Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Western Bonime crafts engaging stories that connect design and technology with an emphasis on distilling complex concepts into compelling storytelling. She focuses on fashion and tech companies that are developing products that change our focus with an emphasis on socially responsible business models and human centered design. She also teaches design thinking amplify student talents and career preparedness at the Academy of Art University at San Francisco Art School. She has a well rounded skill set that works in many areas and her happy place is when she gets to create, ignite, maximize and inspire.
Western, how did you get into fashion tech?
I’ve been fascinated by fashion tech since I started hearing about it. It just seemed like the logical next step for fashion and I was really excited by the fact that it could create the human element in technology. I heard about people embroidering electronic wire onto fabrics, thus combining craft and music. I began researching as an educator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to give my students as much information as possible about this new field because I could see immediately that fashion was changing and they would need to know about digital technology in order to succeed. Since I began writing for Forbes my knowledge has been growing at a frenetic pace. It’s a young industry so it’s easy to get to know people in it. There’s this wonderful spirit of sharing and collaboration and support which I love.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
Okay, if we are talking about fashion tech then I’d say in the last year or two. There’s been such an incredible explosion of conferences, organizations, and accelerators in the past two years. If we’re talking about getting to a point in my life where I finally have the tools to bring together business, innovation facilitation innovation, networking and design, then in many ways, most of my life. I’m a bit of a late bloomer in some ways. The passion has always been there but the clarity and the methods took me a long time to learn. I grew up in a small town with parents who had absolutely no idea about business or money and while I had these entrepreneurial and leadership sides I didn’t recognize them as such. I tended to approach things as an artist, more concerned with communicating emotions and meaning. It’s a very different way of thinking about things than a business one. I raised myself, so it took me time to realize the importance of aligning yourself with the right relationships which is absolutely essential when you dream big like I do and you want to get big projects off the ground. I always tell my students that 90% of education is learning how to learn. Most of what I know I learned through research and observation. Marketing I learned as a designer because in sportswear you have to understand your customer to design for them. It’s the same with fashion tech. I’ve always been passionate about the future and science. Futurism is my daily geek out followed by Fast Company.
What was the biggest obstacle?
There are a lot of obstacles facing people in fashion tech because it’s a new industry. Funding is probably the biggest obstacle right now. Great ideas don’t come to life without financial support but hopefully there will continue to be more and more accelerator programs and grants as companies realize the value of investing in fashion tech, wearable tech and materials innovation and haptech. Jobs are also a factor. Students graduating with fashion tech degrees don’t have a lot of job options yet as a great number of fashion companies have not yet incorporated tech and a lot of HR people at tech companies don’t know the terminology so students get left out of the search in a world where finding a job is all about key words. I believe we need to see a huge change happen in the way companies go about finding candidates because they’re missing out on some of the people they really need. There’s also a ton of agism happening. Some HR do searches for what year you graduated etc. and unfortunately there’s this hugely flawed belief in both tech and fashion that in order to be good at something you need to be young or have just finished working in that particular field. That’s such a narrow and old school way of thinking. The truth is that once someone knows how to do something they’ll always know and with experience comes the knowledge of how to learn, how to evaluate, plan and strategize from a macro perspective that takes into account when, where and how for the best way to succeed. It made sense to switch over to AI with HR after the crash because companies were receiving an overwhelming number of candidates but it’s led to a completely impersonal environment that is completely exclusive except to a select few who can check every box and know how to play the game. Most students don’t graduate with that information. This is something the Business of Fashion is working on, trying to get companies to realize how to connect with today’s brilliant and fashion tech savvy graduates.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur and educator in the niche you are in?
In terms of education, it’s ensuring that fashion students learn to think like entrepreneurs and understand how to start a business before they graduate and that means having the tools and support of your university. It’s keeping up with the pace of fashion technology which is growing by leaps and bounds every minute. It’s about getting students engaged and interested enough by communicating how important these skills are. A lot of artists don’t think technically so it can feel a big foreign to them. We are seeing large numbers of students going into textiles which says to me that while we are forging ahead with tech, we are also seeing a backlash and a desire for things that people can make with their hands and touch and feel.
