Interview / Billie Whitehouse on the Business Behind the Wearables Boom
Billie Whitehouse is a designer, educator and co-founder of Wearable Experiments, a socially driven wearable technology company on a mission to combine fashion and tech with a functional design aesthetic.
Contagious has followed Wearable Experiments since Whitehouse launched the business with her partner Ben Moir, teaming up with Havas Worldwide and Durex to create a project called Fundawear, teledildonic underwear designed for geographically distant lovers. The company’s tech-augmented closet soon filled: a jersey for Australian television network Foxtel allowed fans to feel Aussie Football League hits, a snowboarding jacket for Oakley gave the sensation of big air and an American football partnership with Bud Light have endowed Wearable Experiments with a great reputation in the emerging space.
At the New York edition of Now Next Why on May 10, Whitehouse will be talking about the physical toolset and psychological mindset that brands and agencies need to get the best results when working with avant-garde firms, bringing hybrid creative projects to life. Contagious' Nick Parish spoke with Whitehouse this month about her work with Wearable Experiments.
How do you juggle technology and fashion within a single cohesive project?
They’re different, but we get them to fight and flow at the same time. What we normally do is run six projects at once: apparel, hardware, firmware, software, UX and industrial design. On the industrial design side, how do you have a battery source and how does that integrate, for example, back into the apparel project?
I oversee apparel, industrial design and UX. My cofounder oversees firmware and software. It really is a backwards and forwards – ‘Here’s what I did wrong, here’s what you did wrong, how can we make it right?’ – process. Often you have to make compromises. Of course that’s not something anyone wants to do, but I fight pretty hard on my end to not make compromises.
And by compromise you mean having to remove a feature or something you want in favour of something you need?
Yeah. A tangible example would be induction charging. For one project, we had to remove several modules from the chip because it was interfering as it was charging. So it was only charging 50% at a time, when you’d place it over the charging device. But because we removed those modules, it heated up, and got hot enough that you were very much aware of it. We had to come up with a compromise with the team about what needed to be added, what needed to be removed and what was a sensible temperature for these things to charge at so that nobody was concerned at the end of the day.
If someone asked you ‘design a blouse’ or ‘design a pair of trousers’ or even ‘design a UX flow for a very basic landing page’ do you think you could do that in a different way, now that you’ve seen a project contain so many additional dimensions and worked all those things together in concert?
It depends. Every time we do a project they change, there’s another element that’s added or shifted. You have to keep learning. Every time it feels like next time it might get simpler, but it never really does. It always keeps shifting.
What’s nice is that we’ll always start a project – everyone, including the manufacturers – together. We’ll get together and can map something out with a hand illustration and everyone has their conversation in their own different language, whether it’s firmware or software. Then we all come back to one agreement. That’s part of the process we enjoy; we had to learn to each speak parts of multiple different languages for this to succeed.
What about partnerships? Are there universal things that make a good partner, in both a client and maybe someone downstream of you?
For us, having partners involved is always wonderful because then they’re invested. And I don’t just mean financially but invested emotionally. The more they’ve been a part of that beginning of that process, the more they care about the product. That’s the main thing, making sure that you’re building something with love. If the client or partner really loves what we’re doing together that makes it a really fun project.
When we made Fundawear, that’s why it was so much fun. We loved building it, it was so entertaining. That’s why we thought we could make this a business, because we loved doing it. That old cliché.
With the work you’re doing, the hardware, the software, the custom chips, et cetera, I think clients will frequently want to get involved with projects but not understand the depth and scale required to make them successful. Is there a certain amount of, not cheerleading, but acknowledging the difficulty of what’s ahead? How do you do that?
Not well. Of course, you have to hold people’s hands through that process. That is undeniable. It always has to happen. I think that what it comes back to is giving them the real deal, not sugarcoating it. Saying, ‘Look, I was soldering plates to my own batteries for this meeting, because they forgot to send me the right batteries,’ or the batteries didn’t work. Telling them that you were there late into the night, making sure it worked for their presentation. Then, them knowing; that’s part of the realness. I always think that in the US, there’s a little too much jargon. It gets thrown around, and I just end up switching off. People appreciate you telling them real stories about what’s happening. Yes, it’s holding their hand, but it’s also giving them a real slap in the face if they need it.
Can you think of an instance when an agency relationship has been over-the-top additive in a project? Where they went above and beyond to succeed? What happened?
On a personal relationship side, definitely. There are some amazing boutique agencies in NYC that have gone above and beyond, they’ve been very supportive, they get it. They believe in what we’re trying to do. It wasn’t necessarily on a project. We’ve worked with agencies here in the US, but most of our agency work has come either from the UK or Australia. In the US we’ve gone direct to client more. That’s always interesting. But it’s something you sometimes have to do.
What would you say the biggest difference is working directly with brands? How does mindset change?
I would say there are two options. Sometimes an agency will come to you and say ‘We have two weeks, can we build it?’ That’s unrealistic, and a real bugger. They think they’ve done the thinking and done all the work, and there’s a little bit left to do. But we have to order in parts from all over the world to get this stuff to work, at the very least, and that can take a while. That’s one of the differences with working with the agency.
On the flip side, not having to manage the brand yourself, and just being able to focus on the work, is something we happily let the agency do. So we can focus on the work being done, what’s actually being built. It’s a double-edged sword: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
What are the benefits of working directly with the client? Is getting a realistic project scope and timeline communicated ahead of time part of it?
That’s certainly been part of it. The other part would be having the agency involved doing things like sending a press release. That can add a layer that can be wonderful. They’ll enter you in Cannes and get awards. But then they want control over where they send it, rather than letting you send it to people who have been super supportive of everything you do – our peers, journalists who have been kind to us. We want to be able to talk to them.
See Billie Whitehouse at Now Next Why in New York on May 10. Tickets available at nownextwhy.com.