In his handmade raw-selvedge Oni 512 jeans, one might guess that Eddie Bell is a designer, but this data scientist works for an E-fashion company and has coined his own title of ‘fashematician’.
The Lancaster University Computer Science graduate now spends his days at London-based Lyst, using maths in the fashion industry to train computers to recognise specific makes of clothes, or to pick up on colours from fashion industry descriptions and to predict individuals’ clothes-buying preferences. He also has a clothes allowance.
Nothing could be further from the predictions that Bell would have made for himself as a shy, geeky, first year computer science undergraduate who almost did not apply to university and who arrived at Lancaster from his home in Blackpool terrified of making friends and unsure what he was doing in higher education.
He says: “Lancaster opened up my eyes to study and gave me social skills. Without those two, I would not be doing what I am today.”
He was not a high achiever at school and did not think about university until the last minute when, to his parents’ surprise, he applied. It transformed his life. He had known he was interested in computing because he had done some in his spare time at school, but now he knew he wanted to study it. The crucial blue touch paper for him was a lecture in his first few weeks at Lancaster from Dr Joe Finney about the elegance of computer programs and ways of designing beauty. This really transformed his thinking and almost overnight he decided he would probably need to do a PhD.
“Computing is not a cold and sterile science, “ says Bell. “it is more like an art form.”
He had applied to do computer science, but heard a lecture by Paul Rayson in the computer department about artificial intelligence. This was enough to convince him that this was the field in which he wanted to spend his life.
Socially he says he initially found it “a massive shock to the system” and remembers a painful evening standing in a corner of a club not talking to anyone in Freshers’ Week after accepting an invitation from the JCR. But the many hours he spent in the labs and doing team work brought him in contact with other people and brought him friends. A number of them were in the philosophy department as he had chosen this subject as a ‘minor’.
He was an enthusiastic member of the computing society, which gave him the chance to teach others about games and even how to write little viruses! Away from computers he and his new-found group of friends learned to cook together and went to Heavy Metal gigs.
Another life-changing experience for Bell, was to be offered a place under the Erasmus scheme to spend his second year in Norway in the tiny University of Tromsø on the Arctic Circle. He says: “I left a bit wet behind the ears but it matured me.” Whilst there he had the chance to sign up for Masters’ level courses in computer science, which he loved. The young man who left the UK terrified of what he had signed up for found himself relishing hiking, visiting the Northerly Norwegian islands and going to numerous gigs. He’d only decided to go because one of his friends volunteered, but then his friend dropped out at the last minute but he took the plunge of going alone.
Under the influence of Pete Sawyer, he did his undergraduate thesis on understanding language using artificial intelligence but felt the need for higher-lever maths, so he decided to stay on to benefit from Paul Rayson’s ideas and did both a Master’s in Statistics and a PhD in Discrete Mathematics with him.
At the end of his time at Lancaster he knew he wanted to be involved in the ‘real’ world rather than academia, so started off in finance with Bloomberg on the currency trading platform, but found the company’s huge size difficult to cope with. After a year he was approached by a small fashion technology company called Lyst, which he joined as a data scientist. Three years later it had grown to become one of the largest fashion technology companies in the UK,with a staff of 120 people, a turnover of $60m and a site featuring 3 million products from 11,557 designers and stores.
He admits he has been ‘bitten by the fashion bug’. Out have gone the T shirts and ‘Metal’ garb of his university days, to be replaced by raw edged denim and street wear. He says: “Our company has the most fashionable geeks in London!”
He thoroughly enjoys his work and runs a team of eight people. Much of his time is spent thinking up ideas, trying them out using Artificially Intelligent models and using data to try and predict trends. His colleagues have PhDs in a number of fields ranging from astrophysics to biology.
He says: “If anyone had told me in my first year undergraduate year what I would be doing now, I would have said they were crazy. I could not have done it without Lancaster.”