Ask anyone in fashion tech and they’ll tell you the biggest challenge is the difference in thinking and language between the tech industry and the fashion industry. Tech doesn’t come easily for a lot of fashion designers. It feels like a foreign, alien way of thinking because so much of AI and iOT isn’t tangible the way fabrics and colors. A lot of smart designers are solving this issue by teaming up with biologists and engineers. Likewise, it can sometimes be difficult to be taken seriously and understood by business people and engineers who don’t always realize the value of design or art. Engineers look at the world from how to make it work. Fashion is the opposite. It’s about how people feel. It’s about a value rather than function proposition. also about glamour which is completely intangible by its nature. Tech is about making things perfect, but true craftsmanship is often beautiful because of its imperfection. While this may sound foreign, I bet if you asked anyone who learned Adobe Photoshop they’d tell you that part of what they loved about it was all the happy accidents that occurred while they were learning. Tech companies need to think about this. How can they make things work but allow for accidents and failure so it’s also a learning and growth tool for human beings? There’s big hope for this in the areas of VR and textiles which is why you see so much investment happening in materials innovation. Fashion tech offers the best of both worlds.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
We often forget to include passion in our strategies. I believe the absolute greatest thing one can do in one’s life is live fearlessly and create that which fulfils a need or brings cohesion, inspiration or happiness to people. I’ve always been adventurous. I love to learn and discover things. I’m a cultural observer. I have spent my life diving into the unknown and taking on new projects sight unseen, thrilling to the challenge of having to figure out how to do things “on the spot” and bringing to each endeavour my relentless drive to make things come to life in ways that go beyond what people have imagined. In this respect, my life has been as success. My greatest achievements have been when I’ve made that happen. For example, the event I produced in New York. I started with nothing and zero experience in event design or production. All I had was passion and a vision. I went all these artists, designers and film makers and told them about it and they were excited. I planned out every detail and worked night and day and in the end, everyone had an amazing experience and walked away with knowledge they didn’t have before. Starting a fashion school for kids is another success I’m proud of. Once again, I just had this vision of creating an environment where kids could find their own vision while learning how to make things, be given responsibility and loving support. I remembered how it was when you work really hard on a collection and sometimes you just want to quit but then the lights come up and suddenly there’s, I don’t’ know, this magic that happens, so we had shows and they got to present themselves to industry leaders and feel really proud of themselves. I also wanted them to work with quality materials so we had adult grade art supplies and beautiful fabrics. We learn from everything, most of all from things we touch and use so it’s important that people work with beautiful products. In the past 30 years people have been exposed to so much and that’s why you’re seeing so much more demand for products that are not just functional, but also beautiful.
What are your projects you are currently working on?
I am currently working on a proposal to the Academy of art University that focuses on entrepreneurship, collaborative design and craft. I want students to use fashion to guide tomorrow’s tech in ways that help human beings feel connected and lead fulfilling lives. I want students to learn traditional crafts so they desire to preserve it and see its value and then use it as inspiration to work with future technology. I don’t hold with this colonial idea that technology is everything and anything human is bad. How did we get here? Why did we get on this idea that tech is better than people? Tech should be a tool to help human beings strengthen all that is amazing about people. Period. Anything else and we should take a good hard look. I’m also working on some ideas for creating a fashion tech conference in San Francisco that brings together sustainability, performance and entrepreneurs and makers. San Francisco has this vibrant community of technology, women entrepreneur organizations, sustainable organizations and artists but everyone is scattered. I love my town. I love my state. California has this amazing humanitarian side. It’s why so many things have taken off there and then influenced the rest of the world.
Is #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?
