When Iris Van Herpen debuted her 3D printed dress at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week in 2011, it sparked new trends in the fashion industry, with major designers creating 3D printed geometric cutout gowns, stiff and shiny trims and garments that resemble skeletons and medieval armor. Her 3D printed dress was named one of the year’s best inventions by Time magazine.
In Malaysia, Melinda Looi produced Asia’s first fashion show devoted to 3D printed accessories in 2013. The theme of the show was “birds” and it featured five designs. The models wore nude bodysuits on the runway so that the focus would be entirely on the printed pieces.
And recently, Singaporean designer Jamela Law made her debut on her Beeing Human collection inspired by honeycombs, bringing together various fabrication technologies and techniques such as 3D printing, silicone casting, and hand sewing.
With fashion designers utilising 3D printing in apparel design, what are the implications brought to the fashion world?
Yay or nay? From tradition to technology
Traditional methods of producing garments are done by cutting and draping techniques to achieve beautiful results. Apparel has a long tradition as a hands-on field, but designers are increasingly using CAD and web technology for speed, accuracy, and cost savings. 3D printing lures designers as it allows them to create amazingly intricate, highly customised clothing and accessories in just hours — as opposed to weeks or even months with traditional methods from sketch to form. Scanning technology is also more readily available, which allows these 3D printed garments to be customised to the wearer.
3D printing raises the artistic bar while lowering costs for designers. It has opened doors for small, independent designers who otherwise would need millions of dollars to launch a ready-to-wear line.
However, as with all emerging technology, 3D printing fashion has pragmatic problems to address. One of the main issues is the material. Though van Herpen’s collection featured a printable fabric that is flexible, durable and can even be washed in the washing machine, most items produced with this technique are stiff synthetics. It is great for a Lady Gaga stage show, but not so practical for daily wear.
From Israel, designer Danit Peleg, who printed her entire graduate collection using a 3D printer and has since founded her own 3D printed fashion business, admits, “The red “Liberté” jacket in my graduate collection took 220 hours to print and about a kilo of materials. Materials would cost 70 euros. But the main issue is printing time – one would need to buy or rent a printer for 220 hours. The printer I used costs 1,700 euros. Renting it would maybe cost 250 euros per week, so one would need to spend at least 600 euros for printing, not including design, assembly, and electricity.” It is evident that printing costs are still prohibitively high, although this will change as technologies evolve.
Another issue to note is intellectual property. The idea that anyone can print out another’s designs blurs the lines even further. Design and inspiration are subjective concepts. Laws vary by country; some protect the designs themselves while others protect only certain elements. 3D printing proponents believe the fashion industry has to catch up to the latest technology by revamping copyright laws, adapting manufacturing and be aware of what’s coming.
Will 3D Printing Change Fashion?
Many believe 3D printing is unlikely to replace traditional methods of fashion manufacturing. While more flexible materials are being developed, 3D printed material still hasn’t come close to softer fabrics like cotton and lycra, which are significantly easier to wear and more comfortable for the wearer. For “tech couture” such as 3D printed apparel to evolve from a niche trend on the runway, there is a need for radical rethinking of the definition of fashion.
At present, 3D printing’s fashion moment has more clout in non-pliable accessories. The fashion industry isn’t quite ready for widespread adoption yet. But designers like Peleg believe that in the future, our clothes can 3D printed from the comfort of our homes. “Customers could download the patterns, just like music files, and print them,” says Peleg.
Whether it is yay or nay, there is a certainty that 3D printing is revolutionising the fashion industry.