Fashion Rule Breakers is an original A Plus Lifestyle series: Each month, we profile a fashion designer, model, organization, or icon who is a fashion rule breaker — someone who acts outside mainstream industry standards to make a positive difference.
We women have all experienced it — that moment someone gets too close for comfort at a party, or that fear of walking alone, keys defensively held between each knuckle. Hopefully, we have a friend to step in during those times, and make sure we get home OK. But what if we could enhance that support system, making the friendship feel even more like a safe and reliable buddy system?
Together, Michele Choi, Alison Lyness, Aaron Whittemore, George Hart, and Ryan Orley brought that very idea to fruition, with a technology-enabled fashion piece called ONEE (pronounced Oh-Nee). On its surface, this $80 item looks like it's just a bracelet, with a sleek white or black design, but users know it's so much more than jewelry. Using Bluetooth, the smart device helps friends linked via the ONEE app, subtly communicate in any situation. One tap on the bracelet sends a vibration to a friend's synced bracelet to signal "I'm good," while a double tap sends a long, continuous signal for distress. Looking at the app also allows friends to track each other's location, and, as the website slogan says, "leave no sister behind."
By using such a non-traditional medium as fashion to employ technology that enhances women's safety, reduces the risk of sexual assault, and encourages bystander intervention, the founders of ONEE are being "fashion rule breakers."
We spoke with Michele Choi and Alison Lyness to learn more about how the device works, the inspiration behind it, and how it promotes positive relationships.
The two women conceived of the bracelet idea their first year at Harvard Business School in response to the frightening number of sexual assaults happening on campuses across the United States. In an email to A Plus, they referenced a 2015 Association of American Universities report that shows 1 in 4 female students will be victims during their undergraduate years. In order to understand what resources could best be utilized to reduce risk, Choi and Lyness surveyed more than 200 young women, held focus groups, and focused on peer-to-peer accountability.
"Many of the women said they experienced some type of undesirable social encounter, in which they wished a friend would've intervened, almost every time they went out," they told A Plus. "However, a common theme arose around social stigmas of intervening or walking away from these uncomfortable situations. A majority of these women were already using 'buddy systems' but often found it difficult to sustain over the course of a long outing."
ONEE is meant to fill the gaps, making it easier for women to contact each other without having to be in eye or earshot. Often, verbal or gestured cues are misinterpreted anyway, and relying on a friend to "just know" when they are needed is usually not a good idea in the first place. Using the "secret tap language," as it is referred to on ONEE's website, users are able to convey exactly if and when they would like their friend to intervene. These messages can be communicated at any distance thanks to ONEE's Bluetooth technology, so long as each user is within 30 feet of her phone.
"Our mission is to equip young women with smart tools to better harness the power of their existing support systems, to help them feel more courageous in social environments, and to evolve how positive relationships are built."
“We think of ONEE as ‘the buddy system’ meets accessories — we’re redefining the friendship bracelet and what it means to have each other’s back.”
The physicality of the bracelet is almost as important as its technological functions. When asked why ONEE had to be a tangible device, extending beyond the app, Choi and Lyness pointed to their conversations with students and university administrators who indicated that phones could not be relied on as a sole intervention method. They are indiscreet, and "a phone's ring or vibration may not be immediately noticed, especially in an environment like a loud party."
Part of what makes ONEE so discreet is that it actually looks like a piece one might choose to wear, regardless of its hidden features. Given that both founders have an interest in fashion and experience with the industry — Choi worked in management consulting and one of her key clients was a luxury fashion retailer, and Lyness spent a summer with a consumer business development firm and worked on a few fashion brand accounts — it seems only natural that the ONEE bracelet also be fashionable.
And it is this design element that encourages young women to actually wear the device proud daily. Choi and Lyness add that college women already have their favorite bracelet, ring, or pair of earrings, and by leveraging that pre-existing behavior to make women habitually wear and use their ONEE bracelet, they can help introduce positive social change.
"The late, iconic fashion photographer Bill Cunningham was once quoted saying: 'Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.' We subscribe to that philosophy as well — many women believe what we wear is an expression of ourselves and can prepare yourself for what lies ahead in any given day."
“With how much thought is put into personal fashion, we believe there is opportunity for fashion to be more than just beautiful — it can also be a vehicle to make social impact.”
While the two recognize there is no one solution for stopping sexual assault — "there will likely need to be a full ecosystem of solutions required to make real change on this issue (e.g., bystander intervention training, education on consent and healthy relationships, augmented response and reporting, among others)" — they hope their product can at least contribute to reducing the risk for women.
And customers report it's already working. Though ONEE was only officially launched in September and is currently in beta testing, Choi and Lyness say they are receiving positive feedback from costumers who feel that ONEE's efforts resonate with their experiences. In the future, the founders of ONEE anticipate other bracelet designs and jewelry products, such as rings and necklaces, as well as a gender-inclusive product that men can take advantage of as well.
Choi and Lyness end with this message: "We think the most important thing is to trust your intuition and to not be afraid to err on the side of caution. We encourage friends to have frequent, candid conversations with each other, and to develop a plan together on how to best look out for one another. This exact same advice goes for men."