The Color of Money

A pair of local scientists may have solved many women's fashion frustration: What to do when the purse doesn't match the shoes.

Maggie Orth and Joanna Berzowska, founders of International Fashion Machines, are developing fabrics out of cutting-edge electronic textiles that can change color, chameleon-like. With the flip of a switch, a handbag that's clashing cerulean would become matching moss as metallic threads, warmed by juice from a battery, alter the colors of fibers that have been dyed using heat-sensitive inks.

Started just last year, International Fashion Machines still operates out of a shed beside Orth's house in Cambridge. But it's carving out a reputation as a leader in the emerging field of “smart fabrics.”

Orth and Berzowska are both alumnae of the MIT Media Lab, where they worked on projects including a jean jacket that integrated a synthesizer and speakers, allowing the wearer to make music by touching keys woven into the denim.

“We're trying to change the physical feeling of computing,” Orth says. “Until now, everything has been square, and computers have been confined to boxes and chained to desks. We want to make them soft and change the role they play in people's lives.”

Orth envisions ski parkas that will one day sense and display the temperature, and running shoes with colored dots on their toes that would light up to indicate when the exerciser reaches his or her optimal exercise zone. Those are still in the planning stages. Closer to reality are sofas and cubicle walls capable of changing colors or patterns, since they could be plugged in rather than relying on batteries or built-in solar panels.

Orth and Berzowska have begun talks with prospective customers including Nike and Milliken. Their wearable hardware could show up in stores within a matter of years.