Fashion Tech and Speculative Wearables in Imminent Space Travel

A recent visit to Ravensbourne has catalysed a shift in my opinion of ‘fashion tech’ as a discipline and led to an animated discussion around the reasons for the aesthetic gulf between fashion design and technology.  The reason for my visit was the European Space Agency initiative, ‘Couture in Orbit’ – a fashion show at the Science Museum in May, featuring the work of five fashion colleges in Europe: ESMOD Paris, ESMOD Berlin, Fashion Design Akademiet Copenhagen, Politecnico di Milano and Ravensbourne London, which set about planting creative seeds for what will become a necessity – fashion in space.  The colleges worked to a brief set by the ESA to present ideas and prototypes for fashion and accessories in the coming age of space travel.  In response to a number of nasty and aggressive comments on their YouTube page in response to a video of this initiative, the ESA wrote this:

Couture in Orbit is a student outreach project. The students are using materials and technology in their designs that are a spin-off from the space industry. Each school had a theme linked to an astronaut’s mission, such as environment, health, sustainability, and their final designs had to have practical benefits for life on Earth. No funds were exchanged and material and technical support was provided by Tech startups.

https://youtu.be/4dETQQVrwoo

Yes, the designs could be seen as somewhat ‘amateurish’ and ‘costumey’ in their concept and presentation and describing them as ‘couture’ and ‘fashion’ is not strictly accurate, however the idea here is key.  Fashion’s robust approach to design and creation of cohesive, refined collections does not allow for this kind of playful theatrics, but if fashion and tech are to advance there has to be some latitude where the end result is concerned. It makes no sense to judge this by the same standards as a show at London Fashion Week, for example, which exists for an entirely different purpose and is part of a totally different creative and commercial conversation.  The YouTube comments demonstrate an attitude that demeans the validity and power of fashion that I have seen previously hinder cooperation between fashion, science and tech sectors, but we will forge forward regardless.

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‘Couture in Orbit’ designs

‘It is inevitable’, said Ravensbourne students Farid Bin Karim and Sam Martin-Harper of the fusion of fashion and technology in clothing to come.  Their view was the same of space travel – we know for certain there will be inhabitation of other planets and commercial journeys to space, so we need to design clothing fit for space life.  The brief provided to the students by the ESA included an array of materials for them to use in their garments and accessories, including Sympatex, woven fabrics by Bionic Yarn and 37.5.  Being presented with a fixed set of materials is challenging from a design perspective, as fashion design often begins with selection of a fabrics to complement an aesthetic or theme held by the designer.  Removing this from the designer’s creative point of view throws up further challenges and provides experimental opportunities.  Karim leads me into a discussion about Design Fiction, a framework based on critical design which is the foundation of his speculative design approach on the Wearables MA course at Ravensbourne.  The modelling of future scenarios using design fiction provides a robust outline for predicting what fashion design could be in an age of commercial space travel, for example.  Karim selects three modes of technology – one that exists but he can’t access, one that exists that he can access and one that we can reasonably deduce will exist in the future – with which to begin to form a fashion tech product design scenario.  This Design Fiction framework and critical design, attributed to Julian Bleecker and Dunne and Raby respectively, and adopted widely in London as a modelling tool, begins to give me insight into how design for a future that we can’t yet imagine is conceivable and believable.

Farid explains that his self-closing helmet and kilt are inspired by sojourners travelling to space and creating their own exoplanet.  His concept hinged on the sojourners creating protective barriers around themselves that responded to atmospheric changes to give visual notifications allowing them to react and adapt.  His self-closing helmet is powered by muscle wires and his kilt, printed in collaboration with print designer and MA fashion student Laura Perry, has heat responsive ink which disappears at certain temperatures – a useful visual notification when things are hotting up.  Farid also used a UV responsive pigment – another useful visual alert.  Karim’s work is inspired by an array of creatives including artist Lucy McRae, writer HG Wells and movement artist and coder Nicola Plant.

