After a career in advertising and as an architect, Nick founded ‘clothes for the future’ company Vollebak with his twin brother. Nick tells ReFramed about the importance of building a legacy and his philosophy for design innovation.
ReFramed: To go from advertising into product development, it is just a big change, isn't it? How did you get into it?
Nick: We saw the original Guinness surfer ad done by Walter Campbell where the horses were in the waves. And we were both like, wow, what the hell is that? Who makes that? What is this? And we found out it was creatives who brought it to life. My brother was doing art history and I was doing architecture and we just blagged, utterly blagged our way into our first jobs in advertising. Then little by little, we worked our way through advertising. You start from nothing. We didn't know anyone. There was no nepotism. We just had to graft and work hard. And by 30 we'd got half decent. And then our choice was either start your own ad agency, but then you've still got clients or it was start your own company. We'd read Steve Jobs's book and Phil Knight's book about Nike, and Yvon Chouinard's. We loved making things because our adverts were more stunts and physical than they were a TV ad. It was like building a house or building a store for kids. So we put that together and went, I think there's something missing in clothing, an area where people weren't going for it in the way we believed they could. When we looked at the best chefs in the world we didn't believe there was an equivalent experimentation or going for it in the world of clothing where they were taking science and innovation and putting them together. And it was very much a leap of faith. But we both felt we were at the age and at the moment in time where we were willing to take massive risks. If all else failed, you could have just gone back into advertising. But for many, many reasons, luck, working very hard, it hasn't failed and we've managed to turn it into a thing. So it was sort of a holy trinity really of reading inspiring people's books, working on brands and understanding how brands work, and having a real interest in materials and making shit.
ReFramed: Crazy, dude. So, what was the first product that you made?
Nick: We made a pink hoodie that you zipped up over your head that was the least commercial thing anyone could ever possibly make. So it was a pink hoodie for men, zipped up over your head, that was bright pink, that was designed to relax your brainwaves. So in terms of niche, it couldn't have been more mental. Jon Glaser, the comedian, ended up wearing it on Jimmy Fallon, we were only a few months into the business. I think enough people around us were like, oh, there's something here. This is an interesting company. Obviously me and my brother are twins. So we are relatively a funny duo, and I think there was enough stuff, a few things happening to go, oh, there might be a business here.
ReFramed: Yeah, dude. I was just going through all your products, all the stuff that you've made. I've never really come across a brand that just has a) the materials and actually makes it look decent. And then b) actually trying to solve a problem that we'll face in the future. So I just think, was that the idea from the get go, to push it in that innovative way?
Nick: Well, the innovation and the experimentation was absolutely there from the start, but you don't have the staff, you don't have the infrastructure. You don't have backers, you don't have connections. You have to go and grow all that. We knew enough from our advertising to know that there was a bit of a diamond there. But it was hidden in a whole load of fucking lumpy rock. And you had to chip away at the rock and after one/two/three/four years, lots of the rock has gone and you can start to see bits of the diamond and the clarity. And probably because of our advertising background and architecture background, you go, ah, that materials thing definitely works. But for me, the biggest thing was to follow the path of some of our heroes, from other industries. If we looked at how Bjarke Ingels attacks architecture or René Redzepi attacks food at Noma. For us, it was like their methodology of attack through innovation and science. And that was our way that we understood it. And then the more you go at it, the clearer it seems to become. But absolutely, in the first few years, no, it wasn't that clear at all.
ReFramed: It feels like a brand that reflects the moment in time we're living in, there's Technical, there's Acronym and all these very techy brands where it's like ... Your brand is just so crazy because like a virus repelling jacket made out of copper and it is like, what the fuck?
Nick: I think what we like to do is interact with the world and accept the bits of the world going on. Because I think it only makes design better. I think sometimes clothing can get caught in its own ideologies of, oh, it's this season or it's this colour. For us, the interesting thing about clothing is you do get to tackle issues. If the world is heating up, what should the clothes do? If there is this virus, what could clothes do? If black is the colour that is destroying the world, which it is, how do you go and create the new version of black? And I think it's only by looking around the world that you see the most interesting challenges.
