Leslie Muller, VP of Design at Marchon, talks to Women 2.0 about her art-centric background, wearable tech and the two innovation labs she helped to launch.
By Jasmine France (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)
Wearable technology is arguably one of the hottest topics in the Silicon Valley and beyond right now, and the battle of the form factor is in full swing. Among them is Google Glass, which has garnered a fair amount of criticism for its unhip design. But plenty of people are looking to change that.
One of those is Leslie Muller, VP of Design at Marchon Eyewear. Leslie works behind the scenes, partnering with top brands to understand what women want in the merging of technology in fashion. To help answer this question, she co-created an innovation lab called The Shop, which has outposts on both coasts.
I sat down with Leslie to talk about The Shop and the DVF Made for Glass project, in which Diane von Furstenberg became the first designer to offer a limited-edition collection of frames designed exclusively for Glass.
Women 2.0: Tell us about yourself. What’s your background?
Leslie Muller: I’m going to rewind the tape going back. I grew up with graphic designer parents, so we really lived in a lab of a house. My mom built a lot of our furniture, and we were allowed to draw on the walls and rollerskate in the house. I ended up going to school for fine arts in my undergrad, but it didn’t take me long to realize that there weren’t many jobs for painters. I wound up getting a job in the East Village running a gallery that was a part of the first maker movement in NY in the late eighties and early nineties.
The gallery was full of functional art – tables, chairs and lamps – made by artists and designers, and I was helping designers evolve their designs. This inspired me to get my graduate degree in industrial design. I was interested in both fashion and science, and I ended up in the eyewear industry with my first corporate job at Bausch and Lomb, where Ivy Ross was one of my mentors.
Fast-forward to now and she’s the “Fearless Leader of Glass” at Google.
Women 2.0: What piqued your interest in wearable technology?
Leslie Muller: Well, I’ve been wearing wearable technology since I was 14, meaning I wear glasses. Eyewear has been one of the most successful pieces of technology going back, I don’t know 700 years. Now, it’s on track to be doing many other things besides vision correction.
Two years ago, wearable tech became this movement, and it’s right in line with Marchon and the brands we have. It’s no longer just eyewear; it’s becoming a platform.
Women 2.0: What gave you the idea to create your innovation lab, and how did you go about making that idea a reality?
Leslie Muller: We started the innovation lab to help answer the questions of the movement from eyewear to platform. There are actually a couple of stories that all intersected at a distinct moment in time.
One was that we now have quite a large design studio in the United States and had invited the president of VSP Vision Care here two years ago. Marchon, like VSP Vision Care, is part of the VSP Global, which touches all aspects of the eyewear and eye care industries. He walked in and looked at what we were doing and a lightbulb went off. He said, “You are running an innovation lab.” He bridged the gap between design and technology.
At the same time, I was questioning the future of eyewear technology. I was also feeling frustrated that in eyewear there are these prescribed ways you make frames. After ten years of following the rules, I thought it’s time to break some!
Women 2.0: What goes on in the innovation lab?
Leslie Muller: We actually have two innovation labs, and each one is called The Shop. There’s one on the west coast in Sacramento, led by my counterpart, Jay Sales. And then one here in NYC.
The West Coast Shop is focusing on the bits: developing technology, writing code, building apps and programming. The East Coast is working on the tangible: industrial design, fashion, materials, textures and colors. To have a lab in each space is pretty amazing, as it lets us bring it together as opposed to trying to make it happen in one location. We’re now colliding and learning from each other in exactly the space where wearables are going. We collaborate remotely or in the same space, building on both skill sets.
Women 2.0: Tell us about the DVF Made for Glass Project.
Leslie Muller: Marchon has been a partner with Diane Von Furstenberg since 2009, so we’ve been designing and making her eyewear for five years now. In the fall of 2012, I was at her fashion show, since we had designed and produced her runway sunglasses. While I was in the show, models came out with our frames. And then one came out with Google Glass and I almost fell out of my chair. It was that lightning moment: that space on your face is forever going to change.
On the other side, VSP Vision Care has been Google’s eye insurance provider since they opened their doors. The Shop as a concept was just starting and we were already looking into the wearables space, so it was the perfect storm. From there, we started a wonderful working relationship with the Google X team and DVF: We were able to share our expertise in eyewear; Google was able to share its technological resources; and Diane brought her fearless vision as a designer. It was the first moment in time that all three portions were coming together.
It was a pretty amazing moment. We became the first designer collaboration for Glass that brings tech, fashion and optics together. And it’s a unique design for women and designed by women.
Women 2.0: What are some of the challenges in creating fashion wearables?
Leslie Muller: I believe that we are really in the very early years of exploring tech and wearables, and the merging of the two. I always joke about the parallel of the first cell phones, which were the sizes of bricks and only the really rich used them. Now, it’s a computer in the palm of your hand, and if I lose it, I’m going to freak out.
The same process is happening now with wearables. Marchon has been an expert in the eyewear space all along. Now, the challenge is merging the utility that technology can offer with the fashion portion of eyewear. One can’t eclipse the other. Eyewear is a class one medical device: ergonomics, engineering and tooling are all critical. But it’s also an expression of who you are, because it changes how you look.
Additionally, eyewear is the only piece of tech that touches very close to all five senses on your body. And the insurance portion could be tapping into that data, shifting from health insurance to health assurance.
Women 2.0: What are your predictions for the future of wearable technologies?
Leslie Muller: What I see is that we’re going to be reframing the meaning of a frame. And that in the future, what we’re doing through The Shop is looking at new ways that this eyewear will function.
We have a lot of different relationships, one of them being MIT. We’ve partnered with them to explore some of these different avenues. Through your eyewear – since it’s so close to all of your senses – it could be monitoring your health and helping to prevent something from happening before it does happen. It’s already an acceptable piece of hardware and people like it.
I predict in the future when I’m old and my grandkids find my eyewear from 2014, they’ll laugh and be in disbelief that all it did was correct my vision. What we’ve done with DVF, it’s just the beginning. We’re really just at the tip of the iceberg.