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Farid Bin Karim’s self-closing helmet and reactive ink kilt, in collaboration with Laura Perry

Sam Martin-Harper presented an altogether more nostalgic proposition in which she expressed her belief (and hope) that we will always remain rooted to earth.  Her love of biology and particular interest in the techniques for growing plants on the International Space Station, including the work of astronaut Tim Peake, drove her to create a 3D printed neck piece containing plant life.  Admitting this is a conceptual piece, Sam explained how she used inspiration from the ingenious folding joint sections of space suits to inform the shapes and details of her design.  Sam is completing her BA and is still exploring career options.  One thing is for sure, she cannot see a future of fashion without the integration of tech.

IMG_1283DSC01973Sam Martin-Harper’s 3D printed plant-filled neckpiece at ‘Couture in Orbit”

A discussion on the future work of Farid centres on his passion for data as a tool for creating responsive and adaptive design.  He has been learning coding and electronics as part of his Wearables MA and sees future fashion as an extension of the individual – as ‘body centric’.  On graduation, Karim is hoping to work with a multi-disciplinary research facility to conduct collaborative research and design.  When I ask if he would consider a traditional design job (he is a fashion graduate, after all) he reflects on how he has had to unlearn and relearn aspects of his design approach through his Wearable MA training in order to realise his part industrial, part fashion creations.  It’s clear he’s happier in unchartered territory.

The discussion turned to couture and obsolescence.  Karim is curious about the possible inclusion of technology in couture techniques in order to aid their survival, but this is completely at odds with the fact that couture means made by hand.  This meaning of couture would therefore need to change for this to happen.  I ponder a possible alternative in the form of technologies so specialised, rare and unique that they create a techno-couture instead.  Here we begin to think about fashion and design being driven by technology, rather than the other way around.

In these discussions, as Alexa Pollmann, Course Leader of the MA Wearable Futures course, points out, it is important to consider the designs of Sam, Farid and the other students from Ravensbourne as proposals and prototypes – not final ‘fashion products’ per se.  Ask any fashion designer working in the industry today their opinion of fashion tech and they will overwhelmingly tell you that it is gimmicky, ugly and not desirable.  Herein lies the chasm between tech and fashion.  Looks really count, and so does magic.  Fashion designers bring an ephemeral quality to their creations, says Alexa.  Fashion designers dream up and articulate experiences better than any other design discipline.  They create magic in a way that is often so difficult to define it just feels ‘right’.  Fashion is entirely subjective and indisputably powerful.  For these reasons, Clive Van Heerden, co-founder of vHM Design Futures studio in London, which develops materials and technologies for a host of Wearable Electronic business propositions in the areas of electronic apparel, conductive textiles, physical gaming, medical monitoring and entertainment, insists on having a fashion designer in his creative team on all projects.

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But why are fashion designers resistant to incorporating tech into their designs and what is slowing down the advancement of the fashion tech fusion?  One factor is that the development of tech-enabled/collaborative products takes considerable research and development, and therefore time.  It requires dedication to solving specific problems related to firstly a single concept or product, which is at odds with designing, sampling and creating whole fashion collections which are visually cohesive within a strict time frame (weeks or months at most), which then have a finite sales period before the next collection is created (making the current one obsolete, for want of a better word) and the cycle continues.  The traditional cycle of two main collections per year for high end fashion labels has switched to four in recent years, meaning there is even less time for research and development.  Knowing this, it is easy to see why the work of fashion designers is at odds with the research and development required to incorporate tech, and vice versa.  In a previous interview with designers Fyodor Golan, they pointed out that fashion tech collaborations often have a required fixed outcome within a tight time frame, limiting the amount of integration possible.  This goes some way to explaining why sometimes fashion tech looks more ‘stuck on’ than cohesively and meaningfully designed and produced.

Read more about the technologies involved in the Couture in Orbit project here

Header image: Farid Bin Karim’s self-closing helmet and adaptable ink kilt at ‘Couture in Orbit’

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David Bowie Gave As Much To Sci-fi And Fashion As He Did To Music

Fucking Cancer.

