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Meet the Team: VINAYA

Why do we do what we do at VINAYA?” 

Story by Rachel Schwartzmann – Discover VINAYA–  Shop VINAYA’s ALTRUIS Collection – Photos by Paola Vivas for The Style Line

vinaya kate unsworth the style line wearable technology

Photos by Paola Vivas for The Style Line

Kate Unsworth co-founder and CEO shared in response to one of our interview questions below, “Because we believe technology has the power to help us elevate our human potential.” It’s hard to argue against these sentiments when we consume most of our information, find endless amounts of inspiration and share all of it via our devices on a daily basis. While the London-based design house is hardly new to the scene of wearable technology, they are cultivating something truly unique. In fact, they hope their humanized approach to how we bridge the gap between fashion and technology can transcend all industries and walks of life. So for this growing global brand built on the premise of putting people (and our innate human needs) first, you can imagine how thrilled we are to share a truly inspired conversation with Kate and her team.

In our stories so far, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface on fashion’s relationship to technology. While we’ve enjoyed learning about the innovative products are reshaping the way industries like fashion operate, for this particular interview we wanted to place emphasis on the ethos behind VINAYA. What piqued our interest, in particular, is the brand’s focus on developing an internal lab that explores the intersection of technology, design, and neuroscience and how this heavily informs the development of VINAYA’s products (most notably their collection of women’s jewelry ALTRUIS).

From refined product to initiating crucial conversations, we believe VINAYA’s work in its entirety embodies our mission perfectly. Below you’ll find snapshots (captured by Paola Vivas for The Style Line) from our recent morning at their London headquarters, along with our full interview with Kate, her co-founders, and a few members of the growing and dynamic team behind VINAYA.

*THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MARCH 2016

vinaya kate unsworth the style line wearable technology

Kate Unsworth – Founder & CEO

I’m an amalgamation!

I walk the fine line between science and spirituality. I’m both a futurist and a traditionalist. I’m (almost) equal parts creative and analytical. And I use my heart just as much as much head to make decisions, whether business or personal. What else? I value honesty and transparency. I think one of the most important qualities in a person is their ability to maintain eye contact. It’s difficult to get me to complete anything (but I’m really good at starting things!), I have an ability to maintain perspective, no matter the situation. I’m not great at planning anything in advance. My email inbox is what by business partner Dan refers to as a ‘black hole’ (things go in, but you never get anything out).  And I find myself on a never ending journey of self-discovery. I’m a creative technologist, but the real love of my life is music. I feel music in every single atom in my body. You’ll rarely see me without my noise canceling headphones round my neck – this is my escape, my security blanket and my focus tool. I put them on every spare moment I have, it’s an actual addiction (I get a noticeable rush of dopamine through my system, just like any other addiction). Music has the power to take us to places we wouldn’t ordinarily go, and inspire us in unimaginable ways. It can set the stage of life, creating one long flowing cinematic experience – for me it definitely helps put me in a flow state. Part and parcel of this love (/obsession?) is that you’ll always find me on the dance floor, right next to the DJ booth – from a neurological perspective, when we can really ‘feel’ the person creating the music, our brains release Oxytocin, another pleasure hormone, responsible for human bonding.

Bridging the gap between fashion and technology is a growing topic of conversation in the fashion industry, but how do you hope this transcends across all industries/ways of life?

This is a great question. For me, technology has become so fundamental to almost every industry that it sometimes confuses me why we continue to talk about ‘the intersection between technology and xyz’?! I think over time, we won’t feel the need to shout from the rooftops that we’re using technology to build our solutions, because everybody will be. If you look at Simon Sinek’s Golden Circles, Technology is the ‘How’ or the ‘What’, but in my opinion, it’s the ‘Why’ that should be driving conversation. Why do we do what we do at VINAYA? Because we believe technology has the power to help us elevate our human potential. Making use of technology – our most powerful resource – across all industries and ways of life is in my opinion the best way for us to optimize humanity, solving problems and saving time, so as to leave room for the stuff that really matters, like family, health and fulfillment.

