy.
The Condition Black jacket is made using Ceraspace (a material made out of ceramic particles, developed by textiles company Schoeller) and is designed to keep wearers warm and dry in extreme weather conditions. It also comes with some nifty safety features – such as glow-in-the-dark instructions on how to use the jacket and what position to assume to keep warm in an emergency, plus a pull cord to operate the jacket’s hood when movement is restricted or wearers are feeling weak.
Steve Tidball says he and Nick had the idea for Vollebak after some gruelling experiences. “The first happened when we were out training in Tarifa on the south coast of Spain,” he says. “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.”
While the pair had already been discussing creating an adventure clothing brand, those experiences led them to create products aimed at helping athletes who need to stay calm, or who may experience extreme situations. “As athletes we couldn’t see anyone experimenting in this space, and as designers we believed we could find ways to solve that,” he adds.
Each of the products comes with an accompanying soundtrack, available to download from the Vollebak site. The soothing Baker-Miller Pink soundtrack is composed of elements of pink noise, while Condition Black’s is filled with disorientating sounds and aims to help listeners train for being in a state of confusion or fear. “It aims to increase your tolerance of the Gamma brainwaves your body creates during life and death situations by taking your brain from its natural alert and awake state, to one that you would typically associate with panic, fear, and terror,” says the pair.
The idea of using sound design in clothing to alter perception is heavily inspired by Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Sound of the Sea’ dish, where you’re served an iPod Nano in a conch shell playing a ‘seascape’ while you eat your fish in order to heighten your perception of flavour,” adds Steve. “We worked with sound engineer Michael Powell who’s a specialist in the field of brainwave sound design, to create a bespoke track for athletes to download from our site and listen to whilst wearing the hoodie [and jacket].”
The pair have also launched a pair of online experiments – one is designed to simulate the feelings you’d experience during Condition Black with flashing imagery and the same unsettling soundtrack (it is not suitable for anyone with epilsepy), while the Miller-Pink experiment’s soothing voiceover and all-pink screen help viewers relax again.
As well as drawing on psychological experiments and physiological research, Tidball says the films are inspired by the work of artists such as Derek Jarman and Olafur Eliasson.
“It’s difficult to know whether we would have created a 15 minute film where the screen remains one unchanging shade of pink for the entire time with just a voiceover if we hadn’t seen Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue.’ Similarly the mind-altering nature of our Condition Black experiment is directly inspired by some of the experiences we’ve had with Olafur Eliasson’s work. He’s able to transport you to a different mental state, and that’s something we really wanted to replicate but in our own way and with entirely different benefits,” he adds.
While the hoodie costs £220 and the jacket, £780, experiments and soundtracks are available for free. “We weren’t interested in creating a purely commercial platform,” says Tidball. “We wanted to create a space that would help push athletes closer to the limits of adventure…if that means someone comes to our site to help themselves get to sleep before racing the next day, or trains with the Condition Black experiment every morning on the way to work before their next climbing expedition, that’s what we want,” he adds.
Prices reflect the cost of R&AD, processes and materials, says Tidball – products are manufactured by Portuguese clothing factory Petratex, which runs its own innovation lab. “Over the last 5 years they’ve poured investment into cutting edge research, advanced technology, and wearable tech, and it’s just as well, because other factories would have stopped working on our Condition Black Jacket before we even got to production,” says Tidball. “Working with [Ceraspace] is probably about as fun as carving granite – despite that, Petratex created a process that could make it work, cutting it with a robotic laser operating at 1200 degrees, before cross stitching every panel by hand onto the jacket in a bespoke pattern,” he adds.
Products have been tested on athletes in a range of situations, says Tidball, including the brothers themselves. “One of the most compelling testing stories actually happened on the set of our photo shoot. I was lying down in the Baker Miller Pink Hoodie. It required staying completely still for at least 10 minutes to get the shot we needed. It was really hot under the lights, and I was on a hard wooden floor. Despite all that, the next thing I remember was being shaken awake.”
Tidball says the product range will be kept small, with no more than a handful of new items released each year. Vollebak will also be launching a membership scheme for athletes, who will be invited to try out future releases.
With just two products, the brand’s website uses soundtracks, experiments and detailed product information to create a site that is compelling even for those who aren’t looking to shop. The brand’s visual identity, meanwhile, features a series of symbols which can be used ‘like a periodic table’ says Tidball.
“We wanted to see if instead of just making an external facing logo, whether we couldn’t also create something that actually had a function. What we came up with is basically our version of the Vollebak periodic table. Three cubes sit above our name. We distil every Vollebak project into three elements that reveal the DNA of each idea. In Condition Black for instance these represent cold weather solutions, survival and the Gamma state. Each then receives its own symbol and occupies one of the boxes,” he explains.
“Our aim is for this to become a system that will help drive innovation over the next decade. Essentially, by simply cataloguing each project, patterns will naturally start to emerge. We’ll be able to see which combinations are helping us innovate successfully, as well as seeing which combinations are waiting to be explored,” he adds.
The Tidballs have been working closely with former NASA scientists, psychologists and the founders of some successful sports brands to create the first round of products. They’re certainly inventive, with a slightly futuristic aesthetic and some clever added features. Inspired by space, psychology and the fine art world, the pair have developed a distinctive identity for Vollebak that will appeal to both athletes looking for gear to enhance their performance – and a growing market of affluent explorers interested in the latest kit.
“From the outset we knew we wanted to look and feel very different to anything else athletes will ever have seen. I think having influences that come from radically disparate fields like space exploration…and conceptual art has been really helpful for that,” adds Tidball.