That which we seek, but can’t see, has a compelling pull. It activates our inner world, a sensory Sherlock Holmes, an inquisitive mind perpetually seeking. The Unseen, the brainchild of pioneering materials designer Lauren Bowker, aims to bring light to the visual dark. Bowker’s background in material innovation informs the company’s scientific purpose, while her work as a United Nations ambassador fuels its environmental passions.
“We invent with ideas that are tuned into consumer behaviors of tomorrow—belonging, curiosity, attainment, fulfillment, identity, purpose, security, radical transparency & sustainability,” reads the company’s mission statement. Since being founded by Bowker in 2014, The Unseen has found a wide range of industry collaborators, ranging from the NHS to Swarovski, from aeronautics to couture design, with products including a cleaning spray that visualizes bacteria and a car paint for Formula One that tracks aerodynamics on the car’s surface. Richard Oliver, former Strategy Manager at Accenture, joined the company as CEO in 2016, and in recent years, The Unseen has managed to bring its innovation from the lab straight into the hands of the consumer with the launch of The Unseen Beauty.
In 2017, the company released Fire, a hair color that changes hue in real time according to the ambient temperature. The Unseen immediately garnered itself a viral moment, racking up 70 million views on social media within hours of launch. “I was interested in using the hair as a material extension of the inner world: how we use it as a way to communicate who we are as people,” Bowker tells BeautyMatter. Amazed at the overnight success of the product across all ages, genders, and demographics, Bowker realized the unique power of the product—and why she had to keep pushing for further innovation.
“In color cosmetics, there has not really been any innovation in the last 50 years. We use makeup to express ourselves in so many different ways, but it's still the same shit we're putting on our faces that men invented 50 years ago in a lab, with not very good ingredients for the planet or the person,” she proclaims. “People are not being truly represented by the ingredients, colors, or products that we’re being given for makeup. So how do I take it one step further in my own research, and start to create colors, pigments, or maybe even a beauty brand that uses material science and innovation to create truly representative technology that can change with the person and in their environment?”
4 years later, Spectra Eye Colour, the company’s first DTC product, was born: a cream eyeshadow formula, or “dual reality pigment,” which metamorphoses under a phone camera flash: Shade 8.08 from a gray to a reflective white glitter, and Shade 4.10 from a matte black to a gray silver glitter. The product is made using eye-safe glass microspheres, with one half of the microsphere’s inside coated with aluminum, which upon receiving light from a camera flash, creates the reflective effect. “It's a makeup for the metaverse: essentially, it's invisible, and you can only see it through a screen,” Bowker explains. She likens the buzz around the metaverse to Second Life, the multiplayer online world which launched back in 2003. “I feel like the metaverse is now that, mixed with the Internet of Things, Bitcoin, and digital economies. There’s a whole younger generation coming through that lives online, personifies themselves as digital entities,” she states. “Will we all be living and breathing in it like The Matrix? I don't know, and I don't think anyone does. And that's what's quite exciting is how you carve it out.”
The inspiration for the product came to her while observing a crowd of festivalgoers watching the live performance through their phone screens rather than in-person. “This is just how they [the social media generation] live. It's a second extension of their reality. I thought, wouldn't it be cool if the artist onstage looked one way to the eye, and then through the phone, a whole other reality opened up,” she comments. During lockdown, Bowker researched further into quantum physics, alternate realities, and particle matter. “I love to explore all the different realities beyond the human senses. So the things that we can't see, whether it's heat temperature, space, emotions, the metaverse,” she states. “I want to use the things around us as a way to open up a reality to those new things, to create a tangible physical thing, from a world that we can see but can't touch and feel yet, to bridge that gap.” Coinciding with the product launch, The Unseen has been collaborating with Electronic Beats magazine and Berghain (the iconic Berlin techno club) on immersive events that equally blend the digital and physical realms.
In partnership with Schwarzkopf, The Unseen recently launched Colour Alchemy, a temporary styling product for the hair that, in interaction with temperature and sunlight, transforms strands into holographic colorways. The shade Scarab goes on clear and shifts to jasmine green, solar orange, and lapis blue; Peacock applies as a petrol blue and changes to cyanine blue, ultraviolet, and peacock green; Borealis first appears as an iris purple but reflects shades of clover green, imperial violet, and flame orange; Andrite is an azalea pink hue with prismatic color changes of ruby purple, emerald green, and cobalt blue; and Phoenix traverses from amber red to pollen yellow, burnt orange, and ultraviolet.
The ingredient responsible for the chromographic transformations is a tiny micro prism that twists and turns like a DNA strand, and reflects light back out. This crystal technology was actually responsible for the digital screens in the pre-LED era, the LCD cell phones and televisions of decades past, but had never been applied to the cosmetic realm. Originally, Bowker used the formula for her business cards, which were actually feathers in a test tube that changed color depending on her interactions with the recipient.
From start to finish, Colour Alchemy took five years to create, but the scientific basis spans back even further. “Those particular molecules, I've been working with now for 14 years,” Bowker explains. It began during her time at Manchester School of Art studying textile design. She discovered the pollution-sensing compound PdCl2, launching a textiles and accessories line in Selfridges incorporating said component. Garments changed color as soon as they were exposed to any air pollution. “There’s all this unseen stuff around us that's actually very complex. But if we put it into a language of color, or something familiar, really hard-to-understand messages, like climate change, can become very simple,” she enthuses.
