Fashion
May 02, 2024
by Karl Smith
Mr. Bailey and Keel Labs Are Throwing a Life Vest to the Fashion Industry
by Karl Smith
May 02, 2024

When you think of products with room to innovate, vests probably aren’t the first which come to mind. After all, we all know what a vest looks like. We all, roughly speaking and with room to manoeuvre on the quality of a product, know what a vest is – or can be – made of. In short, a vest is a vest, right?

Well, not necessarily.

Thanks to a new collaboration between North Carolina-based material innovation outfit Keel Labs and London-anchored CONCEPTKICKS founder Mr. Bailey, it seems that line of thinking may have solely been for people lacking in the requisite imagination. (Something, it’s fair to say, Bailey has never been accused of.)

Inspired by the concept of biomimicry, the “Starboard Vest” riffs on aesthetic and structural similarities between nautical vessels and the human body – similar the ways in which animals in the wild might disguise themselves to either lure prey or avoid predators. And, in this case, it’s a little of both; the visual spectacle of the one-of-a-kind design has been crafted to pique the interest of consumers, while its material make-up is specifically intended to push those same consumers away from the dangers of high-impact, environmentally-destructive products.


The vest – which, it’s fair to say, doesn’t exactly look like the archetypal armless garment – is knit from a blend of 50% cotton and 50% Kelsun, Keel Labs’ seaweed-derived material innovation also favored by big-name luxury brands like of Stella McCartney.

This was our first time working hand-in-hand with a designer as they explored the product and developed the concept. It was a phenomenal opportunity to directly experience the creative process from ideation through production with Daniel and his team. On our side, it taught us a great deal about how Kelsun can both inspire and function in deeply creative ways. Daniel brought an incredible and insightful approach to the entire process, and it was truly magical to participate in bringing those ideas to life.

On top of – or, perhaps more accurately, inside of – the three-layer trapunto-knit garment, Bailey also opted to fill the vest with Kelsun fiber, proving the material’s functional versatility and giving an extra dimension to its aesthetic, nodding to the structure of the classic life jacket floatation device found on boats; an interesting choice, made with tongue seemingly pushed hard into cheek, perhaps alluding the notion of Kelsun, and indeed other next-gen materials, as life preserver for the fashion industry.

While Keel Labs has had its material picked up by fashion brands and, as a standalone project, has previously produced its own Kelsun t-shirt, the “Starboard Vest” marks its first real collaboration with dialogue between innovator and designer. “This was our first time working hand-in-hand with a designer as they explored the product and developed the concept,” says Keel Labs co-founder and CEO Tessa Callaghan. “It was a phenomenal opportunity to directly experience the creative process from ideation through production with Daniel and his team. On our side, it taught us a great deal about how Kelsun can both inspire and function in deeply creative ways. Daniel brought an incredible and insightful approach to the entire process, and it was truly magical to participate in bringing those ideas to life.”

And, while Bailey on the other hand is no stranger to collaboration, the project is a further foray into Earth-friendlier design – something which has long been a theme of his work, more tangibly crystalized in material form. “Their approach of harnessing nature to create material really resonated with me,” Bailey explains of how the collaboration came to be. “Biomimetic design has been a large focus of mine in my career to this point. Having the opportunity to work with a material derived from seaweed seemed like a natural progression of that. That, and I also saw a challenge in applying my design process to a product outside of what I’m traditionally known for to this point.”


Asked about whether, with a design that’s both aesthetically arresting and highly functional as a piece of apparel, he had showcased the best of what Kelsun has to offer, Bailey is both modest and pragmatic. “I feel like I’ve helped to show a glimpse of what this material can achieve,” he says, before noting that, “The real potential lies in its ability to be scaled.”

And, of course, this is where the “Starboard Vest” is most open to criticism. As a one-of-one product, the piece is essentially just that – a piece; both in the sense of being a singular work of art and in the sense of being just a part of a much larger puzzle.

“We are constantly exploring new uses for our products, and were inspired by Daniel’s unique approach to incorporating Kelsun, in both identity and function, in every detail of the garment’s creation,” Callaghan adds. “From the choice of garment and structure, to the texture of the knit, to the filling, his vision and utilization of Kelsun went beyond what we could have imagined was possible and will continue to inform how we challenge our own expectations of our material’s potential.”

And it’s this constant evolution – wanting to keep on pushing the limits of what Keel Labs has created in Kelsun – which gives this prototype product a sense of heft. In this sense, regardless of whether or not it’s currently available to buy, the “Starboard Vest” stands as testament to what the bio-based material can achieve in the right hands and what it could achieve with the right infrastructure behind it. In that sense, while it is very much a worthwhile experiment in its own right, it’s also a signal flare to brands and manufacturers that change is possible.