The Lost Explorer

NY Times – Rothschild

On a warm day in London, David de Rothschild, an heir to a centuries-old banking fortune, was pointing at a butterfly with translucent blue wings.

“Look, look at that,” he said with awe. “Nature has four and a half billion years of R&D. Incredible.”

He was walking through a butterfly exhibition in a white tent on the grounds of the Natural History Museum. Mr. de Rothschild, 36 years old and 6-foot-4, was the tallest person in a space filled with families and squealing schoolchildren.

“That one’s huge!” Mr. de Rothschild said, pointing at a brown butterfly that had come to rest in front of his eyes. “Can you imagine what the world was like before we came and messed it all up?”

He left the tent and strolled down nearby Exhibition Road. His mood seemed to go sour when he spotted plants in a window.

“That’s nature now,” he said. “When did this happen? Everything is so premeditated and formulaic. Our idea of nature is a window box with plants in it.”

Mr. de Rothschild has grown tired of the modern world: the disconnection with nature, the urban grid, the digital life.

David de Rothschild, a member of a centuries-old banking family, has traversed Antarctica and the North and South Poles, and has sailed from San Francisco to Sydney on a boat made of recycled plastic bottles. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times
“We’re hyperconnected and we’re hyperdisconnected,” he said. “We’re losing a sense of wonder; we’re losing a sense of stimulation from the natural world; we’re losing that interaction with nature. Nature is not ‘out there.’ ‘Out there’ is here.”

David Mayer de Rothschild was born to the banker Sir Evelyn de Rothschild and his second wife, Victoria Lou Schott. His father, now 83, was the chairman of N M Rothschild & Sons bank in London.

In his teens and early 20s, David was a skilled equestrian, bungee jumper and kite skier. At 26, he traversed Antarctica by foot, ski and kite. A year later, he crossed the North Pole with a dog sled and skis, making him the youngest Briton ever to ski both the North and South Poles.

In 2010, he sailed the Plastiki — a boat made of 12,500 two-liter recycled plastic bottles and other flotsam — on an 8,000-mile journey, from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia, to raise awareness of ocean pollution.

Paradoxically, part of what made it possible for Mr. de Rothschild to escape the grid is what has kept him tethered to it. Although he prefers not to talk about it, Mr. de Rothschild is, after all, a Rothschild.

His lineage leads back to Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who was born in the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt in 1744 and went on to serve as the financial overseer to Crown Prince Wilhelm, who later became Wilhelm IX. Mayer taught his five sons the banking business and dispatched them across Europe. The family bank financed the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and, later in the 19th century, the railways and mining businesses at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.

In many ways, David’s own life came as premeditated as that of a window plant. He was a Rothschild. Great expectations were implicit.

He attended the all-boys Harrow School in London, but when it came time for college, he did not go the Oxbridge or Ivy League route, settling on the less heralded Oxford Brookes University. He subsequently received a master’s degree in natural medicine from the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London.

When he was 22, he bought a farm near Christchurch, New Zealand, and lived and worked in Australia for three years. He said it never crossed his mind to go into banking.

In 2003, when it was time to choose a successor to head the family business, Sir Evelyn went with a cousin from the French branch of the family, Baron David René de Rothschild.

“Everyone’s like, ‘Well, surely, you should just be a banker,’ ” David Mayer de Rothschild said, “and I’m like, ‘Well, it could be an obvious route, but if I have a choice, which I’m fortunate enough that I do, do I want to sit in an office all day with a tie on, doing things that I might not necessarily believe in or be in 100 percent emotionally; or, do I want to follow the things to which I’m really connected and passionate and maybe have an impact?’ ”

He faced an enviable but existentially dreadful conundrum: What would you do if you could do almost anything?

With minimal experience, he went on the Antarctica trip. Ever since, his life has revolved around adventuring and eco-entrepreneurship.

In addition to the adventures that earned him comparisons to the explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton in The New Yorker, he has written books like “The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook: 77 Essential Skills to Stop Climate Change” and hosted a Sundance television show, “Eco-Trip: The Real Cost of Living.”

Now Mr. de Rothschild has started a business. It is called, aptly, the Lost Explorer.

