Within their respective industries, Sir Richard Branson and Yohji Yamamoto share a vision for chasing the future. Both have been progressive-thinking rule-breakers for decades—so it comes as not too much of a surprise that Branson’s Virgin Galactic worked with Y-3 (Yamamoto’s sportswear line with adidas) to develop space-appropriate uniforms. Functional, fashionable and—rather than futuristic—grounded in the “now,” the prototype designs for the pilot flight-suit and flight boot set an optimistic tone that space travel for all will be happening sooner rather than later.
Naturally, Y-3’s experience in tech-forward fabrics, special techniques and bespoke work made them an ideal collaborator, even if they’ve never designed space apparel before (the whole mindset surrounding Virgin Galactic is peppered with a lot of “firsts,” a recurring theme). Distinguishing it from the typical big name fashion collaboration, however, Virgin Galactic had other requirements in mind beyond just an avant-garde silhouette.
“When choosing a partner in any category Virgin Galactic looks initially for a common approach to business—seeking those companies who have identified and believe in a reason for being, a higher purpose which unites the company in the pursuit of more than just profit,” Virgin Galactic Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough tells CH on how the collaboration came about. “We look carefully at the detail and authenticity of CSR [corporate social responsibility] and ethical policies and then compare brand values. In doing so, we try to identify potential partners where the whole has the potential to become much greater than the sum of the parts. We look for partners who will add depth and breadth to our customer experience and who will help magnify our vision and purpose. Our partners also recognize that the journey is at least as important as the destination. Y-3 met all the partnership criteria described above and, importantly, had a design language and ethos which placed it, perhaps uniquely, in an ideal position to help us imagine the future and create it now.”
Made from fire-retardant materials, Y-3’s pilot flight suit interestingly took some cues from adidas prototypes designed for NASCAR drivers. “To be honest, initially in the design phase we drew a fairly standard regular construction flight suit, very much the same as you can buy in any military supplier, and got quite frustrated with that. It felt too standard and not really fitting of a project such as this,” said Senior Director of Design at Y-3, Lawrence Midwood, in a Q&A during the prototype’s unveiling. Within adidas’ Futures department, the team came upon research adidas had done into NASCAR—including a suit design meant for sitting. “That means cutting lines in obvious places to ensure there’s no pain or no rubbing if you’re sat for very long periods of time, which obviously the pilots will be,” continued Midwood.
Y-3 tailored the idea further to meet the specific needs of Virgin Galactic pilots. “A key element of that was the movement of the arm, and contrary to a NASCAR driver who never reaches up but is always forward, the pilot will actually do quite a lot of work above their head,” continued Midwood. “So getting the flight flex zones under the arms and making sure it fitted and would look good when the pilot was standing but would allow them to move freely, comfortably and safely in the spaceship became a lot of the work, to evolve the work that adidas had already done. What that results in is a very different looking garment.”
The Virgin Galactic boot is based on the design of a military spec boot that adidas has been making for GSG-9, the German special operations unit, over decades. “For me, as an employee of adidas for many many years, it’s one of the products I have the most respect for in the entire company, because it’s so functional and so respected by a very serious profession with a lot of demands upon it,” said Midwood.
“There could be one route which would be to go extremely futuristic, and to a certain degree we were immediately anti-that as we had the feeling we would do something too cold, too clinical. Sometimes when something is so futuristic it doesn’t really have a human point anymore,” said Midwood. The entire space apparel system is rooted in this human connection that makes it much more than functional set of suits and boots. Much of Y-3’s inspiration came from talking to the pilots, learning their stories and what they valued: “A key thing was imagining the children of the future astronauts whose dad or mother was actually going to partake in this tremendous adventure. And started to think about how they would look at the pilots. And then you very quickly realize that it’s a human story of course, but they are tremendous heroes.”
While still wrapped in Y-3’s recognizable aura of avant-garde, the designs are grounded in contemporary fashion and are accessible—sending the message that space travel for all is happening now. It’s not in a distant future. The sleek flight suit prototype—with its different shades and textures of black—is something we’d consider wearing here on firm ground, among the rest of us who are still saving up for the $250,000 ticket to soar outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
Images courtesy of Y-3 and Virgin Galactic