The man from Brixton (and Mars) whose penchant for reinvention was spurred by a childhood desire to write musicals and create characters, took a turn towards playing those characters himself when his first career choice looked unlikely.  Ziggy Stardust allowed David Bowie to become someone else and therefore feel at ease while performing.  Who hasn’t wanted to be someone else at some point in their lives?  It’s an element of the human condition that we can experience vicariously through David Bowie’s transformations.  The courage, the creativity, the brevity, the showmanship, the beauty.

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Costumes, fashion and dressing up are vehicles of self-expression, storytelling and reinvention.  Costumes and fashion were tools used in a fascinating and inspiring way by Bowie, from his Mr Fish-created frock coats for the Man Who Sold the World album cover, to his suit, dog-collar and stiletto combo for his meeting with Tony Blair;  he was sharing a visual commentary with the world.  That’s what makes fashion so powerful – the evocation brought about when in the hands (and on the body of) such a visionary and intelligent person.

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David Bowie predicted the future (in his interview with Jeremy Paxman) and understood that the internet would bring creatives and their audiences closer together, with the role of the audience becoming more integral.  He saw it as a great demystification of the creator’s practice and as an equally enthralling and terrifying advancement.  That was 15 years ago.  In the interview, Bowie laughingly expressed the Internet as an ‘Alien life-form’ when Jeremy Paxman suggested it might be a strange but somewhat ineffectual tool.  The interview demonstrates a glaring gulf between the fabric of these two men – the unimaginative and businesslike Paxman and the inspired and visionary Bowie.   Watch Bowie predict the future and reveal his support for, and investment in, Internet ventures.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0-51IkWpFE

It’s hard to recall another artist whose work has had such a profound and positive relationship with space than David Bowie.  As explained in his biography in the Sci-Fi Hall of Fame, his breakthrough 1969 single “Space Oddity”, which tells the story of an astronaut’s possibly tragic mission, was broadcast by the BBC during its coverage of the Apollo 11 launch and lunar landing. The song bridged the science-focused world of the space race, rock ‘n’ roll, and popular culture.

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In 2013, Astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded and filmed his own rendition of Space Oddity while on the International Space Station.  He wanted to allow all of us on earth to see ‘where we truly are in space exploration’.  A message to the world from the ISS sent via the words and artistry of David Bowie. Hadfield received David Bowie’s support with rights and publication of the rendition.

Chris-Hadfield-NASA-astronaut-David-Bowie-international-space-station-Condo.ca_Astronaut, Chris Hadfield

David Bowie existed comfortably as a artist within the film genres of sci-fi and fantasy while simultaneously shaping notions of fashion, sexuality and beauty.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GA27aQZCQMk

The message I’m carrying with me from the art and wisdom shared by David Bowie is: you can be whoever you want to be, and his quote “I have no knowledge of who I am, but I am extremely happy”.

I mentioned in my previous post that we’re set to achieve travel to and from outer space in our lifetime.  But before we go Interstellar, let’s cure cancer.

Donate to Cancer Research UK here

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Noma’s Food Language, GPS-Tracked Garbage and the World Exclusive of Pussy Riot’s Dismaland Music Video. It must be WIRED 2015, Part 2!

Continuing in the theme of Artificial Intelligence (covered in part 1), Carlo Ratti presented some exciting work from the MIT Senseable Cities Lab.  Standouts were a trackable waste project where members of the public brought in 3000 pieces of garbage which were then fitted with GPS sensors and tracked, with alarming results.  Some objects made it across America and were still on the move after two months.  The project increased awareness of recycling and changed participants’ garbage disposal behaviours.

