Will.i.am On The Magic Of Tech, Fashion & His Latest Design Collab

Rosie Herdman meets Will.i.am in LA to hear about his latest project with Specsavers and learn about what motivates the multi-faceted man


Will.i.am wears W04V frames exclusive at Specsavers. Photo / Supplied

Entering the headquarters of Will.i.am’s Los Angeles-based technology company I.am.plus is a little like how I imagine walking into a spaceship would be — the hushed, main central zone is de-saturated of colour, completely white.

A smooth, undulating partition snakes through the middle of the room; geometric white chairs are positioned around geometric white tables, everything looks purposeful, designed to sit in futuristic harmony.

In his presence he’s referred to as Will but Will.i.am, seven-times Grammy Award winner, Black Eyed Peas member, entrepreneur, philanthropist, futurist and designer is not just another William.

I’m here in LA courtesy of Specsavers to meet the multi-faceted man, find out about his latest design venture — a collaboration with the eyewear retailer — and hopefully learn a little more about his other projects along the way.

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On our itinerary is a tour of the I.am.plus headquarters of which Will is the founder and CEO, a sit-down interview with the man himself and later we’ll be dining with him at LA institution Nobu in West Hollywood.

I’m familiar with Will’s musical career (you couldn’t grow up in the early 2000s and not be) but what I didn’t know was one of his main passions now is technology, artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Will has his hands on everything here, having conceived the space with the help of an interior designer and created a premise that caters to the different facets of the company.

It’s here the prototypes for their Bluetooth headphones, or Buttons, are created. Apps are built, music can be recorded in one of the multiple studios and the Black Eyed Peas can rehearse for shows in the main studio space.

Upstairs, I meet a cut and sew team working on a future activewear-inspired fashion line. It seems Will has created a place where he can dip his toe into whatever takes his fancy — including designing eyewear.

He is a well-known glasses fan. A Google search reveals image after image of him on red carpets and at events sporting different shaped frames.

“I like the art of eyewear,” he says, as we sit in his private lounge, a calming space decked out with more white, geometric furniture. “Ever since I’ve had disposable income, even before Black Eyed Peas, I’ve loved collecting vintage and retro frames.”

He cites Carrera, Persol and Porsche as some of his favourite brands and has his own eyewear brand, Ill.i (pronounced ill-eye) Optics, born of this passion and handmade in Italy.

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One of the motivations behind the Specsavers collaboration was to broaden their perspective, so to speak, and enter the market of corrective lenses through optician stockists, but making sure the styles are fashion-forward is also highly important to Will.

“You go to get your eyes checked with your eye doctor, there’s not that many fresh styles. Ill.i was founded in 2013, and we noticed people were getting our glasses and going to their optician to get their prescription put in, so it’s great to take one step away from the process.”

The Will.i.am exclusive eyewear collection for Specsavers includes 14 pairs of optical and three prescription sun frames, referencing classic and iconic styles with a futuristic twist.

“I love retro frames, but with Ill.i and the stuff we’re doing with my line for Specsavers, it’s retro-futurism.” He gestures to the pair he’s currently wearing, a pair of clear lenses, with square frames. “The ones I have on are Malcom X-ish. The line is heavily retro, but not funky seventies, costumey retro. What’s futuristic are the hinges,” he takes them off and shows me the detail. “It’s retro futurism because the hinge is not what would be classic to a Kennedy or Malcom X era.”

As for his thoughts on modern style in general, he thinks it’s a bit of a free-for-all.

“I think style right now is like a buffet in Hong Kong. They have everything.” Individualism reigns supreme, he says. “Except for the eyebrows — social media eyebrows seem to be the only thing where everyone’s the same.”

He’s widely known for his unique and sometimes ostentatious red carpet style but, when it comes to his own everyday garb, he chooses clothing that doesn’t sacrifice style for function. “My lifestyle is active, whether it’s meetings, working out, travelling or rehearsing on tour. I need items that can transition between almost any occasion.”

I’m interested to learn how this affinity with and passion for technology began for him. He recently created a graphic novel with Marvel named Masters of the Sun, which is available in both augmented reality and virtual reality editions, and is pursuing artificial intelligence via I.am.plus.

He cites the early 2000s as a pivotal time for his entry into the tech-world, when he met people like YouTube founder Chad Hurley, Napster developer Sean Fanning and co-founder of Google Larry Page. But technology has been intertwined with his music career from the beginning — learning how to use recording equipment and software and setting up audio for gigs grew to a reverence for the creativity allowed by technology.“That world was the most creative space on earth.”

Technology, he says, is our modern version of magic. “If you never knew what an app developer was, or Apple was, and I had a piece of glass,” he says, holding up his smart phone, “And I told you I was a wizard, like a tech sorcerer, you’d be like ‘yo, there’s this guy — I literally saw my mom in New Zealand on his piece of glass. How’s he doing that?’ ”

Later that evening, at Nobu — over vegan dishes for him and sashimi for us — we get more of an insight into who he is as a person. When I arrive he’s sitting at one end of our table, a black helmet in front of him — it transpires he rode to dinner on his E-bike, which he rides a lot around LA. He’s obviously a lover of this city, having lived here his whole life.

Friendship is important to him. When people reach a certain level of fame, it’s easy to imagine them saying goodbye to relics from their previous life; not so for Will who’s had the same group of friends since he was 15. He shows us snippets of a group text chat, just like any other person might have with their crew, sending memes and random snatches of conversation. He’s managed to get them involved with his projects in a professional sense too: they work together and share a bond that could only come from lifelong friendship.

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He dedicated a recent Instagram post to his Black Eyed Peas bandmates, Taboo and Apl.de.ap, on the 20-year anniversary of their first album Behind the Front. “It felt like we fought our entire life to make this album and we did it. We kept dreaming, even though we were living in a nightmare and look how far we took it.”

He refers to this “nightmare” a little over dinner, talking about losing friends to drugs and violence, but it’s this upbringing and his subsequent success through education that has galvanised him to make change in his community with I.am.Angel Foundation, an initiative designed to provide funding for children to stay in school and go to college.

By the time this is published, he’ll be on tour with the Black Eyed Peas, for the first time since 2011. They’ve recently released new, politically-charged songs that hark back to their roots and the single that propelled them into mainstream consciousness: Where Is The Love?

After talking to Will, the impression I’m left with is of someone deeply engaged in finding solutions for humanity, whether through technology, music or education.

He’s decisive, funny and thoughtful, and though he hasn’t forgotten his past, he’s always looking forward.

After dinner, we say our goodbyes. Helmet on, he rides off on his E-bike into the balmy Los Angeles night and into the future.

• Will.i.am’s exclusive eyewear collection for Specsavers starts from $299 for 2 pairs single vision lenses. Visit Specsavers.co.nz/will-i-am

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