Interview: David de Rothschild, The Lost Explorer

Reshaping the fashion industry with this new eco-conscious lifestyle brand

British eco-explorer David de Rothschild has accomplished some incredible feats: he’s sailed 8,000 miles—from San Fransisco to Sydney—on a boat made from 12,500 plastic bottles, motorbiked through mountains in Mongolia, skied across the “white desert” of Antarctica and paddled down Brazil’s Xingu River to raise awareness about the environmentally devastating Belo Monte damn. And now, the modern-day Magellan has embarked on a new adventure by taking a deep-dive into the fashion industry with his sustainable lifestyle brand The Lost Explorer, which he sees as more a platform for creativity and knowledge-sharing than a place to simply pick up technical outerwear. (Although, we’re pretty sure he’d be the best person to look to for clothing that will protect you on a Polar expedition or keep you dry while swanning through waist-high snow during a New York blizzard.)

We caught up with de Rothschild at men’s store Tabor in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he spoke alongside Best Made founder Peter Buchanan Smith about the importance of getting outdoors. The creative husband-and-wife team behind the year-old shop have turned Tabor into a temporary base camp complete with a window installation by interior designer Scott Newkirk which depicts a sort of nostalgic, Hemingway-in-Africa tent setup. We asked de Rothschild about his new brand, the difficulty with making sustainable clothing, the need for a stronger connection with nature and the value in celebrating other ways of life.

How did The Lost Explorer come about?

I’ve been doing expeditions for the last 15 years where I’ve been sponsored by brands to go and do adventures. As a brand sponsors you they want you to start looking at creating products for them or promote a certain product and you’re like, “Actually, this doesn’t necessarily stand for what we’re trying to promote through these adventures.” So you then try to break that down, and I found myself redesigning products or putting new materials into their supply chain or consulting on their entire supply chain or designing something new with them. But often those things never came to fruition because they were too costly. Finally I was like, “I’m gonna do it myself and prove that we can do certain things in a different way.” It’s given me a better understanding of how things are made and how we distribute things. That knowledge has been really interesting to me, it’s been really tricky to make stuff.

Does making things conflict with being an environmentalist?

Yeah. Do we need more stuff? No. Does the planet need more stuff? No. Will my clothes save the planet? No. But are we trying to do things better? Yes. Are we trying to create a new relationship with the way we view materials? Yeah. What is the purpose of it and how we can connect the dots is very much around outfitting people to be more curious. Getting people outside. Saying, “Come on, put this on, do this.”

The fashion business is the second largest polluting business after petrochemicals because of fibers, waste, throwaway materials. There’s so many materials they use that are unsustainable. And it’s so easy to be sustainable, but they’re not. Why? Largely because of the cost. If volume of products go up, the cost can go down. But then there’s another curve that comes in, when you produce too much stuff and again you’ve got more problems no matter what you do. So I think my journey with The Lost Explorer is as much about making something as it is about understanding for myself and for our customers [the fashion business].

So you’re hoping to set new norms within the industry?

Yeah, and that’s why on our logo we say “Established 2025” because we think it’ll take us 10 years just to figure it out—because the systems don’t work. But I’m excited by working with fibers that react to the temperature or that can repel water without using carbons that are really harmful to the atmosphere, or formaldehydes. We’re using things that are coming from nature and carving intelligence into it by using biodegradable chemistries. To me it’s about creating many tentacles and it’s not just about the product, which can become a vehicle for information and carrier for that message, but it’s the narratives, the partnerships, the people we’re working with and all the other activations that we do, and being honest about it.

If you look at the auto industry do you ignore it or do you go, “We’re going to make electric cars.” I think because the notion of fashion is so frivolous, the industry is odd to someone from the outside. And I am from the outside. What I’m doing is designing things in a way that says, “Can we make this better?” And we can. We create information that can be shared and that other people can contribute to and make things better.

Why is climate change so controversial when it seems pretty obvious?