Carlo then demonstrated that the implication of self-driving cars in the future will extend beyond safety (eliminating human error – the cause of over 90% of road traffic accidents) to reducing congestion.  Traffic lights would be eliminated and a slot-system used by interconnected cars sensing each other’s position to avoid collision.  The potential use of one self-driving car to drive all the members of a family (and their friends/neighbours) to their respective destinations, blurring the lines between private and public transport, is an interesting prospect too.  With such a system, cities could meet all residents’ current transport requirements with only 20% of the number of cars that are currently on the road, based on journey research done in New York.  Imagine the reduction in traffic, congestion and improvement to air quality?!  Lastly, Carlo showed us a video of UAV-enabled app, SkyCall, created to respond to requests from MIT visitors to guide them to whichever room number they tap into their app.  The UAV talks the visitor though the sights on campus along the way. On a campus with hundreds of rooms scattered over a vast area it’s a cool idea.  I wonder if it could be used for events; Directing people to the correct seat at a fashion show, or the theatre, perhaps.  Check it out here:

The afternoon session was opened by Rene Redzepi and brought culinary adventure to proceedings with a detailed foray into the scientific experiments of the famous Danish restaurant he co-founded, Noma.

Noma create flavours.  They seek not to use ingredients for dishes but to make building blocks of flavour that can then be combined to create either a sauce, or a dish.  It’s akin to writing a new food language, with the building blocks being new words (new flavours) and the combination of them (the sentence) being the dish, as explained by Noma R&D chef Lars Williams, accompanied by Arielle Johnson, flavour scientist.  Fermentation is what underpins this language, and through a series of taste tests they demonstrate that fermentation is a cooking utensil at Noma, rather than simply a technique.  It is their chief mode of experimentation and gives rise to new and complex flavours that develop over time.  Lars explains that these new flavours cannot be manufactured.  The ingredients are controlled precisely in DIY vessels they made out of shipping containers that have a range of minus 50 to plus 60 degrees and exacting humidity control.  It’s a fascinating insight, and given that it’s a non-profit initiative serving only 45 covers for each of their lunch and dinner service, it’s admirable.

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IMG_6064Cute illustrations by flavour scientist Arielle Johnson

We were given a goodie bag of vials from the Noma kitchen to taste during Lars and Arielle’s talk, one of which contained fermented grasshopper garum, which had a fishy miso-like flavour.  Here’s how Lars makes it:

Here’s Noma’s story in the words of Rene Redzepi:

The food-inspired architects responsible for the following imagery, Christopher Pierce and Christopher Matthews take food and turn it into materials, shapes and schematics for buildings and landscapes.  Their imagination runs riot and gives rise to a world of food-based experiments that result in fantastical architectural plans.

IMG_6084The moving urban farm plan, Copenhagen

IMG_6091 Architectural plan for a city decomposing left to right

The images below are from a project to create architectural plans from leeks.  The leeks were dehydrated in an oven and into which porcelain was poured to reveal the dried layers inside, to stunning effect.

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For more information about the two Christophers projects click here

The perfect punctuation for these meaty (sorry, I couldn’t resist) talks was live music curated by Denzyl Feigelson, founder of AWAL, including breakthrough Brit artist Izzy Bizu, who is currently touring with Rudimental.  She came over to say hi after her stunning performance of White Tiger to let me know my knitted outfit and multi-coloured platform trainers had caught her eye whilst she was singing.  I promptly dispensed my card so keep an eye out for Izzy Bizu in Brooke Roberts Knitwear.

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A medical imaging treat came in the form of Neuroscientist Sophie Scott’s MRI scan of Reeps One beatboxing.  It’s a fascinating insight into the function of the brain during execution of complex sounds and the areas of the brain most active while generating them.  It satisfied my craving for medical images as an ex-radiographer of two months.

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The theme of Intelligence runs throughout all the talks at Wired 2015, whether derived from the application of AI or applied following analysis of Big Data, the future looks set to provide better healthcare, safer roads, cleaner cities and a more connected global community.  The day wraps up with a softly-spoken but defiant instalment by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot notoriety.  Although she didn’t speak on digital activism as billed, she lent a voice of independent thought and personal struggle.  She spoke of her belief in a life without borders and declared herself a citizen of the world.  Opening with a joke that went something like “When travelling, at border control the officer asks ‘Occupation’? I say no, just a holiday”.

