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The Look

Designers from area colleges play it smart with functional, high-tech fashion

New England is better known for its academic institutions than its avant-garde attire. But that may be changing. A groundswell of home-grown inventors and designers, educated right in our backyard, is working to put the region on the fashion industry map.

This transition has been, well, seamless.

Last month, a fashion show at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, titled ''Seamless: Computational Couture," showcased the concept of ''smart fashions" that some young designers say might change the way Boston is viewed by the fashion elite.

The show received widespread national media attention. One of the Seamless designers was chosen to appear next season on the reality TV fashion series ''Project Runway." In September, a photo spread on these locally made techno-savvy fashions is scheduled to be published in I.D., a New York City-based design magazine that chronicles art, business, and culture.

Could ''computational couture," or smart clothes, bring renown to New England schools in fashion circles?

''Absolutely," says Christine Liu, a 22-year-old MIT grad student who coproduced the Seamless show. ''I think it's already apparent, if you think about who's transforming technological textile research today."

Indeed, the Commonwealth is the birthplace of the No-Contact Jacket, a sleek coat that gives an electrical shock to any would-be mugger who touches it. This wearable stun gun was the brainchild of MIT engineer Adam Whiton and Boston fashion designer Yolita Nugent.

MIT has produced a cadre of fashion pioneers in recent years. They include Brian G. R. Hughes and Paul Rudovsky, two alumni in charge of HBN Shoe, a New Hampshire company that produces Insolia, a new weight-shifting insole technology that takes pressure off tired toes stuffed in stilettos. Then there's Maggie Orth, who runs International Fashion Machines, a local company that produces electronic textiles, or smart fabrics.

Orth's Firefly Dress -- an illuminating gown made of conductive fabric -- will be shown at Tufts University Art Gallery this fall, in a new exhibition titled ''Pattern Language: Clothing as Communicator." After Tufts launches the show, the exhibit is scheduled to travel across the country and wrap up in 2007 at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London.

Joey Berzowska, who started International Fashion Machines after graduating from MIT, describes Boston as ''a place of ideas."

''It is a place where emerging technologies, intelligence, and lots of money, to be honest, come together to make things happen," she said. ''Those ideas influence what happens in the rest of the world."

Berzowska now runs Extra Soft Labs in Canada. Her current projects include an animated quilt, weavings that change color and deal with issues of displacement and cultural identity; and ''memory suits" that record and display physical memory on the body.

When she started International Fashion Machines in Boston, ''we went around to all the fashion houses to try to sell our geeky ideas: fabrics that change color, purses that light up. . . . Nobody was interested," she said. ''On one hand, 'smart fashions,' in the form of electronic textiles and reactive garments, are too expensive to produce, on the other hand, they are still considered too much like engineering and not design."

But up-and-coming designers, like those featured in Seamless, hope that will change.

''Seamless: Computational Couture" was the long-awaited sequel to a 1997 MIT fashion show, when MIT's Media Lab hosted a wearable computing fashion showcase, in collaboration with fashion schools in Tokyo, Paris, Milan, and New York.

Flash forward eight years later: Seamless is produced by Liu and Nick Knouf, both MIT graduate students. Billed as a ''sigtronic collection of street-savvy, culture-conscious clothes that communicate, identify, and remember," the standing-room only show featured technology-based apparel from 18 up-and-coming design students and alumni from MIT, Harvard, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Parsons School of Design in New York.

Models showed off a shirt with sensors that gives massages, a jacket that controls an MP3 player, and a necklace crafted from 2-amp 125-volt slow blow fuses. There was a pocketbook made of sensors, titled, ''bYOB," (Build Your Own Bag), which can keep track of your keys, wallet, and other important items you wouldn't want to leave on the subway.

Liu and Knouf love the idea of ''computational clothing," a term used often by fellow MIT grad Megan Galbraith, meaning apparel that affects, communicates, changes color, or transforms within the context of a social environment.

''It's not simply a matter of sewing MP3 players and cellphones into our jackets. Nor is it simply about being able to wear personal computers rather than carrying them in cases," Galbraith wrote in her thesis. ''. . . Computational elements can breathe a sense of life into previously inanimate objects, redefining how we relate to, wear, and think about our clothes."

One of the most memorable pieces from the Seamless show was an inflatable dress, designed by Emily Albinski and Diana Eng, two recent graduates of RISD. With the push of a button, their fitting white dress inflates into bell-shaped ball gown.

Soon after the Seamless show, Eng was tapped to appear on the second season of ''Project Runway," the popular TV series on cable's Bravo channel. Eng is no stranger to the new couture that is influenced by computer culture. She has used digital prints and mathematical patterns in her designs. She's also created a blogging outfit, by hooking up a camera to a hoodie and wiring everything up so its wearer can record their life, as it happens.

Eng had auditioned for ''Project Runway" before the Seamless show, and learned she had been picked a few days later. Liu was happy to hear the news. After all, the TV show had inspired her to help launch Seamless.

''We knew we had tapped into a rich underground network of computational clothing designers as word of mouth spread about the show, and names and projects and enthusiastic support came in," Liu said.

Liu doubts MIT's fashion sense will ever overshadow its engineering, but she thinks ''the direction of clothing into the technological realm, even in terms of materials design, really demands both fashion sense and technological knowledge."

So forget collegiate, conservative, or business casual. The future of Boston fashion might be described as ''sigtronic." The word ''sigtronic" (no relation to Sigtronics Corp., a California-based headset and intercom manufacturer) is a neologism Liu credits to Knouf. It's also a nod to Sigtronica, the weekly electronica music show Liu and Knouf co-produce on MIT's radio station, WMBR-FM (88.1).

So what's next? Knouf and Liu are making tentative plans to do a second show next year at the Museum of Science. ''Maybe in the near future, Nick and I will release our own label collection," Liu said, ''that's the dream, at least."

Emily Sweeney can be reached at