How has the inclusion of wearable technology in your own style influenced your thoughts on fashion’s role in the conversation around digitally detoxing?

At the end of the day, if we – as an industry – want our products to change people’s lives, and ultimately shift etiquette and culture, first of all we need to get people to use them. In the case of wearables this is even harder, we also need to convince people to wear them.
vinaya kate unsworth the style line wearable technology

In that respect, it goes without saying that the role of design in the world of wearable tech is absolutely fundamental. I don’t feel anyone has really nailed the aesthetics of wearable tech yet, but we hope we have with ALTRUIS. For us, product design happens side by side with tech development, creating real-time feedback loops at every step of the process. I think the tech industry needs to remember that style is individual. Having the same phone as everyone else is one thing, but nobody wants to wear exactly the same accessories as others. Fashion allows us to express ourselves and make a statement: we may be trying to convey something about ourselves or our mood to the outside world; we may be trying to channel a certain archetype that day; we may feel an emotional attachment to a certain piece of clothing, or we may wear other pieces to remind us of a person or intention we set. As tech designers, we shouldn’t be thinking purely about functionality and efficiency; style conscious consumers are looking for much more than that. That’s why it’s important to us that we offer a range of different ALTRUIS designs to cater to every user’s own style preferences. As such, our technology is specifically designed to facilitate collaborations with different designers (we provide the technology to insert into their own lines). 

What role do you think creativity plays in some of the world’s bigger conversations and how do you think fashion is contributing to this shift in thinking? 

“The Creative Mind” is a topic we like to explore in our Lab. At VINAYA we typically look to hire people who have both a creative and analytical mindset; Dan, Fabio and me – the founders of the business – are all classic creative/analytic combinations, although they are much more analytical than I am – despite my math degree, I’m still a creative at heart. Whilst there’s no way that technology, or indeed industrialism, would exist without analytical minds, I believe that creative ideas are what shift human behavior, and therefore have the potential to drastically impact society. Rory Sutherland is a great example of this – I’d call him a creative behavioral economist. Creative minds like Rory’s see the world differently. They are capable of making deductive leaps in reasoning and explore solutions that may initially seem impossible, but they’ll find a way to unravel the misalignment and find synergies and solutions amongst the chaos. Creative people do not rule out an idea because it’s impossible to execute, they allow that idea to evolve and expand until it morphs into something almost feasible. In complete contrast, a more analytical mind builds solutions like a house; the foundations first, then the ground floor building blocks, then, therefore – by deductive reasoning – the next layer of bricks can be laid. An analytical person thinks “A is true, and B is true, therefore we can deduce that C must be true” and a creative thinks “Ok so A is true, and B is true… but let’s see what happens if we flip B on its head, ignore half of it and pretend that D is true for a moment, what do we get?” This train of thought is unquestionably annoying for an extremely analytical mind! Analytical thinking will for sure build more robust, watertight solutions (thank goodness these are the people building our bridges and buildings!) but it takes a creative visionary to dare to dream of a solution so ridiculous that it might actually solve the ‘un-solvable’.
vinaya kate unsworth the style line wearable technology

Steve Jobs said that “creativity is just connecting things” – and that’s exactly it; creative people are able to make links, spots patterns and align different concepts in ways that non-creative, more analytical people cannot begin to fathom. There’s no denying that fashion, art, and culture add context and sentiment to some of the most important conversations of today, as well as giving us another method of communication. The fashion industry absolutely has the ability to make a difference if it so chooses; fashion brands have channels of communication and powers of persuasion most politicians or corporations can only dream of. And at the end of the day, designers are inventors, visionaries, and leaders of movements. And these are the people who can change the world. 

Talk to us about the lab – what is your involvement in this aspect of VINAYA and what ideas/questions do you hope to tackle in the coming months? 

