Fashion Communication Comes Full Circle
Breaking Down Stigma Through "Science Fashion".
The purpose of the Winston Churchill Fellowship was threefold: to explore the notion of SENSORY FASHION and the feasibility of eScent® as a social wearable technology in the context of a preventative treatment for bipolar disorder, OCD and social anxiety, to help me increase my confidence levels (my biomarker) and create a new path in my world of fashion communication.
The Fellowship builds on a number of factors: an education in fashion communication, an extended career in smell communication and “Sensory Fashion” research at Central Saint Martins, collaborating with Philips on an AHRC funded Knowledge Transfer Fellowship, commercializing patents and managing mental health illness and living with stigma for over a quarter of a century.
I was diagnosed with a number of complex problems from 1993; the first being bipolar affective disorder or the more emotionally loaded 'manic depression' term (as it was known back then), followed by other related conditions, including specific performance anxiety (public speaking), obsessive compulsive traits (trichotillomania developed at boarding school), impulse control disorder and sleep disorders. This was at a time before "hypomanic" (a.k.a. bipolar II disorder) and "rapid cycling" bipolar affective disorders versions of the disorder were named (a more accurate definition of my condition), and outdated and stigmatised labels such as ‘madness’, ‘lunacy’ and ‘insanity’ were acceptable terms in the medical profession. They have gradually been displaced by ‘mental illness’.
My bipolarity or hypomania was triggered by two factors: an excessive lifestyle after graduating with a fashion degree Central Saint Martins in 1991 and the death of my grandmother Peggy Tillotson in 1993. Peggy taught me how to sew from a young age and introduced me to fashion through her vivid stories of British couture and the House of Lachasse (Peter Lewis-Crown, who had joined as an apprentice in 1948, and became director of Lachasse later taught me at Central Saint Martins). She also told me about my heritage in scented soap and wellbeing from the Lever family in the 19th century (my Great Great Grandmother Mary Lever was a sister of William Hesketh Lever, the first Lord Leverhulme). These subconscious memories have had a profound effect on me and carving out a career in wellness over the past quarter of a century.
The diagnosis of mental illness is the most dangerous time for anyone. I was vulnerable to messages that would have a long-term consequences and withdraw from the world, overwhelmed by confusion and fear. On the advice of the NHS, my GP and family, I was told “never ever tell anyone”, because of the stigma surrounding mental health and so I didn't for many years. But this sudden change had an immediate catastrophic effect on me and my confidence; the social anxiety, loneliness and isolation, stress and lack of sleep left me mute and incapable of communicating or working in the fashion industry (ironic really, since fashion is a form of expression and communication).
Much of my earlier experience from those chaotic, wild, and high-energy days and nights and memories from my grandmother, have motivated me to work on my Churchill Fellowship. This is because there is an authentic story behind it; the fashion communication field that I was so passionate about as a student at Central Saint Martins (see WONDER), where I was known for being outgoing, quirky and confident, and mentored by Sally Brampton, is finding its way back to me through the ‘science fashion’ element of my work.
Although this idea originated from my PhD entitled ‘The Wellness Collection: A Science Fashion Story’ at the Royal College of Art (where I was accepted to do a research degree one year after my diagnosis), I came up with the hypothesis that my life experience itself was a truly innovative, fashion communication project, and that it was there to help me – and others to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
I realized that if I combined fashion and technology with scent, I could lead a powerful, transdisciplinary research project and invent "de-stigmatising" sensory products that monitor my own vital signs and measure the physiological symptoms of anxiety and disturbed sleep (key triggers for bipolar). If I responded to my own physiological stress symptoms, I could radically help both my bipolar condition and social performance anxiety (i.e. speaking in public) as a real-time biofeedback scent intervention that also sends out a clear message to the world. By doing so, I could reduce stress levels, boost self-esteem, improve lifestyle with evidence-based aromas so that there would be far less risk of relapsing into a manic or depressive episode.
My ‘science fashion’ work over the past two decades has taken me into a unique and unexplored world where design meets scientific principles in chemosensory research, psychology, neuroscience, fashion, textiles for wellbeing, wearable technology and more recently the ‘Quantified Self’. The outcome is the invention of interactive “smart” sensory clothing and jewellery that can assist emotional wellbeing and improve communication through monitoring vital signs and smell information in body odour. The routes to trace for impacts will be through the commercialisation of my research and patents.
What has been special to me and so many people I have met along my travels is the personal account that my diagnosis and circumstances have inspired, and now drive parts of my work and product development. As a concept that was originally nurtured and patented in Art School, this will lead to multiple new applications and be deployed across existing and new market sectors - beyond fashion and wellbeing.