What do you wear to an apocalypse?
It’s a hard thing to dress for, due in no small part to the fact that no one really knows when or how the world will end. There are a handful of leading doomsday scenarios, of course—climate disaster; nuclear war; a global pandemic—that have started to feel particularly portentous in the past 12 to 18 months. But as life on Earth becomes more extreme and inhospitable, and people look to the possibility of colonising other planets and moons, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to say what the next 40, 50 or 100 years might look like; or how we might have to adapt our clothing to better suit these future scenarios.
And yet there are a very small handful of people who are thinking very deeply about this, and trying to solve the practical issue of future apparel.
Last year, British fashion designer Christopher Raeburn launched his New Horizons collection: a series of garments specifically designed for life on Mars, and manufactured from materials that humans would already be taking to the red planet—including parachutes, air brakes and survival blankets. Raeburn’s brand strategy of “remaking, recycling and reusing” was deployed as a way to circumnavigate the inevitable shortage of resources in a Martian colony, and to set an environmentally responsible precedent as humans establish new habitats on untouched planets.
“It’s about thinking what you can reuse instead of virgin materials,” Rabeurn told the Financial Times. “We are acutely aware of our material use and impact on Earth. [But] we are looking proactively about how we will act as we explore beyond our planet. Technology, innovation and responsible design can come together.”
Raeburn isn’t the only one tackling the big questions of how the humans of the future ought to dress. Other clothing designers, innovators and entrepreneurs are also asking themselves what the next few decades of life might look like for human societies, and what kind of garments we’ll need in order to adapt to the new normal—whether that be on an untouched alien planet or an increasingly hostile Earth.
“We’re the first generation that will go to Mars, it's guaranteed; but we’re also the first generation that may well kill off our own planet, and we’re also going to face unprecedented climate change and now unprecedented risk from disease,” says Steve Tidball, CEO and co-founder of clothing company Vollebak.
Primarily specialising in versatile, practical and eco-friendly adventurewear, Vollebak positions itself as somewhat different to other garment brands. As the company website declares, these are “clothes from the future”—by which it means clothes for the future.
“Everyone is designing for next season; but our philosophy is: what if we design for the next century?” Tidball explains to VICE News over the phone. “And if the next century is going to be absolutely bat shit, do you really care whether your jacket is red or blue? I don't think you do. I think you care whether your clothes set on fire, or whether they transmit disease, or whether you’re going to have a heart attack and our clothes warn you or not.”
Tidball isn’t being hyperbolic, here. Along with his twin brother and business partner Nick, he’s literally designed clothes built to withstand the world’s most extreme conditions. These include “100-year” pants and jackets that enable the wearer to walk through fire; the “Planet Earth shirt” that’s designed to be worn on all 510 million square kilometres of the Earth’s surface; and a jacket made with graphene, the lightest, strongest, most conductive material known to humans. It’s thought that graphene can absorb and redistribute an unlimited amount of heat, and in 2010 its discovery earned researchers the Nobel Prize in Physics.
These are clothes built for extreme situations, but they’re intended for everyday use—an approach that Tidball thinks is appropriate, given how rapidly the gap between the “extreme” and the “everyday” is closing.
Vollebak’s fireproof clothing, he says by way of example, was initially designed to be worn inside a volcano.
“If you climb inside a volcano, you can’t be wearing clothes that set on fire. But then Australia sets on fire a fair bit; California sets on fire a fair bit. So what’s interesting is you design it for one extreme, and actually it becomes quite relevant to everyday life because everyday life is becoming quite extreme.”
Some of his company’s products, Tidball adds, have already saved lives.
“One of our proudest moments is that we kept two of our customers alive: one in the mountains in Nepal and one in the Gobi desert,” he says. “The one in the desert was super cold, so he tied his graphene jacket around his camel, absorbed the body heat from the camel’s belly—had it on the camel for 10 minutes—and then he put it back on and it kept him warm through the night.”
“It looks just like a grey jacket,” Tidball says, “but then it can do something that's kind of magical that no other material on Earth can do.”
The future of humankind is unlikely to be limited to the Earth, though—and Tidball is already designing clothes that are made to address everyday problems in outer space.
“We chatted to a few of our mates who are involved in the space industry and they were basically talking about how many astronauts take sleeping pills,” he says. “And we were like, this is mental: we spend all this money to get these people up in space and then we have to give them tablets to sleep. So the challenge was, could we help someone sleep in space? Someone who gets seven sunrises and sunsets a day: can you help them sleep?”
The result of that effort is the “Deep Sleep Cocoon”: a hooded jacket designed to be a microhabitat that shields the wearer from any external disturbances. Unsurprisingly, it’s already proven popular among people who frequently take long-haul flights. But it’s also piqued the interest of the world’s most famous space agency.
“We thought, who do we need to tell about this? We really need to let Elon know,” Tidball says—casually referring to Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and someone whom he seems to look to as the paragon of entrepreneurial innovation.
Tidball and his brother rented the giant billboard outside the SpaceX HQ in California, and posted a message that read: “we finished our jacket, how’s your rocket going?” Elon didn’t call them the next day, Tidball says—but NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory did.
“We’ve been chatting to them ever since,” he laughs. “We have astronauts come have a look at the design, and we’ll start working on version two, version three, version four. By the time we get there it’ll look completely different, but when people land on Mars I want them to be wearing Vollebak.”
If it’s not the Deep Sleep Cocoon, then it may well be the Full Metal Jacket: a windbreaker made from 65 percent copper that’s designed to be antiviral and so prevent humans from transporting harmful diseases and pathogens to other planets. Like most of Vollebak’s products, however, there’s also a reasonable function for such a product here on Earth, right now, in 2020.
This is where Vollebak’s vision goes from fun and frivolous concept to real-world practicality. When the company advertises its wares as “clothes from the future”, it’s not referring to some distant reality but rather the very place we’re likely to be in five, 10, 15 years from now. Whether it’s an “ultra-lightweight technical shirt built for a planet that’s heating up” or a “Garbage Watch built from the tech the world threw away in the trash”, Tidball and his brother are designing the kinds of clothes they think people will want—maybe even need—in this strange new world.
So is this the future of fashion?
“I have no idea what fashion will do in six months let alone six years,” says Tidball, “but I do know what the future of clothing is. I do know that clothing and technology is going to merge; I do know that life on Earth is going to become harder; and I do know we’re going to go to space. So provided we stay on those tracks, we’ll be fine.”
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