Deciding on Schwarzkopf as the collaborator with which to create the product came down to pure serendipity. While The Unseen received many offers from various conglomerates across the industry asking for the formula that made Fire an overnight sensation, there were too many synchronicities to ignore. “I had so much synergy with their creative director [Simon Ellis, International Creative Director at Schwarzkopf]. He taught me at the Royal College of Art during my Master's in textiles, we're both from Manchester, and he used to cut my hair. It was just all these really weird connections,” she recalls. “I asked him what the most unseen thing in the hair industry was that he always wanted to create, and he had this big picture of a beetle behind him in the office. He answered ‘True iridescence like you find in beetle shells and feathers. How do we take that beauty we don't have in our own biological makeup, and wonder at all the time, and bring it to ourselves.’”
Having said joint creative vision was all the affirmation Bowker needed. “I'm a real believer of innovation always fails, so the people that are working together on it have to believe in the end game and in the innovation itself to go through all the challenges and get it to a shelf,” she says. The main challenges in their way for Colour Alchemy were the legal registration and product texture, ensuring the magic molecule could still work its wonders even when immersed in a professional hair styling product.
“The magic molecule, you can't just put it into a regular formula, because it will die. I tried to train the team to work very artistically, because the formula actually is a skincare formula. We needed to balance out the weight of moisture in the formula on the hair so the crystals don’t dry out. They need to sit within moisture but it needs to feel dry, and they still need to bond to the shaft but not stick the hairs together,” Bowker explains.
Originally the product was set for release in March 2020, but the team delayed its launch to summer of 2022, giving the product its moment in the sun (or nightlife venue). As soon as it launched, the product received 10 million views on social media and sold out within its first week. To the team’s surprise, users had a slightly different product approach than originally anticipated, partially due to the recent trend in slicked-back hairstyles. “With Schwarzkopf, we worked really hard to make the product feel like normal hair, it took a long time to get the balance of ingredients,” she says. “And then what we've found is that people were slapping it on, not bothered about the texture. When we did user testing, no one did that.”
However, Bowker takes the consumer oversight on product use in stride. Equally, her viewpoint on the future of Colour Alchemy transcends a traditional beauty industry mindset. “For us, it was about opening up a category of newness. Hopefully it has longevity, but it was about showing the world what we've done, trying to get something new across, seeing how the world responds, and then tailoring as we go to see what comes next.” In the future, she hopes to expand into semi-permanent and demi-permanent options, plus incorporating more biotechnology into the beauty industry.
“What is exciting for me is what that [biotech] could do to the beauty space, if you can start to bring in brand-new ingredients that have never existed before. What will that open for the types of makeup that we're using in terms of categories and spaces that currently just doesn't exist?” she asks. “If you're going to make a brand-new ingredient, why would you just make a red lipstick? Why not make something big?” From the carmine red (made from crushed beetle pigments) in lipsticks to the carbon black (a petroleum-sourced material) in mascaras, and pressed pigments in eyeshadow palettes that are technically not deemed safe for eye use, there is certainly still plenty of room for ingredient innovation.
Legislation, as well as animal testing and the lack of new synthetic ways of testing to replace them, have been further hurdles. “Until science sorts that out, we can't bring new ingredients. And then the way that the cosmetics companies are set up, it's influencer, celebrity, or professional artistry driven. You have the person that creative directs the colors and buys them from the same manufacturers and suppliers who use the same materials. It's essentially all the same shit, just different marketing stories, or nicer packaging, different versions of the machine. I'm not saying that's bad, but there is a gap to actually bring material science into the ingredients,” Bowker states.
One of the potential future projects for The Unseen is a one-SKU foundation that, rather than using color pigments, would automatically adjust to the wearer’s skin tone thanks to light and color physics. Not only would it ensure an optimal product shade, but it would also make for a vast reduction in production waste. Instead of producing 60 different shades of foundation, The Unseen produces one universal product. “It opens up a whole new base of science and color to create these types of products. It will be a consumer shift towards a different version of complexion, something that will be more dynamic, more translucent, that only covers where it needs to,” she explains. “We mask all that beauty of our skin, and I think the world is going towards that appreciation of difference. So how do we create a product that reflects the skin and becomes a second skin?”
Her vision for The Unseen is to overhaul not just the creative limits of the current industry, but to do it while ensuring environmentally friendly and consumer-safe ingredients in the process. “It's hard work and it's all about the right timing, right places, and bringing together of skill sets. Over the last 14 years of working across sectors, and bringing newness to it, we at The Unseen worked out a pattern and have become the experts of specific types of material science and color, bringing them into commercial spaces. We're set up to do it,” she proclaims. “It's about now rallying the right people around us to bring it. I think the world's ready for newness in color cosmetics, absolutely.”
Bowker is also currently planning a panel for COP (the UN climate change conference) on beauty and ingredients to bring her message around betterment through material science to the masses. “Beauty is one of the top offenders of waste and actually we can use material science to try to help and change that. But we need to change regulations, the system is broken. Businesses are going to be the future of control in what the world does, how we live in the world, and what we create,” she explains. “I see beauty as a vehicle to have really interesting conversations, to arm people with the tools to be curious, and explore the world in different ways.” There may be plenty of uncertainty for the future ahead, but in the hands of The Unseen, we’re also ensured a plethora of untouched and exhilarating possibilities.
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