The Unseen was founded by Lauren Bowker, a textiles graduate who developed a chemical compound for an ink that changes colour when exposed to carbon monoxide while studying at Manchester School of Art (you can read an interview with Bowker in our December 2014 issue). During her degree and later, an MA in textiles at RCA, she developed a series of reactive inks which change colour in response to different environmental triggers and applied them to various fabrics and garments.
She later founded her own consultancy, working to create reactive products and compounds for Formula 1 and Parisian fashion houses before founding The Unseen in early 2014. The company has since created a flame-proof garment which changes colour when exposed to fire, a gemstone headpiece for Swarovski which responds to its wearer’s brain activity and a piece of clothing made from thousands of tiny iridescent fins which can reflect its wearer’s mood. Red and yellow show excitement, for example, while blues and greens suggest a state of relaxation.
The new collection for Selfridges includes a heat reactive scarf that responds differently to different sections of the body, a wallet and phone case covered in touch-sensitive formulas that respond to wearer’s circulation, and a leather backpack that changes colour in response to heat, light, shade and changes in air pressure.
“The scarf has five formulas hand-painted within each devoréd section – we observed how different sections of the body react to specific material and coded each formula to respond to areas like the neck and head, causing deeper colours to flourish around the face then around the body,” explains Bowker. “This gives the user a sense of movement as they wrap the scarf around them in different positions.”
“Both the wallet and phone case are hand-coloured in a formula that’s sensitive to touch, as every person has a slightly different pattern of circulation, meaning colour from black to red, green and blue will appear instantly for some and over time for others,” she says. “The backpack has 13 formulas in it, which makes it able to transform its colours [in response to] the wind, the shade, the sun and different temperature levels globally.” Prices range from £35 to £1750 and products revert to black in their dormant state, though the backpack will change colour seasonally.
The Unseen has previously sold products from colour-changing candles to notebooks online and at its ’emporium’ (the company is based in the vaults of Somerset House), but the collection is the first time it has partnered with a retailer. Bowker says the brand was “a perfect fit” with The Unseen, and gave the company advice on pricing, materials and manufacturing.
“As a materials house first, neither Jess (Smith, who studied menswear at RCA) nor I are trained in accessory design or in commercial worlds. Everyone wanted us to do a collection but financially and practically, we had no idea how to. Selfridges didn’t just offer us prime positions in store, they offered us valuable mentorship and worked alongside us from concept to reality. They advised us on price points, positioning press, supported our production budget and even material choices for the collection,” she adds.
Products are on sale online and in-store. At Selfridges’ flagship Oxford Street branch, three leather garments created by The Unseen are also on display in an astrological-themed seasonal installation titled the Astrolounge (pictured below), and Bowker will be holding ‘alchemy workshops’ throughout the Christmas period.
In a separate commission, each of Selfridges’ Christmas window displays this year draws on a different star sign and The Unseen has created a feather headpiece for a Sagittarius window, pictured below. The feathers are inspired by The Unseen’s colour changing quills and Bowker’s previous feather creations PHNX and Valediction, and will change colour in response to their surroundings.
“The feather itself is a mystical item, technically hard to colour and philosophically a part of many myths and rituals – it’s an important element to The Unseen and we wanted to capture that in the headpiece within the window, forming a wearable sculpture of crafted feathers which respond in colour change to the light and heat of the passing environment across the window,” says Bowker.
The Selfridges collection is limited edition, but Bowker doesn’t rule out further collaborations with the brand. The Unseen is also working on commissions for the Cooper Hewitt Triennial and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as well as developing a new collection in-house that will respond to water, she says.