Our VINAYA Lab explores the human condition, from the somewhat ordinary (“how do we form habits?”) to the absolute existential (“what does it mean to be human?”). I suppose it’s my job to align the work the Lab team are doing with the other elements of the business. I also help by pulling in expert advisors from my network, making up what we refer to as our ‘Brain Board’ of academics and professionals in fields such as neuroscience, psychology, and medicine. Aside from that, my task is to read books and talk to interesting people to keep my mind full of ideas, to step in and plant a seed of thought, and then to simply step back and allow our team of researchers to explore, test and create. I think my value add is that I challenge and sanity check the work the Lab team are doing, which forces them to make sure they understand everything fully; they’re much smarter than I am, so I make them explain everything to me in plain English – only the smartest people can make something so simple that a 10-year-old can understand! 

The Style Line was built on the premise of discovery, exploration, and transit. With this in mind, what is your “the style line” in your wardrobe?

I’m often inspired by architecture (as you can see from my Instagram feed). I tend to be drawn towards straight lines and interesting angles. The mathematician in me very much appreciates geometry – my brain naturally recognizes proportions and often frames buildings, patterns or designs in a way that accentuates balance (but not necessarily symmetry). I’m also definitely inspired by geographical location and culture. I’m a style chameleon – my wardrobe evolves depending on which city I’m in and what inspires me from that local culture; my style in Berlin, for example, is miles apart from my style in Venice California! As far as my wardrobe, I’m a big fan of accessories, textures, and layering. I usually opt for items of clothing that can be worn in different ways to suit different occasions, for example, I feel stylish and comfortable in my ADAY wardrobe, whether I’m on a 9-hour flight, taking meetings with investors or going on a date. For me, every day is different and totally unpredictable, and I don’t want to have to think about whether my clothes are going to be able to keep up with my pace of life.
vinaya kate unsworth the style line wearable technology

Chaeyoung Jenny Lee, Product Designer

I’m Chaeyoung a.k.a. Jenny,

a South Korean national who has resided in the United Kingdom for the past 13 years, since September 2003. Being a third culture kid with a mixed cultural identity, I love traveling and meeting people from different backgrounds. I have learned to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances and adjust very quickly. I get inspiration from talking to people and I appreciate the diversity and individuality of everyone I come across. It’s also a great way to flourish my creative mind and boost motivation.

As a designer in the tech space, do you feel you more aligned with the “creative” or “tech” side of your work and how has VINAYA taught you to appreciate both?

I believe that I have an equal balance of the creative and tech side to my work at VINAYA, which I love the most about my job. Not only have I gained hands-on learning experience in highly specialized product design techniques, I have been able to get involved in the entire process including manufacturing and the technical side of production working closely with the tech team. The experience I have gained at VINAYA has been invaluable and truly beyond my expectation.

Based on your work with VINAYA so far, have you discovered any unexpected sources of creative inspiration?

Working at VINAYA house in a creative environment with such talented colleagues is always inspiring. Since I started working with VINAYA, I have also started to learn to prioritize the things that actually matter; finding ways to live a happier and healthier life. I also read a lot more articles than I used to before to keep myself updated and informed.

How has working with wearable tech taught you to celebrate personal style?

Growing up in the UK has really influenced my style. In a city as smartly dressed as London, you are always surrounded by well-dressed people. I have naturally become more interested in fashion and developed a smart-casual style; simple but still stylish. Our unique designer jewelry is one of the best in the wearable market, especially when it comes to design and the variety of options you have. ALTRUIS has become one of my style staples and it’s a real conversation starter.

How would you advise the next generation of makers, creative/fashion professionals or people, in general, to leave an imprint in the world by doing something they love? 

Make things happen. Actions speak louder than words. Your actions show what your heart is made of. Do what you love and what you are passionate about that you want to be remembered for. People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel. Every little thing can have an impact on someone’s life, even if it’s something small that makes someone smile for a second.

vinaya kate unsworth the style line wearable technology

Fabio Pania, Co-Founder, and CTO

I was born in a beautiful small town

in Sicily (Italy) and after a few stops around Europe I ended up in London, where I have been living for the past 6 years. I love London, it never ends to surprises me, there is continuous discovery. Outside of work I may be found enjoying a classical music concert as well as in a theater or in a pub listening to live music, relaxing at home with a glass of wine and my turntable going or eating in a restaurant. I could most definitely not live without good food, good wine and coffee (espresso, mind you!). Playing my guitars relaxes me and lately, I have been totally hooked up on ukulele, such a happy instrument! Traveling and seeing new things inspires me but what I am really addicted to is learning and improving myself. Any day that teaches me something is a good day to me, no matter how hard that may be. I really value real things and real people and I can’t stand mediocrity, superficiality, unfairness and mean people.