Women in business. Women getting rewarded for their talent. Women getting to feel empowered. All of these are of vital importance to me. I believe women are important in the development of tech and all the studies show this to be true. Women are innovators who tend to come up with ideas out of recognition of things we need. The internet has changed our lives dramatically and so have smartphones. I think most of us would agree that we couldn’t live without them and wouldn’t want to, but there’s no denying some of the negative impacts that have happened in only ten years. That’s a microsecond in our history. Would a woman have created dating apps that have turned meeting people into an experience akin to shopping at a grocery store, where there’s no need to hold onto someone or work at a relationship because you can just shop again? Maybe, but a big part of me doubts it. So many of our apps are competitive (get the most likes, have the most followers). I’d love to see someone question whether that’s how things should work. It’s very masculine, whereas developing relationships is feminine. Women have the potential to bring that and many of them are focusing on tech that addresses empathy, emotions, judgement. We need that.
What will be the key trends in the fashion tech and wearable tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Five years is a lifetime, and also no time at all. I think what we see next will depend a lot on the state of the world and whether funding continues as it has. Right now, innovation has tons of financial support and we’re all praying that will continue. The areas I’m most excited about, are collective intelligence, health and the integration of the arts and crafts movements into technology. I think these trends offer us pathways to technology that we feel comfortable with because it has an emotional component. Collective intelligence (you can check out Geoff Mulgan’s book Big Mind to find out more), the idea of harnessing crowds to develop technologies and that’s super exciting because we’ve been needing to bring more diversity and inclusion into the tech world. I think you’ll see communication move away from online platforms like Facebook where we have to disconnect from each other to sit in front of a computer to connect. There’s something not organic enough about that but it was the best option at the time, but with sensory fabrics and communication devices and more and more companies appreciating the importance of art, I think you’ll see people joining to experience things on a massive scale and that could be really interesting. Connection is, after all at the core of who we are as a species. Will we connect in positive ways or negative? Probably both. We are seeing the potential for real democracy with blockchain. Will it eliminate centralized power as we hope? We will also see a huge explosion in the areas of Haptech as the technology gets more sophisticated and we can more easily incorporate sense mechanisms into bio materials. Materials innovation in the areas of health will continue to grow, fabrics that can heal or provide needed nutrients and drugs. Shirts that can administer insulin to diabetics for example. I think we may see a lot more implants by the end of 5 years. However, that’s a real dilemma. They key to technology’s success has been the freedom we’ve given it and that’s essential but at the same time, we are coming to recognize the need to look more deeply into the effects of technology and that requires control. It’s going to be a race to see if we can maintain a balance. We need to know if microwaves is what’s causing cancer. Tech needs to be observed and studied the same way that drugs are for the FDA but in ways that are much less destructive, poorly organized and obstructive.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in fashion tech and / or wearable tech?
That’s an impossible question because there are so many women in fashion tech and wearables who are completely amazing. Ditto for women in sustainability. I would have to say any woman who is succeeding and who is creating products that are making the world more sustainable and holding fast to growing what they believe in.
Li Edelkoort of Trend Union is my hero. No, she’s not strictly fashion tech, but she’s so brilliant. Not only does she see connections 20 years ahead of anyone else, but she understands what people need, like the fact that we still need to hold on to traditional crafts. She understands that human beings need faith in something greater than what they can see and touch.
Marija Butkovic of Women of Wearables because she’s got a mind as sharp as a razor and at the same time is so completely generous with her knowledge and resources.
Ghislaine Boddington of body>data>space because she’s elegant, fearless, and 100% behind the importance of the body in tech innovation.
If I can share what I’ve learned of greatest importance it is these things:
Believe in your ideas and passion no matter what. Listen to that voice even if over and over again, no one understands what you are talking about. Eventually you will find your people and they’ll become a source of support and passion. Set yourself up in a position of leadership and trust your gut about people. If something doesn’t feel right, it isn’t and it will bite you in the end. Always create good connections and partnerships. No matter how great your idea, the chances of success without those are slim. Always be gracious and go the extra mile to let people shine and feel welcome and important. Everyone needs that.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.