Fashion companies and designers from Adidas to Iris van Herpen have started exploring 3D printing in the past few years, while designer Zac Posen wowed the world with his otherworldly 3D-couture outfits at the Met Gala earlier in May. Although the technology offers seemingly unlimited possibilities to designers, hurdles still remain for its adoption within the fashion industry at large.
Skyblue cogwheels and organic black structures branch into each other to form layered dresses that protect their wearers like armor. The otherworldly designs of Maartje Dijkstra are hard to describe in only a few words - the Dutch fashion designer uses 3D printing to create surreal creations that would otherwise be impossible to achieve.
“I can create little elements and repeat it to make a fabric that you can’t buy in the store,” Dijkstra explained after showing her designs at the Lexus 3D fashion show in Dusseldorf, Germany, in July. “It helps me to be more progressive and show people what you can do with technology.”
Hover over the images to discover more about how Dijkstra works.
Dijkstra used a 3D printing pen, worth a few hundred euros, along with materials that cost around 1000 euros to create the elements that she later stitched together to create her intricately detailed and striking black dress. A plastic filament is melted and pressed through the pen with which she draws the individual components of the dress – a process she calls manual 3D printing. The technology has been around for decades, and traditionally sees machines following programmed steps to join materials layer by layer to a three-dimensional object.
The future implications of 3D technology in the fashion industry were examined through exhibitions like ‘Manus x Machina’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2016, an exhibition at the New York-based museum explored the differences between handmade and machine-made garments, and featured blockbuster pieces like Karl Lagerfeld’s 3D-printed Chanel suit. As people became more familiar with the concept of 3D printing and experimented with 3D printers at home, the idea of making homemade clothes became ever more conceivable.
Though the buzz surrounding 3D printing might have somewhat faded since then, being able to print your own clothes at home still remains a fascinating idea. The technology would mean a consumer could receive instructions on how to set up a machine, along with a printing file, explained Marcel Mentzel, an interior design student at German fashion school AMD Akademie Mode & Design. “It would be a completely new customer experience if you could just download your clothes from the internet,” said Mentzel, who took part in the 3D fashion show in Dusseldorf last summer. “It would make fashion infinitely adjustable if you don’t buy a physical product anymore but a file that you can alter yourself.” He wrote the files for the 3D-printed pieces in the graduation collection of fashion design student Lucas Viering, that was presented in Dusseldorf.
Exploring creative possibilities
Dijkstra, who spent almost 1000 hours creating one black dress, represents one end of the apparel spectrum, namely high-fashion, where designers experiment with 3D printing to explore the limits of visual expression. The technology is well-suited to realize complex structures, as demonstrated by US-designer Zac Posen’s deep red rose gown and flowing bustier at Met Gala. In the past, Dutch designer Iris van Herpen famously and repeatedly used the technology in her skeletal and foliage haute couture dresses, while British fashion genius Alexander McQueen 3D-printed a grim, biomorphic spine snaking around a 25-centimeter-high heel for his final show “Plato’s Atlantis” in 2010.
“It’s about all the creativity that they can translate due to the freedom of design,” said Valérie Vriamont, business developer and innovation consultant at Materialise. The Belgian 3D-printing company was founded in 1990 and has worked with Van Herpen in the past. Its fashion clients also include commercial brands for which Materialise produced so-called wearables, like insoles for shoes or frames for eyewear.
Brands have increased the share of 3D-printed frames compared to eyewear that’s been made with other technologies, said Vriamont. The method offers flexibility because glasses frames can quickly be adapted to trends by simply changing a digital file, she explained. The file then instructs the machine on how to create the frames. Companies can just produce what’s ordered and avoid the risk of holding stock that traditional manufacturing methods require.
Read the full interview with Materialise and Valerié Vriamont here:
”Imagine walking into an Adidas store, running briefly on a treadmill and instantly getting a 3D-printed running shoe,” the German sportswear maker envisioned when introducing its first Futurecraft model, a running shoe with a 3D-printed midsole in 2015. Last year, Adidas sold more than 100,000 pairs of the evolved Futurecraft 4D, which retail at around 300 US-dollars, and the sportswear maker wants to increase production in the future, a spokeswoman said.
Digital light synthesis technology, a surreal process which looks like a shoe sole is being slowly pulled from a liquid-filled basin, would allow more detailed customization at each section of the midsole based on factors such as the weight of the consumer and the shape of their foot. Through customization and manufacturing on demand, fashion companies hope to tackle overstocking in the future.
While no personalized version of the shoe has yet been sold, 17 years of running data have shaped its current design. The printing process of the midsole takes 40 minutes, according to the Adidas spokeswoman. The brand is currently working with US tech-company Carbon to enhance conventional 3D-printing with light and oxygen to increase efficiency, she added.
Will we ever print our clothes at home?
So far, 3D printing has mostly been applied to firm products, such as shoe soles and glasses frames, said Alexander Artschwager, researcher and consultant for digital engineering at the German Institutes of Textile and Fiber Research Denkendorf. “There is still a lot to do until you achieve the typical characteristics of fibers,” he said, referring to garments. While Israeli designer Dani Peleg managed to print an entire wearable graduation collection at her home, Artschwager doesn’t believe that 3D printed fabrics and knits will be available to the clothing industry in the short-term.
“Pore structures and air permeability are properties that make comfortable clothes. In principle, it’s exactly these structures that define textiles, which you cannot achieve with 3D printing,” Artschwager said. He also doesn’t see any major commercial fashion companies working with 3D printed garments, and said most of the projects to date seem experimental.
Even though Peleg’s 3D printed pieces are flexible, the elasticity of the fabrics still look more like a spring than a merino jumper; a reminder of the technology’s limitations in creating materials that would replace traditional garments. US-startup Electroloom tried to develop 3D-printed fabrics five years ago but had to shut down due to a lack of financing and “a poorly defined market opportunity”, its founder Aaron Rowley wrote on the company blog in 2016.
Besides comfort, high costs are still limiting the expansion of 3D technology within the fashion industry. The 3D pieces alone from the graduation collection of AMD-students Viering and Mentzel cost 2500 euros and their budget wasn’t sufficient to make an entirely 3D printed coat that would have cost more than 10,000 euros. The technology is still mostly limited to wearables and accessories in fashion.
The question still remains as to whether 3D-printed garments will add value to our current wardrobes. Maybe it won’t be 3D printing in the strictest sense, but rather the application of some of its concepts - such as knitting clothes with just one thread or skipping parts of the sampling process by altering a digital file - that could bring disruption to the fashion industry.
“Fashion can do well without 3D printing and 3D printing also without fashion,” said Viering. “So, both need to interact with each other in a way that hasn’t been seen before, to become established.”
Picture: Platform Fashion