“I’ve been an adventurer for 15 years,” he said. “I’ve done loads of expeditions with loads of different partners, loads of different brands, and I’m always getting approached by brands where I’m like, ‘Oh, I could do it with them, but I’m not sure if I’m really aligned with their ethos.’ So why wouldn’t I build my own conversation, my own company, my own brand that comes from the things that I believe in, the things that I want to do, and I can trust the process?”

The Lost Explorer is in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. Among the eight people who work for the company are Jonathan Kirby, a former Levi’s designer, and Len Peltier, who was Levi’s creative director. Also on board is Chris Spira, a luxury goods consultant and a partner at True Capital, a London asset management firm.

The company plans to release its first line of outerwear in October: a wool-based collection that includes two mountain jackets, a pair of trousers and a shirt. Shortly afterward, if things go according to schedule, it will follow with two more pieces, a merino-cashmere shirt and a merino-Ventile shirt. Most of the collection reimagines pieces of clothing that Mr. de Rothschild has collected on his travels.

“There’s a very English side of David, and so he tends to pull things from late 1800s, early 1900s,” Mr. Peltier said. “He also has beautiful things from other countries. When he was in Mongolia, he picked up some pieces. It’s quite a variety. We have a closet we jokingly call ‘the cabinet of curiosities.’ ”

Mr. de Rothschild has opted not to create a lookbook for his pieces, and he will sell them online or via pop-up shops in London and New York. The idea is to group the pieces by fabric and material rather than by season or style.

“We don’t want to tell you how to wear it,” Mr. Peltier said. “You can mix these things with your jeans, with your shorts, with whatever you wear.”

Most of the Lost Explorer’s apparel is made with materials that integrate what Mr. de Rothschild called “bio-mimicry,” like a heat-wicking technology that imitates the action of a pine cone, with fibers that open when it senses you are hot and close when it senses you are chilly. For the technological side of things, the Lost Explorer has teamed up with Schoeller, a Swiss textile and fabric manufacturer.

The Lost Explorer also intends to “curate adventures” with smartphone apps that will help travelers find like-minded sorts for possible expeditions.

“Anything that helps better integrate nature into people’s lives,” Mr. de Rothschild said.

There is an inherent irony in Mr. de Rothschild’s recent turn from adventurer to entrepreneur: He has gone from experiencing nature and advocating on its behalf to making money from it. But he does not see it that way.

“If someone were to say you’re just commodifying nature,” he said, “I would say, ‘You can’t.’ If you’re doing anything, if you’re using nature, it’s becoming a commodity.”

Originally, beneath his company’s logo on its website were the words “Est. 1978,” a reference to the year Mr. de Rothschild was born. The newest iteration has “Est. 2025” to signal that, in his words, “We’re always in progress.”

“There’s no such thing really as an original idea anymore,” Mr. de Rothschild said. “It’s just looking at it through a different lens and presenting it in a different way. The Lost Explorer is the David lens. But I also respect the people around me. I respect the refining of that lens.”

Paradoxically, the work and time involved in creating and running a company meant to celebrate adventure may narrow the escape routes that Mr. de Rothschild once followed to the ends of the world.

“There is a dream of going and disappearing and having a little shack on the beach and not having to do interviews and engage with people and, you know, be off the radar,” he said over a lunch of pea soup and salad at Little House, a members-only restaurant in the Mayfair area of London.

But would he ever really drop everything to go live on a beach?

“No,” he said. “There’s a fluctuation in my psyche. I can sleep on the floor for a month at a time — and I have — and I can travel on the back of a motorbike or a horse or a donkey, and I can sleep in a tent, and I cannot wash for two months, but then I come back and I’ll come in and I’ll sit here and I’ll have white napkins and a nice fizzy drink.”

At the ticket counter to the butterfly exhibition, Mr. de Rothschild had been talking excitedly of his studio in California when the clerk asked for his first initial.

“D,” he said.

“And your surname?”

Mr. de Rothschild paused. “Rothschild. R-O-T-H ——”

The clerk stopped him before he could finish spelling it out. “It’s O.K.,” he said, smiling. “I know it.”

The days of a possible escape — if they were ever there at all — appear to be over.

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