Talk to us about your relationship to fashion. What was your thought process going into launching ALTRUIS and now that it’s available would you say your mindset/affinity for fashion has changed?

I suppose being Italian and growing up in Italy strongly influenced me throughout my life in my approach to fashion, design, art, and beauty. What we wear and what objects we like to have around us are shaping ourselves in return and we can surely not ignore that. This awareness was always very vivid in me when creating ALTRUIS since the first ideas and prototypes. Since day 1 of Vinaya, it was very clear to us that we wanted to fuse together the beautiful and the useful and create real value to our customers. Launching ALTRUIS, meeting super interesting people, participating in great events and being part of the scene gave me the opportunity of looking with a closer eye to fashion and definitely gave me more perspective. Now that ALTRUIS is out there and being used by people we feel that we have achieved a lot. We have been among the first to create designer smart jewelry and build truly useful and beautiful wearables. We have been influencing both the technology and the fashion scene but most of all we like to think that we have made a difference in people’s lives. That is making us all very proud. But that is not it, there is a lot more to come!

What questions do we need to asking more often? 

You should probably be asking me about the future… but I would probably tell you that I won’t go too much into details to avoid spoiling it! Haha! We have been doing lots of research and working on current and future products. We are constantly working on new features for our ALTRUIS (released with simple and frequent SW upgrades) and we are in the making of new exciting products that we can’t wait to tell the world about!

vinaya kate unsworth the style line wearable technology

In developing VINAYA’s three core pillars (minimalism, sustainability, and innovation) what did you discover about your own relationship to technology/digital habits and how have the products contributed to your well-being?

I love technology, I made it my work and I live, like many, surrounded by it. I am fascinated by what we humans have been able to achieve and how we have used our intellect to enhance our lives. Technology is an incredibly powerful tool and we need to use it wisely. We should never forget to respect ourselves, others and the world around us. I co-founded VINAYA because I believe in a world where technology can truly improve our well-being. A world where technology simply takes care of itself and doesn’t demand too much of our attention and makes us better.

We built ALTRUIS to help us to keep the right balance between our digital and physical life, be more present in the moment and remind us about the important things in life. I have always had a close relationship with technology, both as a user and as a technologist, and I am always trying to put all my learning to practice when building our products.

What role do you think creativity plays in some of the world’s bigger conversations and how do you think fashion is contributing to this shift in thinking? 

Fashion, like music and art, is a high expression of our uniqueness as human beings. Creativity is a universal language that has the power to unify and inspire people, nations. I think people around the world have been more and more realizing how powerful creativity can be and we have seen how art, music, sports, and fashion have been able to deliver messages that conventional channels have not been able to. Messages of peace, protest, love, and equality.

Diogo Coutinho – Product Innovation Director

I’m a laid back guy –

from Rio de Janeiro, that decided to live in Europe and devote my career to product management. I enjoy sports, movies and exploring the world. I value real relationships (my marriage, my family) and always strive for more learning and self-improvement.

In terms of “product innovation” walk us through your day-to-day at VINAYA. What excites you the most: building new products or refining already made ones to make them better?

The cool thing to say would be “building new products”, but I find delightful to challenge existing frameworks where previous products were built and reimagine them in order to reach new heights. That also takes a lot of innovative thinking – more than it’s recognized in an industry that’s constantly pumping out new products just for the sake of it. At VINAYA we like to run lean startup processes for concepts, design, and development. After all, a startup journey is one of constant learning and readjusting course.

vinaya kate unsworth the style line wearable technology

We noticed that ALTRUIS focuses mostly on designer jewelry – do you have plans to expand into other categories?