ReFramed: Man. So what does a normal day in your life look like?
Nick: A year or two ago, my workload was less insane than it is now. A typical day, I definitely don't sleep enough, that's for sure, and I try to do sports first, or after I've taken the children to school. When I have the kids, it's normal dad stuff. Get them up, feed them breakfast, make sure their clothes are washed, pack their bags for school, do their homework with them, have fun, skip down the hill all the way to school. Then I'll get into work, we are now at about 40 people and typically everyone wants something from you. Which is fine because you're running a company, but I also have my own day to do. From our advertising days, I grew to have a hatred of meetings. What I love is chatting with people very fast, very quickly, trying to help them and help me get all my work done and so the days are relatively random. Right now we're in Thomas Heatherwick's old office, so we now have an absolutely beautiful, amazing design studio we've inherited. So it's a space that is conducive to having fun. Playing table tennis. We have table tennis. We have dart boards. On Friday nights, we have a bar in the office. It's a lot of fun.
ReFramed: And then, where do these ideas come from? Is it you reading crazy scientific research papers? And you're like, ooh, this is cool, I wonder how it could look as a garment? Talk to me a little bit about that.
Nick: So the creative process. So originally it was, we knew what good ideas were because in advertising you are trained to have what you regard as good ideas. A good idea is something simple that lots and lots of people can understand but then have a viability to getting out into the real world. That's what a good idea is, whether it's a piece of art, a piece of clothing, a piece of food. Coming up with ideas is actually relatively fast and our job now is executing them. So for instance, the garbage watch, where we're making a watch out of e-waste. So the idea is actually relatively easy. Then I simply do them because there's no red tape, there's no politics, there's no big person in charge of us. We can do what on earth we like, the challenge is then executing them. Executing them, getting them out into the real world is the challenge.
ReFramed: When do you know it’s a good idea worth pursuing?
Nick: So typically, you get a good idea and then if lots of people tell you it's really difficult, you know it's brilliant. Because a piece of clothing, they go, I can't do that, that costs too much, that's too difficult. We can't get a factory to do that. Or when lots of people find lots of difficulties with it and are really scared with it, I will run full on head long at that idea. Because it means it's correct. If you're making a red t-shirt for five pounds, everybody is going to say yes, everybody around you, every factory, every product supplier, everyone is going to say yes. When people start saying no and having worried faces, you know you are in an interesting territory. For instance, the black algae t-shirt, as an example, they were making black algae for greeting cards and they were using it as the ink. There were so many barriers to getting that into clothing, both internally, externally, the factories. Everyone told me that it's too difficult, too expensive, too time consuming, it's not how you make t-shirts, it's not how you do this. I was utterly convinced it was correct. I just then had to will it into existence, through charm, happiness, anything. That's my way of willing stuff into existence, that's my methodology.
ReFramed: It's crazy because this sounds like you're creating new technologies and new ways of thinking.
Nick: Yeah. But sometimes I think for me it's like, I think when you're trained as an architect to look at materials, a lot of the time the thing is there, it's just buried. So there's a bit of invention for sure. I think the creation, invention of something is often a very small close move to the thing it was. It's not always this on purpose, it's sometimes done by accident. For me, if we make enough clothes and we experiment with enough prototypes, the interesting stuff happens. Often the mistakes are the most interesting things.
ReFramed: I just have one last question around work, which is your legacy. When you think of your company's legacy, what is it that you want to leave behind?
Nick: So interestingly, my brother and I think a lot about this and so what we do is we judge every idea by, if we look back when we are old, we'll be proud of that idea, will we think that's a brilliant idea. Will we look back and go, that idea was funny or beautiful or clever or correct. We are trying to do what we believe is correct in an industry and if that helps shape an industry, and then in some way, that takes the industry into a place where it's not massively been before, that's what's interesting to me. I think the design philosophy of this is the fundamental correct way the industry should go and whether they want to follow or do what we do or not, that's up to them and then you do that and you do the thing you believe in. That's our thing, that’s why we exist.
