An initial glance at Rachael Bell's résumé might make it tough to understand how she ended up at Microsoft. Bell grew up in Manchester, England, and at 15, talked her way into an internship at a small design shop in London. Afterward, she attended the London College of Fashion, where she fell in love with studying different fabrics. She has no knowledge of hardware or programming. Instead of dealing with wires or number-crunching, Bell honed her skills in tailoring, becoming a textiles expert at fashion companies like Giles Deacon and Paul Smith, where she cut patterns, sewed, and did model fittings. But the head of materials design at Finnish company Nokia saw her potential in a different industry: tech. "I was like, 'Why does a computer electronics company want to interview a fashion designer?'" Bell says of getting the call from Nokia. In her previous work in fashion, she says that she didn't have a laptop, or even an email address. Nokia flew her to Helsinki, but she still didn't know what the job was at that point. In fact, Bell, now 30, would become one of the first people to start fusing style into the world of consumer technology. Bell was instrumental in introducing Nokia's signature bright colors to its phones, rather than sticking to silver and black, the tech industry's staple colors. She brought a stylish, tailored approach to its metal phones and tablets, objects that, up to that point, were mostly valued for function rather than form. The switch proved challenging, but exciting. "It opened up a whole new area of consumer electronics that I didn't even know existed," Bell says. Products at the intersection of fashion and tech have increased exponentially since then, creating a new category of previously nonexistent jobs. You don't have to know how to code to break big. "Whatever your talent or area of expertise, it can probably be relevant in the tech industry," Bell says. Big companies, such as Microsoft, need and want people in a wide variety of diverse disciplines. The intersection of the two fields is most apparent in the wearables world (with lines such as Tory Burch x Fitbit and Opening Ceremony x Intel), and on the runway (Zac Posen x Google). While it may be harder to view an iPhone or a laptop as something stylish, even Apple and Samsung have started taking cues from the fashion world when it comes to product color offerings (we're looking at you, rose gold). Now the lead textiles and materials designer at Microsoft (which took over Nokia Devices and Services in 2014), Bell has returned to her fabric roots, crafting beautiful but practical cases and covers.
"Fabrics are a huge enabler," Bell says. "They make [interacting with tech] a softer experience and help you get away from hard, cold computers." One of her latest projects was to find a fashion-forward but functional material for a keyboard cover for the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. Bell spent months traveling the world scouring textile trade shows and fabric suppliers in Japan, Korea, Europe, and elsewhere for the perfect fit. She eventually settled on Alcantara, a popular Italian fabric that wears better with age, and looks like a stylish clutch when it's wrapped around a tablet. "I love that I’m able to utilize my background in fashion and design to see where it’s going within this compass of technology," Bell says. "Fabrics have such a huge history, and the only way we’re going to innovate is by bridging the gap [between textiles and technology]."
Today, 50% of Bell's year is spent traveling the world to source new and interesting fabrics. The other half of the year is spent in a model shop, working hands-on with the materials that she's brought back from her travels, and building tech product prototypes. While some might find spending that much time abroad exhausting, Bell considers herself lucky. Interacting with so many different cultures for lengthy periods offers her the opportunity to see new fashion trends emerge, and to envision how they'll intersect with the tech world before those trends even hit the runway. The increasingly blurred boundaries between tech and everyday life are making it easier for people like Bell to break into the industry. Her key advice? Figure out what you're passionate about and find a way to apply it to the field that interests you most. "[That way], it never feels like you have to work a day in your life," she says.