For performance apparel brand Zhik, there are many parallels with Alex Thomson Racing. As a new brand on the street early in 2000, Zhik rapidly found success with top dinghy sailors through radically re-engineering, and forever changing, the design of modern wetsuits, sailing gear and equipment. It became the go-to-gear for performance sailors from Olympic teams to Opti and youth class sailors.
Alex Thomson is a man who, from the outset, has never been afraid to challenge conventions in the sailing world. Now with his team Alex Thomson Racing they have set the bar high in ocean racing. Whether it’s radical and innovative design, application of technology to gain that extra increment of speed, or the spectacular trilogy of stunts – The Keel Walk, The Mast Walk and The Sky Walk – each delivered on the impressive IMOCA 60 HUGO BOSS, there’s no doubt that the sailing team fully embraces the philosophy of doing things differently to be the best.
Unphased by conventions, Zhik has built its reputation by researching new fabrics and manufacturing techniques, using designers from multiple disciplines to challenge traditional product design and thinking. Then, rigorously testing everything, to assess performance and durability.
In the last decade, Zhik has been taking this approach into the yacht sailing market, focusing on what sailors need, and extensively testing fabrics beyond the accepted norms. From this approach led to ISOTAK, Zhik’s own, highly durable, three-layer waterproof, breathable offshore fabric.
Not content with the clothing industry’s un-standardised fabric testing procedures, Zhik approached the RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) to create a new, independent, durability test for all waterproof fabrics. After substantial testing and academically approved research papers, ISOTAK was proven to be four-times more waterproof durable than other leading brands of ePTFE ocean fabrics, whilst maintaining the same breathability and RET range.
Collaborate to succeed
Following this came partnerships with Team Akzo Nobel and Dongfeng Race Team, the ultimate winners of the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18. During the training build-up, and the event itself, came the perfect test bed to trial new ideas in the most extreme conditions. Zhik’s development team grabbed the opportunity and, amongst many innovations, they created a completely new, adaptable hood and collar system for both teams’ ocean gear.
Retaining visibility and hearing in extreme conditions is vital. With detailed feedback from the teams, the hood was redesigned with a removable face visor to protect from the vicious ‘fire-hose’ spray. The ocean hood and collar can be swapped for zip-on balaclavas, made from Superwarm neoprene or the wind and water-resistant Avlare fabric, giving different protection levels for a wide range of temperatures and wind conditions. This reduced the number of clothing items the teams carried on board, avoiding unnecessary weight.
When discussions started with the Alex Thomson Racing team, the synergy between with two organisations’ values of innovation and the relentless pursuit of excellence was uncanny. The result, Zhik was announced as the ocean racing team’s first Official Technical Clothing Supplier in September 2019, as part Alex Thomson Racing’s campaign to win the Vendée Globe 2020.
Zhik CEO, Piet Poelmann, explains, “This collaboration helps to raise Zhik’s profile and continue to elevate the brand in the ocean racing arena, following on from our hugely successful, first ever, Volvo Race development programme.”
Changing the playing field
With the radical design of the new HUGO BOSS and its fully enclosed cockpit, Alex is currently wearing Zhik’s Aroshell coastal range in the lead up to the Vendée Globe race - a light and comfortable coastal smock and salopette combination.
Naturally, there’s a little Alex Thomson Racing twist, which will become apparent in the run up to the Vendee Globe Race itself!
The Aroshell smock is high stretch and breathable for intense activity and was refined for the Volvo Race team’s inshore events and warmer legs of the race. Although light, it’s highly durable, and rated two-times more waterproof durable than leading brands of ePTFE ocean fabrics.
It has a large, quick-venting gusset for immediate temperature regulation and the stretch fabric allows complete, unrestricted agility when moving around on board. The zip-on adaptable ocean hood is particularly popular, giving flexibility for Alex and his team to adapt their protection to the conditions they face.
Zhik’s Hydrobase thermal base layer has been selected too. This highly efficient, composite fabric has a unique grid weave of hydrophobic and hydrophilic fibres, designed for rapid moisture transfer and is quick drying. Critically, during periods of high activity, moisture vapour is rapidly transferred to the outer side and instantly evaporates, ensuring dry fabric against the skin. High stretch, water repellent cuffs prevent internal water seepage and a built in odour control treatment makes life more pleasant for endurance wear.
Continuous drive to innovate
Intensive development trials are critical to both Zhik and Alex Thomson Racing. It’s only from pushing the boundaries and experiencing set-backs, that you can take greater steps forward in design terms.
The Alex Thomson Racing team’s Vendee Globe campaign will be a core part of Zhik’s technical apparel development programme between now and 2021, for fabrics and design of offshore gear, performance base layers and specialist marine footwear. Direct feedback during the training period and the race will feed into Zhik’s programme of continuous development and refinement.
Zhik’s Design and production manager, Drue Kerr considers this as critical to developing the best offshore kit. "The team’s feedback and our testing process enables us to evolve and refine our gear to higher levels,” he said.
Kerr continues, “We all felt deeply for Alex and Neal during the TJV. However, we know the team will come back even stronger as a result. The dynamic weather ranges Alex will encounter during his races challenges us all. it helps us test and create new, versatile, dynamic gear that endures the rigours of ocean sailing.”