Wearing a dress inscribed “Non Stop Feminist” and “My body is a battleground”, apparently echoing the words in artist Barbara Kruger‘s 1989 piece ‘Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground)’ – a visual commentary on women’s rights over reproduction and the continued feminist struggle – she has an aura of rebellion and delivered a mandate based on living and acting outside the parameters of what she described as slow inert governments.  She cited technology as a tool for rebellion and free speech, which seems refreshingly simple after a day of high-concept tech and rampant futurism (not a complaint,  it’s just a welcome grounding moment to think of the here and now and reflect on where we are).

Reflecting on the talks and ideas shared today by the world’s game changers and askers of questions most of us have never come close to contemplating (until now), it strikes me how readily members of the art, architecture, science and technology communities collaborate across disciplines.  A chemist working with a chef at Noma, artist Eyal Gever collaborating with NASA on art in outer space, architects working with chefs to develop concepts for buildings and landscapes based on food, and the greatest thing is, the sum of the parts is richer, more surprising and arguably more legitimate for having sought beyond the boundaries of its own discipline.  It makes me wonder; why isn’t the fashion industry more eager to collaborate with those from other disciplines – scientists, architects, engineers?  The idea of legitimacy is a complex one, but it does seem that having outside input and therefore sharing credit for the design and presenting a collective rather than singular ‘vision’ is something fashion designers and perhaps the industry at large is very uncomfortable with.  In fashion, the Creative Director / Design Director is seen to possess the singular vision and takes all credit, making collaboration from an equal (and opposite) professional seemingly unwelcome.  I feel fashion’s the poorer for it.  You only have to look at the discomfort and awkwardness of the current FashTech/wearables offering to see that the fashion and technology industries are not really collaborating yet.  The most innovative strides being made in the fashion industry are in sportswear brands like Nike with their groundbreaking “Flyknit” trainers, which are a fusion of shoe design, creative coding, digital industrial knitting and engineering.  Another example is retailer Marks and Spencer, with their technical textiles and antibacterial, non-iron, machine-washable, teflon coatings that withstand years of abuse.  For all the hype about ‘creativity and innovation’ in the fashion industry, the visible and lauded designers aren’t leaping into the future, innovating or really questioning what is possible and trying something new.  They are not ready, or willing, to take the collaborative steps to do so, it appears.  The open source aspect of science and technology is a practice fashion could benefit from.  How do we learn and grow if we don’t share and question what we do?  How do we solve complex problems when only looking within the realms of what we already know rather than seeking the perspective and skills of other professions?

As I finish writing this article I get confirmation that Hussein Chalayan has agreed to an interview with me to discuss his contemporary dance collaboration at Sadlers Well, Gravity Fatigue and his work as a fashion designer.  So I’ll prepare to eat all of the last paragraph’s words, thankfully!

Nadezhda closes Wired 2015 with a world exclusive of the new Pussy Riot music video for “Refugee In” shot at Banksy’s Dismaland.

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And with a hop and a skip, she’s off!

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Martha Lane Fox’s Women Warriors, 3D Printed Sound and ‘Laughter Art’ in Outer Space. It must be Wired 2015!

Jam packed. Back-to-back nuggets of our tech-driven future being dispensed by the world’s game changers. That’s how if feels to sit in the front row at Wired 2015.

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Advances in technology are set to drive healthcare, music and art. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is enabling us to begin to explore healthcare based on individual’s biology and behaviour (sensors record this information and use it to create a personal health map, which is then used to assess how multiple factors combine to tell us whether or not a drug will work for that individual, for example). When you look at this information on a large scale (and using AI, we can effectively process this big data) it can then be used to shape drug trials and cut down the usual 10-15 years and 20+ billion dollars it takes to develop a drug, which for many people, may not even work. This is powerful stuff and it’s what BERG is all about. Speaker Nivan Narain had me at the Salvador Dali-like graphics, but once I got to understand the implications for not only treating, but preventing disease I was fully inspired.

