If you ask London-based Lauren Bowker what she does, she describes herself as a material alchemist.
“Alchemy is just another word for curiosity. I’ve always been really curious to explore the world beyond what we can see — pollution, spirituality, cells on a microscopic level,” she said in a phone interview ahead of the launch of Spectra, the first product by The Unseen, the design and innovation studio Bowker founded and named after those invisible realms.
At first glance, Spectra is an eye shadow, available in two hues: a highly pigmented black dubbed “4.10” and a light gray called “8.08.” Under a phone camera’s flash, both turn into shades of molten silver — their names came from the reflective values used to characterize them.
This is her first direct-to-consumer beauty product, but Bowker called it “the first in a library of brand-new colors and molecules.” At 36, the British entrepreneur has already spent over a decade thinking up “formulas that respond to invisible forces,” be they light, temperature or even air speed.
As an undergraduate at Manchester Metropolitan University, Bowker set out to become a textile designer. A stroke of ill health left her with ample time to think. That’s when she realized that she was “fed up with dumb materials” that didn’t have any properties like, say, the ability to monitor pain levels through tangible visual cues.
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The first hurdle: convincing the academic world that a textile student could also take chemistry, to enable her to find compounds that could imbue fabrics — and objects — with the ability to change depending on their environment.
“The science I was doing was becoming very visual, because I was using colors as a paint medium to explore the universe, designing as a way to express how something feels or looks,” she said.
By the time she graduated with a master’s degree in textiles from London’s Royal College of Art, Bowker had designed a jacket that would turn black when exposed to pollution. A flurry of other projects followed, eventually folded into The Unseen studio.
In no particular order: performance tracking textiles with Puma; a paint to track the aerodynamics of a Formula One car; T-shirts that changed colors depending on water pollution and presented at the United Nations Climate Change Summit in the U.S. in 2017; a Swarovski-studded headpiece that tracked thoughts by measuring the temperature of the brain, shown at London Fashion Week in 2014, and a range of luxury accessories that change color with touch, sold at Selfridges in late 2015.
The tipping point came when The Unseen created the color-changing Fire hair dye in 2017.
An atmospheric video of raven locks turning crimson with nothing more than hot air blowing through them went viral — reaching an accumulated 80 million views across platforms, with 37 million on Facebook alone — and triggered another a-ha moment for Bowker: she might view hair as another material to play with, but novelty-hungry viewers wanted a product.
“Everything I’d created so far was artistic and exploratory, looking to visualize data in some way. The video made me realize that we should give it to the people and see what effect [customers using those smart ingredients] could have on the world and creation,” she said, stressing the importance of balancing innovation and safety in her formulas.
Spectra turned out to be the thin silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, imagined when Bowder thought about “her own human reality while observing the digital-physical boundaries” over lockdown, deciding that eye shadow was the ideal medium for the studio’s first direct-to-consumer foray.
Cue the product dropping on The Unseen’s e-commerce today, priced at 33 pounds. Bowker credits the short turnaround between concept and commercialization to being a small-sized, agile structure with their own facilities, able to work despite lockdown and sanitary restrictions.
For the packaging, Bowker chose recyclable aluminum tubes sealed in fully biodegradable pouches. Even the inks used are biodegradable, in the hope of “eliminating the negative and amplifying the positive [aspects]” of an offering arriving in what she sees as “a toxic and stagnant industry.”
Coming up next for Bowker and The Unseen is a closed round of funding — the first was done over five years ago — to enable the company to scale manufacturing, expand the team and “make the right choices, especially on transparency. I don’t like the word sustainability. What we need is to reveal the true consequences of our choices.”
As for the social media comments calling for a beauty conglomerate to help the young company make that color-changing hair dye readily available didn’t go unanswered, either.
German chemical and consumer goods giant Henkel reached out and a “The Unseen Powered by Schwarzkopf Professional” hair product is slated for release in 2022 in 48 countries. While Bowker kept mum on the specifics of the hair product, she promised it was “not a color you’ve ever seen.”