Our origins and expertise certainly put us on this segment of smart designer jewelry, and we’ve attracted a lot of attention and great reviews from consumers. However, we’ve been realizing that our purpose was always to make products that are beautiful and that blend with people’s outfits and daily routines. In a way, we always wanted to hide tech from consumers lives. There are many ways to do that: jewelry being just one of them.

Speaking more to the above, how does VINAYA plan on engaging with both men and women and would you say there is a difference in their tech habits that need to be addressed individually? 

We’ve started focusing 100% on women given the jewelry collection, but are certainly looking to address designs that appeal for men as well. There are still some differences in the way men normally perceive tech and functionality over and above form and looks. Also, women’s perception of general wellness is a lot more emotional and less quantifiable, normally leaning a lot on social relationships for support. So we’re trying to look at it from a human behavior aspect first, before getting down to the tech specs we need to add to our products.

How do you think ALTRUIS encourages individual self-expression that technology might otherwise be hindering?

ALTRUIS has the purpose of helping people finding a balance between important notifications and pure distractions. It helps people regaining control of their lives and in this sense remember how it’s like to interact with others more or have internal moments of silence. In these days of technology omnipresence, we’re happy to see people using ALTRUIS  as a tool to reduce cognitive load, look up and enjoy life to the maximum.

Lisa Roolant- Communications Manager

I’m someone who’s 

happiest when I’m sharing ideas with like-minded people, going new places, and keeping my mind and body active, whether in a yoga class or dancing the night away. I was born and raised in Thailand to Belgian parents, so I’m a bit of a global citizen by birth. I think my international upbringing has had a profound effect on the way I view the world, and probably why I often challenge people to see a different perspective. Plus, it’s made me pretty open to meeting new people – put me in a room full of people and I’ll make friends.

vinaya kate unsworth the style line wearable technology

How would you characterize the VINAYA community and how do you hope to see it evolve?

As a team, we’re a down to earth, super smart and diverse bunch. We bring together ideas from a range of backgrounds, which means we often get into heated debates and are constantly learning from one another. I’d say the same goes for our greater community. Having endless opportunities to bring together diverse and driven people who somehow operate on the same wavelength is so quintessentially London. We’ve started opening up our doors to our community through hosting talks and events in our office’s ‘living room’, which is something I’m excited to do more of. I’m also excited to share more of our Lab’s research insights and content. We have big plans to grow VINAYA into more than just a product company – watch this space! 

VINAYA’s team itself is incredibly diverse – has there been anything in particular that you’ve personally learned from your colleagues that you might not have, had you not joined the team?

I’ve learned so much from my colleagues! The many moving parts and different talent that this team brings together is what attracted me to this job in the first place. Having the opportunity to work alongside engineers, product designers, developers, researchers, and creatives in such an open work environment means we can all bring something different to the table. It also means you have to learn to see things through different lenses. Plus, the fact that I am able to work in a company of 35 with over 28 different nationalities is something every international kid like me can only hope for!

Based on your experiences in this role so far, how do you think digitally detoxing makes us more creative?

I’ve learned that taking time away from your screen and not filling every spare moment up with distraction is necessary to allow our creative juices to flow and for our brains to reach a higher level of understanding. Rather than saying technology is bad (we are a company creating technology products, after all), our message has more to do with the human behavior behind it. The sheer rate at which technology has been adopted into society is bypassing our ability to develop the necessary social norms and habits. Through our research, we’ve found this means that most people’s compulsive technology habits makes them more stressed, less productive, less creative and less empathetic. It is a cross-generational problem, particularly clear when looking toward younger generations who don’t know life without the internet.
At VINAYA, we try to spread the message about finding some kind of balance and being more intentional about the way we  adopt technology into our lives. There’s no doubt that we are quickly moving toward a world where technology is ubiquitous. This is why we’re passionate about creating tools that make that user experience more human-focused and invisible, so that we don’t forget how to be the social and creative beings we are by nature.