In the run-up to national women’s equality day Women’s Day on the 8th March 2018, we are paying homage to 7 women who have made a name for themselves in the world of technology. We are honouring women leaders in technology, who are quietly making a difference in their field. In this series, the women in tech industry personally share their experiences and challenges whilst also giving us a glimpse into the lessons that they have learnt along the way. In her own words, Nancy Tilbury shares her story.
It all began at Ravensbourne and The Royal College of Art where I studied fashion design. It was not long before I discovered the wearable computing movement and the work of (Alex) Sandy Peatlands Group at MIT which led me to partner up with Dallas Semiconductors during my masters to build an emotional chip into my designs. This was 1997.
Upon graduating, I joined Philips Research. Working across all disciplines of art, science, design and technology, I was soon building a team of hybrids and creating some early fashion and apparel technologies with smart fabrics used by brands such as Nike, Adidas and DuPont today.
Believing that clothes would and could do more than be analogue, I wrote a paper called ‘Beyond The Pocket’. It identified how fashion and technology would cohabit. As a fashion engineer, I intuitively felt that ‘wearables’ were not just a custodian of coders and engineers; fashion designers, tailors and textile experts could also be part of this space.
A collaborator at heart, my philosophy is rooted in my belief that technology should be feminised, more empathic, intuitive and emotionally aware. I am turned on by the beauty and complexity of co-creative challenges. I have had to overcome problems. One of those challenges was identifying the customer and the ‘Why’ in wearables. I wanted to make wearables genuinely wearable and to do this; I had to understand the relationship between the desirability of fashion, emotion. I identified how this relates to wearable technology and I looked at the limitations of the hardware.
As a creative director of technology, building fashion focused features keeps us preoccupied. When it comes to how I work, I am demanding. I believe that we need technology, particularly hardware, to become more sensitive, fluid and dynamic. Although the discipline itself, fashion technology, is still in its infancy even after twenty years, I often desire the impossible. I am not deterred by how difficult it is to find skilled collaborators who genuinely understand the relationship between silicon and silk. Fashioning technology is hard, harder than hardware is hard, so it is not for the weak-hearted.
When it comes to women in the field of technology, there are some brilliant women working in our space today. When I began, there was just Suzanne Lee and me turning rocks in the untrodden territories of science and technology. Now there is excellent work by wondrous women like Billie Whitehouse, Lauren Bowker and Maddy Maxley. Also, great work is being done by Ishwari Thorpe at The Centre for Fashion Enterprise through her Fashion Tech accelerator program. Times up. We need to get Silicon Valley to understand empathy and equality, by bringing more oestrogen to the table and build better (more meaningful) tech.
I was honoured to have been mentored by a man ahead of his time, Professor John Miles. He was a brilliant visionary, who built a fashion laboratory during the 1990’s at the RCA where PHD’s, MPhil’s and masters students worked to define the future of fashion. Also, I have been so fortunate to be surrounded by stellar people who have continually stretched and steered me.
Being open, fearless, and working at grassroots in a traditional research lab with engineers and scientists gave me the foundation to understand the discipline of fashion tech. These were positions that led me to work with Lady Gaga on ARTPOP Tech Haus and build several major breakthrough couture technologies, one being a flying dress. More recently, I have loved working with my brilliant collaborator Richard Thornn on designing and developing 2415, our new Gen Z brand.
When it comes to the most significant transformation in technology, I guess it is easy to say the smartphone, but those who know my work well will know I’m obsessed with digital skins and the future human. Also, I am all about AI and wearables. I’d like to see some serious investment in computational fibres, printables and fluid hardware.