Meet the man on a mission to create the ultimate motorcycle jacket

Thomas Grové, amongst other things, is a video game publisher, design consultant, cyberpunk aesthete, climbing enthusiast, and most recently, a man on a crusade to change the way people dress and protect themselves while riding their motorbikes. Not content with the poor choice of motorbike jackets available in Saigon, in terms of both protection and style, Thomas, decided the best course of action was to make one himself. His latest project is Séfu Fashion and, specifically, the Athena jacket.

“I put strong stock in the axiom ‘action speaks louder than words,’ and so rather than just talk about my jacket—which I will do also—I thought it best to wear it and let the jacket speak for itself,” Thomas says. And it certainly is a distinctive piece: a little sci-fi, reminiscent of 90s cult films like The Matrix, but still minimal, sexy and sleek. Thomas wears the Athena prototype jacket everywhere, testing it on planes (“it makes the armrests more bearable”), dinner functions and even sailing in the Caribbean.

“The girl’s version is sexier than the guy’s version,” he says. “There wasn’t originally going to be a guy’s version, more of a unisex option, but when you think about it, there’s nothing sexy about the word ‘unisex.’ You can put that in the piece, by the way. Sex sells.”

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After a year of intensive research and design, Thomas is ready to launch Athena, his first product, with only a few details left to finalize. He fills me in on his process and how he got started. “I do a lot of work inside my own head—putting things together, visual prototyping—mostly when I’m driving.” Making the daily commute downtown from across the bridge in Thao Dien gave Thomas plenty of time to think. He found himself paying attention to what people were wearing as they rode their motorbikes. “When you hit the streets here in Saigon, you notice all the people wearing hoodies,” he says. “The thing is, they’re not that good looking, they’re hot, and they’re not protective. It can tend to be uncomfortable riding your motorbike under the tropical sun. I felt like those people wearing hoodies must be feeling it a lot worse though, and so I started prototyping in my head some different solutions. I wanted something that would make the ride more comfortable, but still look good.”

When the idea of jackets first came up, Thomas initially thought of importing them from the US, but nothing seemed right for Vietnam. “The problem is that the jackets on the market make you look like an American football player, and it’s a real mismatch with the Vietnamese aesthetic. I could import them, sure, but they’d be expensive and no one would want to wear them anyway because they’re so heavy and hot to drive in. So, we really had to go back to the drawing board. We sat down with a blank piece of paper and asked ourselves, what kind of jacket we would like to wear if we were starting out from scratch?”

Inexperienced in fashion, manufacturing and fabrics, Thomas had to learn everything. “I could tell you more than you would ever want to know about nylons and polyesters,” he says. Thomas ended up sourcing a nylon fabric developed by DuPont during the Second World War for bulletproof vests, the same company who, along with producing the raw materials for parachutes, powder bags and tires, also had an important part to play in the Manhattan Project, constructing the plant that produced the atomic bomb.

“That’s the material of the patch you can see on my elbow here, and the shoulders,” he says. I reach over and it feels tough enough, but whether it would be stopping any bullets remains to be seen. “It’s pretty tough, eight times stronger than denim. But you don’t want too much of this stuff on you. It doesn’t breathe that well, just for padding, which is why I introduced the air mesh vents all over the place. Initially it was just to get more air into the sleeves, but it ended up looking pretty damn cool.”

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Safe, Fresh Breeze

The fact that Thomas’s Athena jacket resembles something out of an anime film is no accident. “My background is in game design. I’m really into cyberpunk, like Ghost in the Shell and Akira. I can’t escape the 90s. Those are my formative years and you could say that I’m still there.”

This background offers its own peculiar advantages, especially when it comes to bringing original concepts to the design table. Thomas’s first few years in Vietnam were spent working as creative director at Game Loft, a company that has been ranked amongst the biggest mobile game publishers worldwide, with a quarter of their worldwide workforce based in Vietnam.

“It’s quite common for people working in video game design for a long period of time tend to get burned out, and that’s especially true with a big company like Game Loft; it’s a lot of pressure. And that’s pretty much what happened with me. After two years of designing games I felt it was time for something new,” Thomas says.

A lot of his innovation, including the ideas behind Séfu, Thomas attributes to Design Exchange, or dxSaigon, a project he started up after leaving Game Loft. “It started off as networking events for creative minds to mingle. What I realized through dxSaigon, bringing together all these different disciplines into one space, was that if I were to talk to an architect or a fashion designer or a graphic designer, I was learning new approaches, new innovations which I could apply to become better in my own craft.”

Through these events he met a young fashion designer from Denmark. New to Saigon, she was looking to collaborate. “I’d had this fashion project rolling about in the back of my head for some time,” he says. “And this was my opportunity.”

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It was around this time that Thomas had his first motorbike accident. “You could say that was a bit of a turning point. A revelation of sorts,” he says of the event. Picking himself up off the road, bruised and bleeding, it suddenly clicked. “After that I had it, the three pillars of my design. It had to be something that looked good, was comfortable to wear and was protective. And thus Séfu Fashion was born.” “Séfu” means “safe” or “fresh breeze” in Japanese and also comes partly from the name of Thomas’s son, Ryusei.

Originally intending to market it as a luxury item, he and his team quickly realized that demographic, many of whom choose taxis or private cars over scooters anyway, was the wrong approach.

“The goal of the project is to protect people, especially women,” Thomas explains. “But I also have to make the whole thing worth my time. Initially I had the idea that I wanted to target a niche market, and later if someone wanted to make something similar for cheaper than that’s great. Kind of like the iPhone model, where the first iPhone comes out and it’s really expensive and then a year later something very similar that’s half the price comes out and now there’s something for everybody. That was my original approach.”

But Thomas found a better way to reach his goal. By selling online, through a website, Facebook and Instagram, direct to the consumer, he cuts out the middle man and is able to bring it down to wholesale price. “My market is anyone who has an office job and rides a scooter, which is lot of people.”

He also has other, more “classic” designs in the works. A woman’s trench coat and a men’s sport blazer, designed to be a little more high-end. Thomas has also started development on a hoodie. “The hoodie is already huge in Vietnam. With all the research that’s gone into the Athena jacket, the concept is to add the same protective patches on the shoulders and elbows, and apply it to a hoodie. I’m very excited about it and I think it could just end up being our bestseller.”

IMAGES BY REGGIE J. DOAN

MODEL: KIM B NGO