Spotlight on: Creative

Our latest Spotlight piece focuses on one of the newest additions to the Creative team. Emily Shahaj (Art Director) has such a diverse and specific skillset and experience that it’s hard not to be impressed by her. Softly spoken and eloquent, her humble nature belies her tenacity and passion. Along the way, she tells us about launching a million-dollar digital fashion company while leading backpacking trips across the Alaskan wilderness. And how she’s ready to bring a whole new dimension to our brand experiences.

Emily, can you tell us a bit about your background?

I was born in New Jersey and spent a lot of my life in Missouri. I did an undergrad in Communications Design at Syracuse University in New York before moving to Colorado. During my four years there, I worked with two advertising agencies, one focused on branding and the other on shopper marketing.

What happened after four years?

I decided to quit the industry! Just kidding, I was looking for an excuse to come to Europe, so I applied for a Masters in the UK. I was accepted onto the Printed Textiles MA course at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA). Initially, I thought I’d go down the route of pattern design for branding and packaging, but that’s not what happened!

It’s worth mentioning that fashion has always been a hobby of mine, and while in Colorado, a colleague and I entered the world’s largest paper fashion show, where outfit designs had to be made 90% out of paper. We ended up winning the show, so it was something I felt I should explore more.  

Tell us more - what happened?

I have to go back a bit more to explain this. I’ve always been interested in digital creation, so I taught myself how to code at a young age so I could design webpages. I think I created my first website when I was nine.  

While at college in Syracuse, I worked at an Apple store and got even more invested in how computers work. I studied programming for interactive digital art installations, which led to a fascination with how we express ourselves virtually compared to physically.

Can you explain what the difference is in how we express ourselves from your point of view?

Sure, it became clear to me that we portray ourselves differently online, either on our social, gaming avatars or even on WhatsApp, compared to how we dress and express ourselves in the physical world. ‘The medium is the message,’ as it goes.

While doing my Masters, I started working with the games and animation departments at the university and playing around with virtual fashions. It proved so successful that the university launched a new Masters course in Virtual Fashion.

How did this interest in digital fashion progress?

Well, I graduated during the pandemic, and around this time, I became interested in NFTs and Blockchain for their novel approach to computing. It sparked my curiosity about digital ownership, and I saw the technology as a way of redefining the internet and how we express ourselves online. So I started to code NFTs and created a digital fashion collection for people to dress their avatars on social media.

That sounds incredible. Did the project go anywhere?

Yes, it did. In 2020, I founded a company - Gravity the Studio. Our garments only existed digitally, and we originally sold them as ‘rentable’ NFTs that people could use to dress their photos with on Instagram. Around this time, we exhibited in Singapore, Miami, and of course, London.

In 2021 we started getting many metaverse platforms reaching out to us about creating collections for avatars in their games. This wasn’t a request in isolation - we had a lot of the same asks, so we recognised there was an unserved niche for fashion in games.

Then suddenly, the Metaverse became a huge hot topic, and we decided to build technology that would allow digital garments to be worn across any virtual world, where the designs would adapt to the graphics of each game.

Did you become an expert in a new digital field?

You could say that! In 2022, I spoke at three monthly conferences on sustainable fashion, social media futures, and blockchain technology for a while. Our team developed a new variation to an avatar file standard which Microsoft and Meta picked up for co-authoring. Sadly, as we were raising a new funding round, the market took a downturn, investors started getting spooked about whether the Metaverse would be immediately lucrative, and Gravity the Studio unfortunately collapsed. It was disappointing, but I’ve learnt so much along the way.

What happened after you closed the company?

UCA advertised a teaching position on their Virtual Fashion Masters course. Seeing as I’d helped inspire its inception, I applied, they made me the course co-lead, and I teach there one day a week. In the meantime, I’d just moved to Maidenhead and spotted a job for an Art Director in this incredible, experiential marketing company…

That company sounds fantastic! Tell us more.

It’s a bit of a full circle moment – I went out of advertising and back into it with N2O but with a new skill set. I’m keen to explore integrating AR and VR into our client’s experiences and how we merge online with in-store and experiential campaigns to add a virtual dimension to our offerings. I’m excited to work with our fashion and beauty clients because of my background, but I’m equally inspired by the big experiential moments like the upcoming festival season.

What would you say your aim is at N2O?

I want to inject digital into experiences in little ways that can make them feel magical.

Your career is outstanding. Is there anything you haven’t done?

Funny you should say that – I’ve recently co-authored a chapter in the upcoming book Accelerating Sustainability in Fashion, Clothing, & Textiles with a professor from UC Berkeley. Coming soon in 2023!

What are your achievements outside of “regular” work?

Between working in Colorado and moving to the UK, I did a little sojourn to Alaska. I’m a keen backpacker, so when I heard about an opportunity from a family friend to spend a summer with Girl Scouts of Alaska, I jumped at it. I was made Wilderness Director for the season. I spent three months in tents leading groups of teenagers on 3- or 6-day wilderness backpacking trips.  A fun takeaway was getting certified in wilderness first aid – essentially, how to survive with just the contents of your backpack. I can save someone’s life with a few water bottles and a t-shirt – that’s a story for another day!

Finally, do you fit in any hobbies around your busy schedule?

Just about! I love nature, as I said, and before moving to Maidenhead, I lived for two years on a canal boat in London aptly named the Silly Goose. I’m a big cat person and houseplant lover. I used to dance a lot, so I’m looking forward to getting back into jazz!

The End
More coming soon!