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Gabor Forgacs is taking this concept a step further and asking what a world of bio-printing would be like, where we can 3D print tissues and organs. To be clear, the printing of organs is not yet possible (there is currently no way to provide nutrients and blood supply to 3D printed organs so they can’t be kept “alive” whilst they are being printed, but what is possible is the printing of small areas of tissue that can then be used to perform drug (or other) trials on and determine effectiveness of a drug on an individual (in the most specific sense), or humans (in the broader sense) rather than on animals. This would far improve current drug testing methods which, partly because they are carried out on animals, unsurprisingly result in hit and miss effectiveness for humans. It’s the dawn of a new and exciting era for healthcare, with money-saving (maybe it can help slash our NHS bills and slow down privatisation? – wishful thinking perhaps) and improvements in treatment. I am willing Gabor to develop this technology – and fast.

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In the creative space, Eyal Gever is an artist whose “palette is code”. He develops visual representations of sound, as demonstrated by animated graphics responding to beatboxer Reeps One’s voice. It’s a blast of auditory and visual stimulation, making it hard to imagine the sound without the graphics and vice versa. Eyal has also created a water simulation piece that captures the movement and physiology of a dancer in real time. The result is a digital rendering of a liquified dancer exploding into droplets and reforming as if orchestrated by the sound. It’s enthralling.

Eyal’s work extends to 3D printing moments in time captured digitally then created physically and installed amongst great and revered artworks including those of William Turner and Matisse.

His current next project revolves around a project with NASA aimed at 3D printing in micro gravity on the International Space Station. This continues on nicely from a talk I attended the night before held by Pint of Science at King’s College. The headline speaker was NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox and Eyal’s work helps complete a narrative Ken began about collaboration, cross-disciplinary work and how creative the teams are while working on the International Space Station. They spend a huge amount of time devising and performing informal experiments and photographing space and the earth below.

Eyal’s earlier sound sculpture work

The mandate for Eyal is to create art in space. He decided to capture sound, create it’s shape digitally (an extension of his previous work) and 3D print it before releasing it into space. The sound he felt captured the spirit of humans best was the laugh. Want to send your laugh to space? The Laugh app is available to download (but is apparently well hidden) so you can record your laugh, or the laugh of those around you, submit it for selection and potentially send your laugh in physical form to space!

One of the day’s most highly anticipated speakers was Martha Lane Fox. The mild irritation I felt as she sat a few seats for me and chatted to her assistant during the talks before hers (she was no doubt doing last-minute (sorry, couldn’t help the pun!) prep turned to disappointment when she failed to offer any solutions to the myriad of problems we face as women in tech (or rather resulting from not enough women being in tech), which she duly reminded us of during her talk. Yes, we know there aren’t enough women working in tech. Yes, we know women are just as capable/intelligent/resilient as men. We also know that people like Sue Black, Emma Mulqueeny and Anne Marie-Imafidon are doing great work to encourage girls to study STEM subjects and enter into STEM careers, but there has been a decline in the number of women entering into the professional world of science and technology for years.

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Martha’s impassioned analogy of wanting to create a warrior hoard of women inspired by her journey to the Altai mountains in Mongolia, while she studied its women and how they removed their breasts so as not to impede their use of a bow and arrow (and therefore perform their duty equally alongside men) is a poetic one, but does it help our current debate? Martha’s rhetoric sticks in my throat. I wish she had come at this topic from a current standpoint, with a little more reality and a little less fantasy. On the ground, London-based Founders and Coders are training women to code in four months, for free. Two of them (Michelle and Claire) are currently in Poland competing with their ModeForMe colleagues to win investment for their ‘kickstarter for fashion’ app. In their spare time they run a group called Prosecco JS (girls who love Prosecco and Java Script) and teach coding to other women (for free) at Founders and Coders. I wrote a full blog post on Michelle and Mode for me, and they are just one example, but you see there is movement in the right direction and it’s inspiring. Martha’s talk does such startups and groups a disservice. Offer solutions, Martha. You’re preaching to the converted.

Header Image, Wired.co.uk : Martha Lane Fox

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