In a glass case in a Georgian living room at London’s Somerset House is a piece of clothing that can read your mind. The piece, viewable by appointment only, is made out of hand-painted, iridescent fins which change colour in response to your emotions: red, yellow and orange patterns reflect excitement, blues and greens represent relaxation and intense fluctuations indicate a state of anxiety.
The product is the latest invention from creative company The Unseen, which uses science, technology and old-fashioned craft to create products that visualise what we can’t see. Previous releases include hand-stitched leather garments that change colour in response to heat, light and wind and a jewelled headpiece which visualises brain activity.
The Unseen isn’t the only company experimenting with emotion-sensing clothing – Studio XO has developed wristbands that measure feelings using light and Sensoree’s Ger Mood sweater displays excitement levels via an illuminated collar – but none feature the same mix of chemistry, tech and beautiful, handcrafted design.
The company’s products have appeared on the catwalk at Fashion Week and been worn by Kate Moss, but founder Lauren Bowker hopes they could even be used to improve healthcare: the tech used to make its latest piece could, she hopes, be used to accurately measure pain and distress in patients.
Bowker, 28, has been dabbling in materials science since she was just 18. With dreams of becoming a fashion designer, she enrolled at Manchester School of Art to study textile design but just halfway through her first term, she broke her back and had to spend 18 months in hospital.
It was this experience that sparked her interest in creating materials with medical benefits and led to her developing an award-winning new chemical compound. “It wasn’t a nice experience to go through at that age – I just wanted to be making things,” says Bowker.
“I was experiencing incredible pain in my spine but there was no effective way of monitoring it. I had so many consultations with people asking, ‘how is your pain today, on a scale of one to ten?’ and it felt ridiculous: my idea of ten might be completely different to someone else’s, and what if it’s ten one day and feels worse the next? How do you articulate that?” she adds.
“By the time I was well enough to go back to university, I didn’t feel I could just create textiles without purpose anymore – I wanted to create materials that might be able to help people in similar situations.”
Just before her injury, Bowker had started work on an RSA student brief to develop a design or technology that would discourage young people from smoking. “I had this idea of making a cigarette that changed colour and would stain your mouth black. There’d be no way of denying the fact you’d smoked and as most teenagers worry about their appearance, I thought it would be an effective deterrent,” she says.
She continued to research the idea while in hospital and on returning to university, presented her findings to the head of chemistry, asking to be enrolled on a science PhD alongside her studies in textiles. “It was pretty unusual – I’m probably the only person to leave there with degrees in both – but I knew I had a good idea, and had spent over a year doing research to back it up,” she adds.
In her first year back, Bowker developed the chemical compound that would form the basis of her colour changing cigarette: the carbon emission sensing ink PdCI2, which changes from yellow to black when exposed to carbon dioxide. She spent the next two years testing the compound on a range of textiles, developing a fabric that could absorb air pollution and after showing her findings at Graduate Fashion Week, Bowker was inundated with requests from automotive, engineering and tech companies looking to use the technology she had developed.
“I had no idea what I had stumbled upon just by putting an application behind what was really quite simple chemistry,” she says. “All of a sudden, I was thrown into this R&D world, and people wanted to put it in everything from concrete to catalytic converters.”
Keen to develop applications of her idea further, Bowker went to the Royal College of Art to study for an MA in textiles. “At the same time, I was working at Imperial College to build on the number of senses [stimulus] that the compound would respond to. In the lab, I started to assign a different colour change to each sense: yellow to black for pollution, red to heat, blue to moisture and so on. It gave me a fabric which in essence is like live colour mixing in front of you. You get a different combination depending on the different changes in the environment, or how you interact with it,” she adds.
Her final project was a series of beautifully crafted feather sculptures, which change colour in response to the environment, reacting to heat, light and friction. “I wanted to make something tactile, as my tutors were always pushing me to think about look and feel, and insisting that technology should never compromise the aesthetics of a garment. The sculptures were a test, to see if I could get this compound to sit within something as soft as a feather without changing the feel of it,” she adds.
After graduating, Bowker spent six months at the Royal Academy of Engineering, where she developed a concept for an interactive Airbus cabin and ran a consultancy service, PHNX, working on projects with clients from Formula 1 to Parisian fashion houses.
“After two years consulting, I finally felt like I knew what the industry needed – a brand or house that could fuse technology with materials, without losing the luxuriousness of the product, and maintaining the sense of magic and theatre that materials give you,” she says. To signify the end of her consultancy service and her new direction, Bowker killed her original consultancy, holding a funeral ceremony which was featured on Dazed & Confused.
After another bout of illness, she applied for a wearable tech grant being offered by the Technology Strategy Board – the first such grant she had seen advertised – and was awarded £25,000 to set up a business. She gathered together three of her closest friends and launched The Unseen in February.
The company’s first release was Air: a couture capsule collection that includes a leather garment made out of hand-stitched fins imbued with wind reactive ink, which changes colour in response to wearer’s movements and the air around them.
“I’d created the [wind reactive ink] for Formula 1 initially, as they wanted to visualise the aerodynamics of a car in a wind tunnel. When I set up The Unseen, I thought, why not try to track the human aerodynamic?” explains Bowker. “The design really aids the piece, as the way the fins are cut provides this really turbulent colour change,” she adds.
Other pieces include one which changes colour seasonally and another which changes when set on fire. “It’s flame-proof, so we put a stunt model in it, invited a load of fashionistas along to the Deadhouse at Somerset House [a crypt housing Georgian gravestones] and torched it,” explains Bowker.
The fourth piece in the collection, launched this summer, features the same heat reactive ink on a headpiece complete with over 4,000 Swarovski Spinel gemstones, which fluctuate between black, orange, red, green, blue and purple in response to its wearer’s brain activity throughout the day.
The gemstones are highly conductive – when treated with The Unseen’s ink, just a 0.5 degree change in temperature sees four colour fluctuations. “We didn’t expect it to work so well but no two people who’ve worn it have ever shown the same patterns – even the slightest fluctuations in temperature are projected, and everyone has experienced different colour changes,” adds Bowker.
She is now working with the neuroscience department at King’s College University to explore how it could be used to monitor the brain or visualise brain activity in coma patients. “I’m not saying it does that yet – but we’re looking into its potential,” says Bowker.
The latest piece projects brain activity in much the same way as the headpiece, but responds to EEG and bio data, transmitted via an electronic headpiece. It’s The Unseen’s most ambitious project to date and has taken over a year to make.
The item’s launch coincides with the opening of The Unseen Emporium (theunseenemporium.co.uk), a pop-up exhibition at Somerset House selling smaller items such as notebooks, furniture and candles which change colour as they burn. The company is also working on a range of commercial collaborations, including two with luxury department stores, and Bowker says it will release a new capsule collection each year.
“I want The Unseen to be an exploration house, pushing what we can do with material, and creating beautiful pieces that inspire people. Behind that will be The Unseen of The Unseen, licensing our technology to healthcare, architecture, interiors and fashion,” she explains.
Her products are often described as wearable tech, but it’s a label that Bowker is keen to avoid. “I’m happy to ride that trend, as it’s given us a voice and helped us to attract attention, but next year it will be some other buzzword, so we’re not chasing it as a business model,” she says.
“I want The Unseen to be a lasting, heritage brand, making products that people can interact with and that have real purpose. Creating beautiful pieces gets people’s attention, but it also allows us to make the products I’ve been wanting to make for the past 10 years – ones that can help people.”