Inside the temperature-controlled accessories department of London retailer Selfridges, the back leather bags in The Unseen‘s Air collection don’t look much different than any of the other designer handbags on display. It’s not until one is purchased and worn out in the moist London air that it begins to show its true colors: iridescent greens, yellows, reds, and blues that emerge and disappear based on changes in the atmosphere.
This chameleonic quality is thanks to color-changing inks imbedded in each of the accessories in the experimental fashion studio’s inaugural collection. Specially developed by The Unseen’s founder Lauren Bowker, the inks are composed of a series of chemical compounds that respond to environmental conditions like heat, pollution, air pressure, and moisture. Each atmospheric condition is matched with a color–yellow for carbon dioxide, red for heat, blue for moisture, green for wind pressure, etc.–which then mix together to create new colors on the material, so that the same bag would look completely different in the hot, arid Moroccan climate as it would in rainy Seattle or polluted Beijing.
After studying both chemistry and fashion, Bowker has long been interested in using science and technology to transform the way we use and think about textiles. Her first foray into material science came as a college student, when she spent a lot of time in hospitals because of a difficult to diagnose spinal condition.
“I became fascinated with what was going on in the human body that you couldn’t express through words or emotions,” Bowker says. “Since then I’ve been obsessed with materials that could read different aspects of the world or human body that we couldn’t see.”
Bowker founded The Unseen to further explore the use of textiles to convey that information, and last year they released a series of color-shifting wearable Air sculptures that react to different environments. After Selfridges approached Bowker about working on a collection for the store, the studio decided to adapt that same method to leather accessories. “We thought it could be a beautiful collection you could pass down,” Bowker says. “We wanted them to be heirlooms. We don’t know what our children will see in terms of colors because I’m sure that their environment will be a lot different than the one that we’re living in now, and hopefully a cleaner one.”
As brilliant as the new line of accessories are, Bowker has ideas for more humanitarian uses of the color-changing inks and fabrics. “By doing something like the Selfridges collection, we’re showing the world that the technology is here, and it’s not that futuristic. But behind the scenes we’re developing these fabrics in a much more meaningful way,” she says. That includes experiments in clothes that will tell Asthma sufferers that an attack is coming on by reacting to respiratory conditions, and a headdress made of Swarskovski gems that monitor brain activity to show patterns of depression or anxiety.
For Bowker, innovating with new material goes hand in hand with creating a great aesthetic for a product. “It has to be beautiful and elegant as much as it is technical,” she says. “You have to want this piece without knowing that the technology is in there.” Still, she says, in an age of sometimes gimmicky wearable tech, if you’re going to design new materials, you need to design with an application in mind. “It has to be something that can alter someone’s life in a significant way.”
The Unseen’s Air collection of accessories, now available at Selfridges, ranges from £750.00 for a scarf to £1,250.00 for a leather backpack.