Picture this: Pantone predicts placid blue will be a color of the year and one designer tints his entire spring collection with that shade—only to discover that retail buyers are shunning it in favor of freesia. But instead of panicking about how much money he’s lost producing potentially unsellable product, he swipes a few times on his smartphone and changes the collection to that blazing yellow hue the buyers are hankering for.
It sounds like something straight out of the “The Jetsons,” but it’s not as futuristic as you might think. In fact, it’s something that self-described “material alchemist” Lauren Bowker is already working on and launching as a commercial technology next year. Speaking to an awe-inspired audience at last week’s Product Innovation Apparel conference in New York, the London-based textile artist explained how her material-exploration collective, dubbed The Unseen, combines chemistry and couture to create a new world of wearable technology.
“I think for me it’s about creating a product that will come into your life and you’ll be like, ‘How did I live without that?’” Bowker said, noting that her upcoming collaborations span the sportswear and luxury industries to healthcare and cars. “All of the products that we’ll be releasing in these collaborations are beautiful products that are telling you something in real time and you can use them to help you in your daily life. You can switch it off if you don’t want it on but it’s about knowing more about yourself or your environment that you live in.”
The environment has always played a huge part in her research and experiments: She graduated from Manchester School of Art with a pollution-sensing ink that changed colors in response to carbon dioxide, and she developed more color-changing inks while studying textiles at the Royal College of Art that respond to such environmental changes as heat, light and wind.
A partnership with Swarovski followed, for which she created a headpiece out of 4,000 spinel gemstones that change color in response to the wearer’s brain activity—almost like a mood ring—and later, a garment called Eighth Sense made of hundreds of hand-painted fins that use digital technology to do something similar.
“The beauty in the environment stuff: We have no idea what the environment is going to do in the next five, 10, 15, 50 years so if I’m going to hand these pieces down to my grandchildren—which is very much what they’re made for—whereas I’m seeing red, green and blue now, my grandchild might see yellow, pink, red,” she explained, adding, “It depends on how we look after our world and they will react to what they’re programmed to reach to at the time they were made.”
But back to the app-controlled clothing: When an apprehensive audience member asked how apparel companies can expect to make money selling only one pair of chameleon-like pants versus selling seven different colored pairs, Bowker matter-of-factly replied, “They can sell their swatches and sell them for the same retail price. Consumers will just download them like they would download apps and pay for their apps.”
She added, “We’re all wearing wearable technology right now. All the fibers that you don’t have to iron or wash as much are all incredible wearable technologies that are more mainstream.”
Meanwhile, The Unseen straddles the space between that and wearable computing. “People still want to be connected and know more and more about themselves but how we package that information will change,” she said, comparing it the evolution of 3-D printing. “At the moment people are using 3-D printers like they’re using desktop printers: to make copies of stuff and slightly modify. When it gets interesting is when people come up with applications that can only be done by a 3-D printer or a wearable platform.”