TECHCITYINSIDER100: Benjamin Males, co-founder and chief technology officer of wearable tech business Studio XO, is fusing the grey area between science and art with a raft of innovative garments. He tells Andrew Dickens why his company is more than just about designing garments for Lady Gaga.
There’s a lot of buzz around the wearable technology industry these days and it’s easy to see why.
By 2016, according to a very optimistic Benjamin Males, the booming sector is said to be worth anything up to US$60bn.
At Studio XO, the company he co-founded in 2011, Males is the chief technology officer at one of the companies spearheading the growth of wearable tech.
Studio XO has cloaked some of the world’s most illustrious performing artists with an array of dazzling products, including flashing LED trainers for boy band JLS and a flying dress called ‘Volantis’ for the always extravagantly dressed Lady Gaga.
Yet it was a one-off commission from US hip hop artists The lack Eyed Peas three years ago that set the wheels in motion, helping Males establish the Islington firm alongside chief creative officer Nancy Tilbury, a former Philips Design fashion director.
“We got approached by The Black Eyed Peas and were asked to do some stage costumes for their tour in France, after they originally came through Philips and Nancy, who said she needed somebody to work on the technology side,” says Males, a graduate of both Imperial College, London, and the Royal College of Art (RCA).
“While we didn’t build a suit for will.i.am, the whole theme for the tour was robotics technology so we ended up building three pieces, including a tracksuit for Fergie made up of LED lights. It was the first time that costumes like this were controllable from the stage and wired and controlled from the lighting desks.
“So we were standing on the side of the stage in France and looking to the audience to see they made of it. Suddenly 80,000 people had their phones in the air recording the set. It may sound like something out of a novel, but Nancy and I both looked at each other and thought ‘this is something that could really work.’”
After experimenting with their tech on what must have been one of the best stages available, and “learning the rules as they went along,” the duo returned to London to discover they’d made a name for themselves.
“We had other artists come to us wanting similar types of products for their tours,” Males adds. “Maybe it was a jacket or pair of sneakers, something to help them stand out.
“The music industry at the time was also still reeling from the digitisation of music and artists were wanting to make money out of touring and finding ways to enhance that experience.”
Alongside a growth in demand, Males and Tilbury had to concentrate on bolstering their team, now made up of hybrid engineers and designers – many of whom are recruited from the duo’s old stomping ground, the RCA.
Primarily working out of their bedrooms, the pair bankrolled the firm themselves for an undisclosed amount and moved into a reconditioned warehouse on the premise that they would grow the business quickly.
“All of the profit we have made through the projects, we have put back into developing the team and the technology,” adds Males. “When we started, there was no one really interested in looking at the hybrid space between technology and art, so we quite often get people approach us, which was great.”
Males explains that Studio XO’s business model is threefold, with all of the components connected.
XOB is a ready-to-wear fashion and technology brand for the industry consumer while XOX is billed as an emotional technology platform, developing products such as the XOX Sensory Wristband – an ergonomic strap that reads a number of wearable biometric sensors.
Then there’s XOC, a strand that mainly deals with one-off projects such as the studio’s work with song artists. “We believe all three are synergetic to bringing fashion technology to the mainstream. You need to have the commercial product which we believe is the wristband.”
But looking ahead, the firm is hoping to push the XOB side, and it’s already scheduling products to go on market next year. “A lot of people know us as the firm that worked with Lady Gaga and the big one-off pieces,” he adds. “After speaking to a lot of investors their view has been ‘yeah, how do you move from being a consultancy to a business.’
“XOB is the consequence of our work over the last three years from the one-off stuff but we want to grow in what still isn’t a proved market.
“Starting a fashion brand is difficult enough, but starting a fashion technology firm in a market which isn’t really established is quite difficult. The biggest challenge is to steer the fashion technology away from the novelty and get it to be seen as a serious tender for fashion.”
Pricing for the Studio XO products varies considerably, with the XOC arm ranging with various budgets, claims Males.
But for the time being, he admits XOB is going to be an expensive proposition for consumers. However, that’s something he wants to change down the line.
“For XOB, you’re currently looking at the premium end of the market; the kind of things you find in Harrods,” he says. “So a pair of sneakers may cost you £600, for instance. But we’re really interested in getting past that point and looking how we can get into mass production and reduce the cost.”
Moreover, Males says it’s inevitable that Studio XO will have to grow and find investment from either the UK or stateside. “We are trying to work out whether we are looking for seed funding or Series A,” adds Males, without disclosing the sought after amount.
“It will most likely be seed and when it does happen it will move quickly. We’re probably more likely to look to the States as investors there are more willing to take risks in our sector. But nothing is being ruled out.”
In the meantime, the competition is heating up. In episode two of the latest season of BBC series The Apprentice, contestants were asked to design items of wearable tech and pitch their products to retailers.
So, with wearable technology is clearly high up on the agenda, and with items like Google Glass high on people’s shopping lists, is Males feeling the heat from his competitors? “There are very few companies doing stage costumes and things like this and we differentiate ourselves from the competition because we’ve got our foot in that world,” he says.
“We can set trends and expectations for technology and for the kinds of products that we then make available to the mainstream. It’s quite difficult to have that, that’s why we’ve split our company into those divisions.”
Give it a few years’ time, then, and Studio XO’s area of expertise may not be such a grey area after all.
Benjamin Males – CV
Co-founder, Studio XO
Co-founder, technology director/head of development, XOVIA Ltd
Director, A Critical Mass
Lecturer and tutor in engineer and electronics, design producers, Royal College of Art.
MA (RCA), design products, Royal College of Art
MEng, mechanical engineering, Imperial College London.