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3D printing technology is making its presence felt in the fashion industry with an increasing number of new designers experimenting with wearable designs made using 3D printers. In 2011, 3D printing made waves in the fashion industry when TIME Magazine named Iris van Herpen’s 3D printed dress one of the greatest inventions of the year. She presented two more designs in 2013, followed a few months later by Michael Schmidt and Francis Bitonti, who designed a 3D printed dress for burlesque icon Dita Von Teese. While this classifies itself as art, many new designers like Nadir Gordon are embracing the technology as the fashion technique of the future. At the same time, technology has evolved to give 3D printed materials fabric-like feel and finish. With this, 3D printing is moving out of the realm of the jewelry and accessories designers and into mainstream fashion garments.

3D technique used for Gordon's swim suit collection(Image Source: http://3dprinting.com)

Gordon’s swimsuit design comprises of 14 parts separately printed and fused together to get the final garment. The total production time was 70-90 hours. Definitely not something for mass production right now, but the future will see faster printers and easier 3D conversion techniques to improve the speed. This year, Paris Fashion Week saw the unveiling of a completely wearable dress that prints in one single folded piece. Created by designers Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg using Nervous System’s 4D printing system and produced at Shapeway’s New York City factory, the dress comprises of thousands of panels connected by hinge joints, which adjust to the body shape as it is worn.

Collection created using Using Kinematics – Nervous System’s 4D printing system (Image Source: http://www.shapeways.com)

Using Kinematics – Nervous System’s 4D printing system that creates complex, foldable forms composed of modules – designers Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg created a completely wearable dress that prints in one single folded piece. It is made of thousands of panels connected by hinge joints and fluidly folds and conforms to the body as it is worn.

Fashion design student Danit Peleg has created another wave by designing a collection without even having knowledge of additive printing, which is the technology on which 3D printers presently work. Her collection of dresses, tops and skirts have contemporary lines and look like clothes that can be worn. Although it took her 2000 hours to create the entire collection, she has raised interesting questions about whether the future of fashion will pass on to the masses or remain in the hands of select brands as it is today.

Danit Peleg collection of dresses, tops & skirts using 3 D printing technique(Image Source: http://www.sculpteo.com)

Kristina Dimitrova, whose Interlaced show brings together pioneers from the technology frontiers of fashion, believes that the fashion industry is increasingly accepting the embrace of technology and will see the two entwine in the future. Already major accessories brands like Heart & Noble and Exocet are featuring 3D printed creations, while Electroloom, another brand at the forefront of 3D printing, is in the process of printing fabric that can be directly used for garments. As designers start using 3D technology, manufacturers would look at ways to create more breathable wearable materials, says Shapeways’ Duanne Scott.

The technology implementation itself is very interesting. The core of 3D printing technology is known as AM or Additive Manufacturing. This involves adding layers upon layers of material to form the 3D shape, based on the 3D diagram or design provided, which is created from the sketches. Within AM a variety of techniques can be used to achieve different results for different materials. The various AM techniques include:

Stereolithography (SLA): using liquid photopolymer resins and UV light

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): using non-metallic powdered laser sintering material

Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS): similar to SLS, using metals

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM): using liquid metal extrusion through tiny nozzles

Polyjet: spraying through multiple nozzles forming layers, and

Binder Jetting: spraying liquid polymer to bind powdered material

(Source: http://www.shapeways.com )

This is extremely useful for rapid prototyping of designs and allows designers to see what the final product would look like in a matter of hours.
Why would new generation fashion designers be enamored with a technology that is still a few years away from mass adoption? The potential of its applications is enormous, and it can speed up the ready-to-wear fashion market significantly. Another key element is the fact that while customization of couture involves significant cost, it is next to nothing for 3D printing since it only involves modifications at the design level, without affecting material utilization or consumption.

However, the challenge that 3D technology faces is the question of potential counterfeiting. Since 3D technology recreates a shape, it is easy to replicate a design by a brand and pass it off as the original. Though the current capability to copy and mass produce using this technology is limited, its adoption in mainstream fashion will simultaneously raise the counterfeiting issue as well.

While these questions will continue to arise as every new technology makes its presence felt, 3D printing promises to bring new life to fashion design and the industry as a whole. With the parallel growth of technology in areas such as wearables, we might soon be wearing entire devices printed to our specifications and measurements. This is an exciting space to watch and new developments are expected to accelerate in coming days, even though it may be some time before 3D printed clothes actually reach critical mass and therefore become available to customers.

Supriya Ghurye is the founder and owner of Fuel4Fashion, the freelance fashion design studio for multiple product designing in apparels that caters to start-up fashion labels and growing fashion brands with a diverse portfolio of design services. She is a member of the Cherie Blair Foundation’s Women Entrepreneurship Program and has over a decade of fashion industry experience. Twitter , Instagram , Pinterest