The witch who’s invented make-up that changes colour with the environment

With her first magical make-up collection launching today, we sat down with Lauren Bowker to talk all things alchemy

A lot of what British alchemist and occultist Lauren Bowker does has been described as witchcraft. There was the mystical skullcap she created with gemstones that changed colour in response to brain activity; the magical jacket that shifts from yellow to black, according to pollution levels; the t-shirt that senses climate change; the silk scarves that, when draped around the body form intricate patterns of colour in response to motion; a leather handbag that changes hue with the wind. But of course it isn’t actually witchcraft, we just call it that because we can’t understand it. What’s she really doing is science, and when explained it is actually quite easy to understand. “The simplest thing to do is to tell someone a story and to let them buy into the story,” Lauren says. “But it is a story that is backed up by real science, so yes it is magic, but actually what we do is real.”

Lauren’s own story is just as captivating. Born in Reed – incidentally, very close to Pendle Hill where women were hung in 1612 after being accused of murdering people with witchcraft – Lauren was always casting spells as a kid. “I used to mix bath lotions, and when my brother had a sore leg I would make him potions without ever really thinking about it.”

Initially, Lauren wanted to pursue a career in fashion. But while studying textiles at Manchester Met she suddenly fell ill. After a year of lying in a hospital bed, she decided she wanted to create something with more meaning – not just garments to clothe the body, but rather garments that, when worn, might tell you something about the body they’re clothing: a shirt that changes colour as a warning if you’re getting ill, or an indication of how your spine or your muscles are performing. So she decided to take up chemistry as well.

In 2014, Lauren set up The Unseen, a material exploration house that aims to bring to life the hidden worlds around us. More recently she’s set her sights on beauty. Following on from this year's Fire, a collection of hair dye that changes colour as the temperature drops and rises, Lauren is now launching a range of beauty products that once again blur the boundary of science and witchcraft.

Inspired by the ancient use of make-up for both medicinal and aesthetic purposes, Lauren has created Hathor, a range of colourants and concoctions that react to the environment. Using “alive” pigments, the Atmos Spheres collection shift colour, looking like the wings of a moth when applied to the skin, and reacting to the gentle touch of a cool breeze, a warm fire, or the passing seasons. They can be used on the eyes, cheeks, lips, or skin, and can be worn on their own or blended together. Then there are the Soul Shades, which change hue to adapt to the temperature of your skin, blushing with you and responding with your skin’s natural fluctuation. Finally the Helio Veil, which, when sprayed onto skin, forms invisible freckles that change colour in sunlight, providing a natural sun-kissed look. Launching today, we sat down with Lauren to all things alchemy.

First the hair dyes and now make-up, where has this sudden interest in beauty come from? Or have you always been that way inclined?
Lauren Bowker: If you asked me I would say 'no' if you asked my mum she would say 'absolutely'. I’ve always played with make-up. But the more I think about it, beauty is science and marketing.

Tell me about the new collection.
Lauren Bowker: The first thing that came to my mind was protecting the skin. I am usually super pale, no freckles, nothing, but as I’ve started training outdoors more, building up my fitness, I started getting freckles and I was like, ‘Oh it’s actually quite nice.’ It feels like people are coming back to this natural look, but still wanting to look beautiful. Like plastic surgery, they are all having their lips done, trying to look beautiful but still natural. So I was like, ‘How can we create something that can give you that sun-kissed look and maybe could protect your skin, too?’

There’s obviously a strong visual appeal attached to something transforming or materialising in front of your eyes, but is there an emotional appeal for you, too?
Lauren Bowker: I think deep down, for me, what I do, alchemy, is about understanding the world or myself. It sounds so wanky. I have a disease and I am in a lot of pain much of the time, when I was younger I couldn’t communicate that. For me, the easiest way to interpret something that I couldn't put language to was to draw it or to express it in colour in some way. I was always like, ‘Why am I drawing this? Why can’t my jacket do that for me? Why can’t it sense my pain level and change its colour to let me know?’ So that’s what I kind of based my original research around. How do we use colour to give language to complex things?

How does that relate to the make-up collection?
Lauren Bowker: The important part about the collection is less about the blushers that change with the environment and more about being able to create a beautiful sun-kissed look that isn’t damaging for your skin. Because it is a bit archaic that we are still using sunbeds and the sun to give us a healthy look when now we can use science to create good products for the environment and good products for the skin. I would love for people to use the make-up to express themselves in ways that they haven't been able to do before, and it will be fun to see what they do with it. Also, I will feel good about myself being able to make an impact in terms of skin wellness and encouraging people not to go and use sunbeds. Everyone needs vitamin D, but there is a limit.

You cultivate an air of mystery and magic in your work, and with the Unseen, the logo, the site, the product titles, have you always been interested in the occult? How do you reconcile it with your interest in science?
Lauren Bower: I’ve always been interested in the unknown. The reason I called it The Unseen, was because one day I stood back and looked at some sketchbooks that I had been keeping for years and they were full of things like UFOs, ghosts, diseases, cells, infrastructures of buildings, auras. I am really interested in stuff that I don't understand or that I have never seen. I am interested in the unseen. I was reading an Aleister Crowley book called Magick, which is all about using science and art to discover more about nature. And I was like, ‘That is exactly what I do. Maybe I am an alchemist.’ But I never gave myself that title, one of my tutors did, because I had bottles of things everywhere and I am always having things fester. I don’t like the word occult, I don't feel like I am an occultist. I love nature, I am not a naturist. I don't go dancing around naked in the forest! It feels like when I read this book I instantly felt part of something, whereas before I had just been doing it on my own, I never really had a group. I like art and I like science and I like discovering and using that to understand the world and myself.

So what’s next?
Lauren Bowker: Next year will be very focused on beauty. But at the same time we don't just have beauty projects running, we have lots of other projects running, from sportswear projects to consultancies in art pieces. But I am desperate to move on to new stuff. I have got other things like texture change and things that change their shape or magnetic structure because of influences so I am dying to move onto that. But we will build a beauty brand and that will be a big chunk of the next year, or two years. We would be stupid not to take it on because people want it, right? I want it to be really experiential, really about luxury, but I want it to be affordable. I want everyone to be able to use it. But imagine if I built a whole beauty brand off four products… how cool would that be, you would just need those four products. You know in Death Becomes Her when she takes the potion… like that, I want just want to change everything from how people experience beauty, to how they see beauty, to how they respond to it. But I have got to start where they understand and then start doing some of the crazier stuff. Imagine if you had a texture change product that you put on your skin and it changes and makes your face a whole different face… how cool would that be!?