3D printing and fashion: a multitude of uses, a multitude of questions

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While 3D printing has still not entered the average home, it’s on its way to affordability, and as we know, wherever there’s a trend, fashion will follow.

Neiman Marcus recently teamed up with 3D printing company Shapeways to offer a 3D-printed sterling silver pendant designed by Roger Pearce.

Plenty of different brands across the lifestyle sector experimented with the technology this year, including Nike, which created the Vapor Laser Talon, a prototype football cleat that uses Selective Laser Sintering technology to create a lighter, stronger baseplate.

Lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret also got in on the act, commissioning a specially 3D-printed ‘Snowflake’ costume for its famed runway show. Designed by architect Bradley Rothenberg of Shapeways and embellished with Swarovski crystals, the pieces sat over model Lindsay Ellingson’s underwear and featured a corset and snowflake style ‘wings’. 

Meanwhile, emerging Dutch designer and Lady Gaga favorite, Iris Van Herpen was the major fashion figure to use the technology on the runway in 2013. Van Herpen worked with two 3D printing companies — Stratasys and Materialise — as well as MIT professor Neri Oxman (the polymath artist, architect and designer works at the university’s Media Lab) and Austrian architect Julia Koerner for her January haute couture collection, ‘VOLTAGE’. 

The 3D printing process completely eliminates the seams and cuts usually required to build a ‘normal’ couture outfit. One dress was composed by superimposing multiple layers of thin woven lines, which produced a flexible, organic form when fitted to the body. 

“I find the process of 3D printing fascinating because I believe it will only be a matter of time before we see the clothing we wear today produced with this technology,” explained Van Herpen. 

Cut and customization

In the future, 3D printing won’t just mean that clothes will fit better (with items made to order according to body scans), but will also allow customers to customize their pieces fully (a trend already kicked off by Burberry with their ‘Runway Made to Order’ personalization service). 

So, could computer code soon replace fine needlework? And what will be the first big luxury brand to create a mainstream 3D printed product? Well, it may not be quite that simple.

If the very idea of 3D printing is a revolutionary democratization of the manufacturing process, allowing you to produce complicated items from your own home computer, then it may well prove a little hard to swallow for luxury companies (and their clients), who rely on a heavy aura of exclusivity.

Haute couture labels charge their eyewatering prices for their one-off gowns due to the extraordinary level of handcrafted skill and seasoned technique that goes into their manufacture. Ateliers packed with highly trained artisans produce fine appliqué and needlework for an elite global clientèle. They’re not likely to be under any pressure to change.

And the luxury industry as a whole is full of these sorts of specializations. Hermès handbag customers, for instance, pay a premium for the centuries-old leatherworking techniques which are passed down through generations in the company’s workshops. The recent LVMH ‘Journées Particulières’ event this summer sought to show off the importance of the company’s many different skilled workers, by giving lucky members of the public the chance to see them at work.  

Creativity and legality

Beyond dresses and bags, how will brands respond to copyright issues when fans or rivals can print off their own bootleg copies of accessories at home? For all the creativity unleashed in the design studios of Chanel and Dior, there will be equal amounts elsewhere bursting to get out. Companies like Continuum are already pushing the envelope, crafting shoes which mix 3D printed frames with handcut mirrors.

Despite the many issues already emerging, 3D printing is certainly going to shake things up. As usual, perhaps some kind of mix of robotic craft with a human touch is the way forward? 

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