Judith Willis attended a talk by Lauren Bowker, founder and creative director of fashion studio The Unseen.
Do you believe in “magick”? Lauren Bowker does. The 33 year old Manchester-born alchemist is the founder and creative director of The Unseen, a material exploration house that develops intelligent materials that produce colour to visualise data. Sound fascinating? It is.
I had the pleasure of listening to Lauren speak at a recent seminar hosted at the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of their Future Series. In the session, she had the whole audience enthralled as she explained the colour-changing inks she invented which react to unseen factors, such as pollution, temperature and even emotion. But Lauren is quick to confirm that The Unseen is not about being a fashion house, it’s about materials and using them to understand more about the world.
In a promotional video for her company, Bowker states “We believe in a world where pollution is made real when objects expose emissions… [Imagine] a world where you can visualise pain and anticipate illness or see the strength within your body. Today, we are creating a more intelligent future, combining science and technology with design, using colour to communicate data by creating colour changing materials, compounds and coatings. Responsive to multiple triggers, we offer applications tailored to you in your world. To see is to believe, what will you see?”
The Unseen was born out of many influences affecting Lauren. The first was “an internal disease” that she suffers from with her spine. She explained that she became frustrated by her inability to verbally express how much pain she was in and wondered whether she could communicate her level of discomfort through colour. Lauren believes colour is a language and that it can be used a lot more intelligently than how we currently use it (the company’s tagline is “We change the way the world uses colour.”) Lauren pondered how she could use materials to display colours caused by data and began to learn about the world of science and chemistry. During this time, she created a compound that could absorb and exhibit carbon emissions. “It took me on a journey…If I can create materials that respond and change their colour and will communicate unseen and unspoken things, [then] how should they look, how should they feel or what guise should they exist in?”
She decided that rather than continue on to do a PhD, she would attend the Royal College of Art to complete a textiles course in order to try and marry up the design language with the science that she had learnt. After graduating, Lauren encountered another frustration that spurred her to begin her enterprise. Whilst attending the Royal College of Engineering she was working for a company that asked her to invent pioneering creations but not bring any of them to market. The reason was the risk factor, and once she realised no one else was going to take that leap of faith, Lauren applied for a government grant to start The Unseen. Her business idea was backed by the British Fashion Council and was set up as a wearable technology company – although Lauren is quick to point out that she considers it to be a wearable material company.
But perhaps the greatest influence behind The Unseen is Lauren’s curiosity about the world around her: “I called The Unseen, The Unseen because essentially that’s what I’m interested in, stuff that’s unseen.” Nature is her biggest influence; she tries to make time to visit places she has not been before and sees a lot of the world through her work, including the North and South Poles. Inspiration, for Lauren, comes from a natural source that she can experience and sense.
Most recently, Lauren ventured into an industry that many people had told her to avoid: cosmetics. In the run-up to Fashion Week and Women in Science Day, Lauren was asked to come up with a concept to encourage young women into the scientific field. And she did, in the form of a hair dye which, just like the intelligent materials she designed, reacted with unseen elements. Over a weekend, Lauren made a short video for Dazed and Confused, featuring a model wearing a wig that slowly morphed from mousy brown to fiery red. The video went viral, gaining 38 million views overnight and spurring eight of the world’s biggest cosmetics companies to contact Lauren and her team asking when they could put the product on shelves.
Creations from The Unseen do initially sound and look like something you’d expect to see in sci-fi or fantasy movies, but as technology and science continue to advance and are showing no signs of slowing down, perhaps it won’t be so long before we are all walking around wearing jackets that tell the world what mood we’re in or if we’re in pain. Perhaps this could make society a more open place where feelings and emotions are visibly communicated; making it easier for people to connect with one another and bring greater issues like mental illness to the forefront. What an interesting thought.
Find Judith on Instagram @misswillis