ReFramed: Obviously the pandemic happened. A lot of things changed, everything from work culture, social groups, how we see ourselves. When you reflect on it, when people talk about separating work and life, and it's impossible to do when you run your own business, have you thought about how you run your company differently since the pandemic happened?
Nick: In terms of running a company, the company as a startup faces so many challenges and death threats to it, it was just yet another death threat. What I've done, which I believe in, which not everyone believes in, is I massively believe in being at work, everyone has fun, the work culture of people being next to people creates ideas, creates stuff. So I was one of the first lot of people to go, if we can, let's everyone come to work because that's where the great ideas happen. And we are at the size of the company where we felt the company would die if we didn't do it. I was desperate for it not to change anything actually, because I had it how I wanted it. Even though we were only eight or 10 or 12 people, there was a brilliant spirit. We're now 40 people and the spirit is the same. So for me, I was actually keen that nothing changed, as ironic and as controversial as that is. Which I expect is not an opinion you'll hear a lot.
ReFramed: I want to move into exploring a little bit about your relationship to space and your ideals of what home means to you. Because it's different for everyone.
Nick: I think home for me, obviously as an ex-architect, is so important, it's crazy. It is so representative of who you are and how you live. And so interestingly, in the last 12 months or so, my wife and I separated very amicably, and we share our children. So I actually had to go through the process of going, where do I live? What does it look like? What does my stuff look like? How do I want to live? And so I actually had to go through this process because we had a beautiful home we shared. And all of a sudden it's like, well, I'm starting a new life. And what's that look like? So for me, (Hampstead) Heath was the absolute focal point because that's what's called an adjunct, an adjunct is a thing that you don't have to have, but it completes you and it makes you, and it enables you to be you. For Hampstead Heath is that because it's where I walk, it's where I run, it's where I swim. It was all about being connected to nature. Basically I love open spaces, so my current house is like a ship just on the edge of the Heath.
ReFramed: Talk to me a little bit about how you’ve approached designing the interior of your home
Nick: It's an incredible home because it's English and it's quirky, there's lots of wood, and there's lots of light. It's very peaceful. I'm quite a simple human being. So for instance, I don't have wine glasses because I've never liked them aesthetically. And so I don't have to have them. Obviously with children, children fill your life with stuff, but I'm interested in beyond that, what's the simplest I can live. I have these clothes, I have this computer, I have these sofas, I have some stuff to eat from a table, some chairs. I'm massively into beautiful eclecticism, I'm not a scandi person. So lots of people are like, oh, how will you do it, will it be all scandi? And it's like, no, it's going to be eclectic. I love colour. I love eclecticism. I have a colourful Paul Smith light. And it's like, that's what I love. I love fun. I love people. Basically I'm a huge Richard Rogers fan. Richard Rogers was an utter, utter genius. And that's what I go towards. It's eclectic, beautiful, simple, colourful. And that is what I am into. That's what makes me happy and completes me.
ReFramed: What gets you up in the morning?
Nick: What gets me up in the morning is my task list and to-do list, which is utterly impossible, utterly enormous, utterly exciting, and has a myriad of things and people relying on me to come and do it. But I want to do it. That's what's important. That is the luckiest, luckiest thing in the world, because you are a master of your own destiny, of your own time. So if your day doesn't work, it is up to you to fix it, or it is because of you, it is your fault and if your day is awesome, it's because you made it awesome.
ReFramed: I have one final question because I'm really interested in the name of the business. What is the story behind that?
Nick The story behind it is, it's a Flemish word from the cycling peloton, which means full gas or all out. Before we had a business, we thought it was a beautiful word and it was a word that Johan Bruyneel had said to Lance Armstrong when he did a very, very famous ride. It was from reading about him surviving cancer, which he did do and he turned surviving cancer into thriving after cancer. We both found it so powerful and transformative that we changed our lives in our late twenties to go and do stuff because we felt we weren't doing enough in life. So it's a transformative moment for us and therefore it was a word that stuck with us and now it's our company.