The Future of 3-D Printed Fashion, One Synthetic Thread at a Time

Photo: Albert Sanchez, Continuum Fashion

Dita Von Teese turned more eyes than usual earlier this year, when she wore a Swarovski crystal–encrusted “mesh” black dress, a dramatically netted floor-length piece with elaborate shoulders and a structural frame that hugged all those curves and likely cost into the thousands. It would have made for a great reveal at one of her burlesque performances, but instead she chose it for the final night of a two-day 3-D printing conference hosted by the Ace Hotel in New York.

The dress — one of the first fully functioning pieces of three-dimensional printed fashion — was created by celebrity favorite Michael Schmidt, who typically uses leather, suede, and other traditional textiles to create looks for Debbie Harry, Madonna, Rihanna and Lady Gaga. This time, he worked with architect and designer Francis Bitoni to digitally conceive the gown, which was then printed out on layers upon layers of “powdered nylon” in a machine at Shapeways, a New York–based 3-D printing company. Seventeen different parts were printed with more than 2,500 custom-designed, intersecting joints, which were hand-linked together, painted a lacquered black, and hand-dotted with 12,000 black crystals to create a one-of-a-kind work of wearable architecture. “I first became aware of 3-D printing in the late eighties while attending NASA’s ‘technology transfer’ seminars,” Schmidt explained, though this was his first time creating a garment this way. “When I was approached by Ace Hotel to create the finale ensemble for their recent symposium, I lunged at the chance.”

Though this type of printing has been around for decades — aiding architects, engineers, and scientists with models and prototypes, mostly — its breadth has expanded as new technology has allowed for smaller machines, more flexible materials, and quicker, increasingly adaptable processes. Now almost any object imaginable — from functional organshomes, skull replacements, to edible frosted cupcakes — can be pumped out of a machine, and fashion designers in particular are hoping, someday, for a modern and digital update to a centuries-old loom; perhaps it’s something like the MakerBot, a consumer version of a 3-D printer that can produce desk toys, dolls, garden gnomes (and, someday soon, maybe handguns), and was purchased by a competitor last month for more than $600 million.

In anticipation of the technology becoming more mainstream, high-fashion clothing and accessories companies have begun experimenting, but with some requisite hand-holding. “I always work together with an architect, as I am not good with the 3-D programs myself,” says Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, one of the pioneers in 3-D printed fashion. She first began dabbling in 2009, and has since sent couture 3-D printed works down the runway in six different shows, often to the confusion of onlookers. The first time she tried it, many reviewing her work erroneously thought the piece was made out of paper, and even she wasn’t quite sure what she had made: “It was my first time working together with another person creatively so closely. I had no idea if it would fit, how it would look, and the process took way longer than expected,” she recalled. “The piece came to me on the day of the show. The moment I saw it was also the moment it was presented on the catwalk.” Still, van Herpen was convinced that 3-D printing would be a viable method to create clothing in the future. This season, she sent 12 pairs of shoes — lightly reminiscent of Alexander McQueen’s Armadillo heels — down a runway, created in collaboration with 3-D printing company Stratasys and United Nude’s Rem D Koolhaas (the shoe designer, not the architect.)

To create one of these pieces, both her architect and van Herpen brainstorm structures based on materials and printers available. While van Herpen mostly works in 2-D — collaging, stretching, reassembling her ideas — the architect begins reimagining her sketches in a 3-D program. Throughout the entire process, a company called Materliase prints out samples of the structures to ensure that the design is properly translated. When the final 3-D drawing of the design is finalized, the look is ready to be printed and assembled.

Currently, the main drawback is that it’s both exorbitantly expensive and, because of that, uniquely exclusive. Since 3-D printing isn’t easily accessible to those outside the industrial design sector, gowns remain one-of-a-kind couture items or custom-made products; van Herpen’s new shoes would sell for $2,000, if someone were to order a pair. “If the prices become cheaper and various flexible materials are printable, then 3-D printed dresses will [someday] be ready-to-wear,” she adds.

Because of the expense, Jenna Fizel and Mary Huang, who run Continuum Fashion, have relied exclusively on nylon for their 3-D printing endeavors, which have included both printed N12 bikini and intricate pumps that have the added perk of an adjustable heel. They cost $900, which isn’t cheap, but still competitive with more well-known (leather) luxury brands. “We like using nylon because it’s quite strong,” Huang says. “You can buy it in lots of colors, and it’s relatively inexpensive [on the 3-D printing end],” especially compared to other options that currently exist, like elastic polymers, titanium, and various lightweight metals.

Designers are also limited by scale. Today’s commercial 3-D printers are not large enough to spit out a dress in one solid piece. Instead, various portions of a design are queued up and then pieced together by hand. That labor-intensive process doesn’t prevent designers, like Huang, from counting down the days for 3-D printers to become fully accessible to people in their homes. Rather than create garments, designers like her would serve more as blueprint-makers. “We have this magical vision of a closet-sized printer that’ll download the dress design and print it right then and there,” she says, altogether eliminating the task of shopping. “It would not really be 3-D printing as people are describing it now.” Because it’s far less technical. “But if you think about being able to download a design into your home and make it — we’re actually not that far.”

When we do get there, one thing is certain: More of us will be clad in synthetics, which will be both cheaper and more easily adapted to the nascent printing technology. “I do think cottons and silks will be gone, but it will take a long time,” van Herpen added. “What will replace them is impossible to say, and depends on all other biologic and technical changes that will come.” If clothing like this is to be more embraced by the fashion world, there will come a day when most of us will be strutting around in suits and skirts made out of powdered nylon — or even intricately gridded chainmail, another material Schmidt is now experimenting with.

But if you’re a more natural type, take comfort: Right now, at MIT, scientists are working with 3-D printers to turn silk worms into a next-generation assembly line. All they need now is a dress pattern.

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Fashion’s 3-D Future: Thread by Synthetic Thread