Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Melissa Coleman is an artist, curator and creative technologist specialised in fashion tech and connected objects. In her art and exhibitions she critically explores the relationship of fashion, politics and technology. She exhibits worldwide and her work has been covered by New Scientist, Wired, The Guardian, Vogue, Fast Company and Dezeen. She co-founded Rotterdam’s V2_E-textile Workspace and London’s E-Stitches meetup at the V&A Museum. She is part of the core team that created Hackaball, a connected ball that teaches kids coding, one of Time Magazine's best inventions of 2015.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I've just finished an exhibition in Mexico City about political fashion tech called Perfect Bodies, Rebellious Machines. I'm working on a piece with electronic crystals with Rachel Freire and am launching a political dress called Tremor together with Leonie Smelt that's going to be on display in Taiwan this summer. I'm also co-hosting the e-stitches meetup at the V&A museum.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
I've been working with wearables for 13 years.
What was the biggest obstacle?
Artistic wearables are in a funny place where they don't fit in with the regular art scene and they are often too feminine for the electronic art scene or they are considered too much like design. I've always created my own exhibitions because the great work that was out there was just not being shown anywhere. This seems to be changing finally.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female entrepreneur?
Making electronic art is creating a product that the world tells you no one needs. It's your job to convince them otherwise. Making art is my side-gig and in general this one feels more female friendly than being a programmer, even though the place where I work is really great. In my art I'm mostly surrounded by other women - as a programmer I'm more often in a male dominated environment, especially at conferences where I will often find myself scanning the room to find another female who is not working in catering. Luckily conferences are at least becoming better at getting women to speak, which is a positive development.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Being able to continue making art and reaching bigger audience feels like a big achievement. Having my art go on tour and be able to exist for audiences for years without me having to be present, when electronic art is generally so fragile, that is something I'm very proud of.
What will be the key trends in the wearable tech and smart textiles industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
The industry will become better at manufacturing electronic textiles and this will give designers more freedom to design electronic garments. The technology will become more flexible and less visible, except in couture pieces where it might be part of the aesthetic. The technology will integrate more tightly with the fibers, being part of the creation of the thread. Both of these developments will be to the detriment of sustainability, so more research into better ways of manufacturing will hopefully balance this development.
Is #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?
It's an issue that directly affects my day to day life and having the conversation benefits me and tech culture as a whole. But I'm aware that the advancement of women must always advance all women, not just white middle class people like me. Women with less privilege will always have a harder time. I feel it is my responsibility to make being a woman in tech work for them as well.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
If you have the opportunity: just go out and make your ideas reality and have no regrets. I've always believed in saying yes to things and then figuring out how it's going to work for you. Until you do the work you won't quite understand what the work requires, so you have to think on your feet. As you grow in experience you understand more what you require in order to do good work so the choices you make become more considered - though hardly less ballsy.
On a more practical level if you work in art: become an expert on exporting. It's a pain but more painful if you get it wrong. Get insurance. Work only with trustworthy, hardworking, nice people. Get paid in advance.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and smart textiles industries?
I'm going to cheat and bundle a few.
Mika Satomi and Hannah Perner Wilson - for always putting community and ethics first in the creation of e-textiles and building a movement and culture around e-textiles rather than 'just' products.
Anouk Wipprecht - she's put wearables on the map for a lot of people and always brings a lot of fun and positivity to every project we work on.
Leonie Smelt and Rachel Freire - my incredible collaborators on recent projects who both have mad skills as designers, exquisite taste and who make work feel like play.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, co-founder of Women of Wearables and 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.