Brooke Roberts is an award-winning digital knitwear designer and a self-confessed ‘fashion and technology geek’. She writes for Huffington Post Style and was recently voted onto the h.Club 100 list of the most influential and innovative creatives in the UK.
Earlier this month, Brooke appeared on a Workspace Business Insight Dinner panel alongside Paul Gregory from Dyson, Dan Bladen from Chargifi, Ben Griffin from Innovate UK, and Ben Sheppard from Mckinsey & Company.
You were a radiographer for ten years. How did you make the transition to fashion and entrepreneurship?
It’s not so much a transition as a symbiosis. Studying science and working in medical imaging before studying fashion has allowed me a different perspective on fashion and materials.
As a knitwear designer now developing smart and technical textiles in addition to designing and making more traditional fashion knitwear, I have a broader remit and a huge appetite for experimentation and innovation.
That is what has led me down a more entrepreneurial route, as opposed to a traditional fashion route.
Can you tell us about Brooke Roberts?
My company Brooke Roberts launched in 2009 with my concept of using CT and MRI brain and sinus scan as the basis for digital knitwear designs.
I created collections for London and Paris fashion week under my own brand whilst also consulting for other companies, including LVMH, on knitwear design.
A couple of years ago I began exploring medical and other technical textiles and then pivoted my company to become an innovation agency that creates fashion tech and smart textiles products and projects.
One example is the launch of London Technology Week for which the Mayor of London’ office commissioned me to curate a fashion tech installation encapsulating the most exciting developments in this sector.
Other projects have included the re-imagination of the traditional Christmas jumper for Bombay Sapphire’s Christmas campaign and early-stage luxury smart textiles for the fashion industry.
Upcoming projects include robotic textile development with a leading London university and a robot/dance/projection mapping installation for the V&A museum.
How have you managed to foster innovation in your company?
We do this by the very nature of our business. We cannot not innovate. We are hired to make new materials, to present new works and to fuse disciplines, for example integrate electronics into textiles.
Therefore, innovation is inherent in our approach and we typically work with engineers, textile designers, materials scientists, chemists, roboticists and graphic designers/animators; so we are a diverse team, which, in itself, fosters innovation.
You have spoken about the need for different experts from different fields to promote innovation. How do you choose the experts and ensure everyone collaborates?
We have a very large network and spend a great deal of time understanding what other specialists do and their core talents.
We have open discussions with our potential collaborators/freelancers so that everyone is clear on the brief and buys into the project on every level – from the creative right through to the financial. That way we choose each other, really.
Our work is inherently collaborative, so we tend to be approached/approach experts who do collaborative work.
How do you encourage the use of sustainable materials?
Part of our remit following our recent pivot is to develop sustainable materials and textile solutions for a number of sectors – not just fashion.
We have done this by collaborating with materials scientists, chemists and rapid prototyping specialist who are helping us to reimagine textile compositions.
We have identified a need for sustainable materials due to severe environmental damage done by current materials and the fashion industry’s recognition that sustainable substitute are required.
You have spoken about the need for more localised manufacturing. Can you talk more about this and how you do it at Brooke Roberts?
This is an important evolution for manufacturing that allows the creation of products suitable for local markets instead of mass production distributed to various markets from the Far East, for example.
Technology, such as digital knitting, allows manufacturing with reduced manual labour and can therefore be done in any location without requiring a local skilled workforce.
This has a positive environmental impact and allows better, more relevant design to suit the particular customer base geographically. We use technology in this way at Brooke Roberts and we also use rapid prototyping facilities to develop prototypes and samples locally. Advances in these technologies mean that quality is now very high, as is speed, so manufacturing volume is possible on machines that were once only suitable for prototyping and sampling.
Can you talk a bit more about the importance of encouraging women into entrepreneurship and innovation and how you do it?
The importance is clear and obvious. We make up half of the population but effect far disproportionately lower degrees of influence on design and business. There’s an - at times - unconscious bias men have in design and business that I have seen result in deeply masculine cultures and products. This doesn’t make good business sense.
In terms of encouraging women into these fields I would say it is important to remember that entrepreneurship requires a vast array of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills and using both as appropriate aides success.
I would also say that innovation and building a business is in many respects a marathon, not a sprint, so a focused approach over time can alleviate pressures that may make you feel you want to quit because progress isn’t as fast as you hoped, or is not at all linear.
The ‘Bigger, faster, stronger’ approach that is sometimes described as ‘alpha’ is a real turn-off in some business scenarios, so if you can harness your special talent/skill/insight and remember that the road ahead is likely to take you down all sorts of side roads on the way to where you want to go (pivoting your business is an example of this), then entrepreneurship and innovation can be extremely rewarding.
Workspace Business Insight Dinners are organised in collaboration with Knowledge Peers. They are designed to be an interesting mix of ‘live’ case studies of senior directors from New and Growing Companies (NGCs) who have encountered a relevant challenge, together with Q&A with industry experts. Directors, founders and other senior leaders from customers across Workspace’s portfolio are invited to attend this complimentary event.
For those that cannot attend, we stream the panel discussion via a Facebook Live broadcast. Stay tuned to our Facebook page for more information.
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