The fact of the matter is environmentalism has always struggled for a number of reasons. We’re dealing with an outdated brain model. We’re more scared of camping in the woods than we are losing the woods. We’re more scared of being eaten by a shark than we are losing the species. Our brain, for all of our evolutionary upsides of having the power to predict and the great ability of consciousness and all these things, we don’t have the ability to necessarily see the demise of our species. We look at nature as something that is outside our everyday lives. We look at it on the TV or on the news or as disasters so we’re super fearful of it.

And then also it’s a luxury issue for a lot of people. It’s being pitched as “save nature” and when I look at it like that, I get it. I mean, save nature or am I going to save myself and put food in my mouth and money in my bank? If we reframe climate change as just dirty air or pollution, people would change the way they look at it and go, “I don’t want to breathe bad air.” Instead of saving the polar bear we say we’re going to create green jobs. But it’s been framed as we need to save the Amazon forest and it’s like, “Fuck the Amazon, I live in Ohio, what’s the Amazon got to do with me? I can’t even put food on my table.”

But people don’t think that there could be a bug in the Amazon that could be the cure to cancer, for example.

Totally. And at the same time, as we’re losing massive amounts of rainforest and we lose these cultures that live in harmony with the forest, we’re losing libraries of information and plant intelligence that could hold the secrets to all if not most of the problems that we’re having. Take a drug like Ibogaine, which is a plant that comes from active bark that comes from Africa that can treat heroin addiction. They’ve found bioluminescence in the ocean that can be used as markers inside of cancerous cells. Nature’s had 4.5 billion years of R&D, so we need to start becoming more bio-curious and allow ourselves to make the transition between us not being outside of the web of life of nature but being connected to nature.

Have you ever been on an expedition where your gear has failed you?

Gear always fails. It just does. Shit goes wrong. A big part of any big expedition is preparation, figuring out what to take and how you’re going to fix it when it breaks. When I was sailing across the Pacific with the Plastiki, head sails would rip, and when I was in the North Pole my skis broke and you know, I’ve accidentally set my pants on fire. I remember in Mongolia getting flat tires and we got down to one left and we’re in the middle of nowhere and just driving so carefully. If we’d popped another tire we would have been done. We’d have had to walk for days to find someone. That sense of nervousness and adventure is rad. You just hope you figure it out.

Is there one thing that you always take with you?

Handkerchiefs. I love them. You can tie things to them, clean with them if you cut or hurt yourself, you can make tea in them, filter coffee in them, you can carry stuff in them.

We are only on this planet for a very short amount of time and the planet itself is going to be fine. It’s our ability to deliver on it so we need to create a sense of connectedness.

What are you most proud of thus far?

I feel blessed more than proud. I feel proud that I’ve made good friends and that I’ve followed my convictions and I feel blessed that I’m allowed to do that and navigate all the beautiful twists and turns that is life. I realize everyday how fortunate I am and I feel like I’m making the most of it. That’s all I can do. I feel a great responsibility, that if you are fortunate to be able to go and do amazing things and meet people then you should share stories with them. There’s a real loss of that in adventure now. It’s much more orientated toward somebody’s feet conquering something. There’s a deeper responsibility to come back and talk about the culture and the people and places and little nuances, and really share the things that hopefully will plant seeds in peoples’ minds about why it’s important to protect and to value other ways of life and other ways of being.

We are only on this planet for a very short amount of time and the planet itself is going to be fine. It’s our ability to deliver on it so we need to create a sense of connectedness. Everyone wants the same thing: people want love, connection, community, security, health, education, and we want to feel like we belong to something. We want to feel something bigger than ourselves. As we’ve digitized our planet and created these weapons of mass distribution we’ve somehow created this sense of detachment, almost jealousy. People feel inept, empathy is going and I think is tarnished a little bit. So the idea of getting into nature, the idea of connecting over stories and sitting around a campfire or having time to sit and have drinks versus slam them is a cool thing.

The Lost Explorer sells online and exclusively in-store at Tabor.

Images of Tabor event by Chris Edwards, all others courtesy of The Lost Explorer