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MIT student start-ups have their eyes on fashion

Photos by Charlie Mahoney for The Boston Globe

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that mecca for geek culture, is ready to make a fashion statement.

A handful of fashion-minded MIT students are creating companies targeting niche consumer styles and voids in the retail industry. Some aren’t even using algorithms.

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Aminata Kane, a second-year student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, is designing, manufacturing, and selling clothes for Africa’s growing demographic of middle-class women. Branded Fula & Style and described as “corporate with an edge,” she launched her line of culturally appropriate styles for full-figured women from her native Senegal last summer.

Kane’s start-up business was showcased at a university-sponsored fashion event this week alongside several other companies. The businesses range from more conventional ventures working with textiles to make and sell garments to companies creating tools to enhance the online shopping experience. Some aim to solve problems that have long plagued the retail industry.

One fashion venture called Modalyst, founded by 2012 business school graduate Jill Sherman, is aggregating orders for accessories from as many as 150 boutiques. That allows stores once constrained by small inventories to compete with larger retailers by collectively purchasing from designers at wholesale prices.

The minisurge of MIT start-ups is driven by a budding category of fashion industry entrepreneurs at a school best known as a breeding ground for data-heavy, software-based technology companies.

“About two years ago, we thought these companies were outliers,” said Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. “Now the pace has definitely picked up.”

University officials were unable to provide a count of fashion-industry firms started by MIT students or alumni.

Aulet believes a change of focus at MIT has contributed to an increase in start-ups that look and work differently. He came to the Trust Center three years ago with a goal to train anew generation of innovation-driven entrepreneurs, steering away from the university’s technology-centered model.

The reason: Many successful companies are built on a great idea first and then enabled by technology that has become ubiquitous, he said.

“There are a lot of technology start-ups that are features and not businesses,” said Shauna Mei, an MIT grad and now chief executive and founder of AHAlife, a curated online marketplace of thousands of luxury fashion items and other high-end products. “A business is something that has a core, a vision, a mission, and a culture.”

Mei said the school has evolved since she graduated in 2005, when fashion companies wouldn’t have been take seriously.

“You see this natural trend occurring at MIT because now innovation is happening across the board, there are a lot more entrepreneurs and a lot more capital in the market,” she said.

Her New York company secured $23 million from venture capital firms and angel investors since it launched in 2010. Though her company is Web-based and made possible by technology, it sprang from a much bigger idea. AHAlife re-creates the in-store experience of discovery while shopping online by featuring quality, well-crafted products with a story.

“People are realizing you don’t need to be a data geek to build a company anymore,” said Ben Israelite, who works at the Trust Center and helps students launch their companies.

Yet some companies are staying true to MIT fashion and applying their technical expertise to style. Ministry of Supply, founded in 2010, uses thermal analysis, aerospace and robotic engineering, and new materials to design and sell better-fitting men’s business attire.

Many retail websites use technology that provides images of similar products when a customer selects an item. Asorti, a company created by MIT undergrads, developed a tool that takes into account texture, color, and price to automatically generate a matching ensemble.

“We definitely took a very MIT approach to fashion,” said Lauren Clark, a 20-year-old founder of Asorti. “We put as many algorithms in there as possible.”

Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @tarynluna.
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