Part 1: The interwoven past, present and future of fashion and technology
While you could argue that blending our bodies with technology began the first time an early human sharpened one rock against another, let’s take a slightly more fashion-focused approach to our species’ innovational history and skip ahead a few million years to 1805 — the year Joseph Marie Jacquard patented his mechanical loom in Lyon, France. Thanks to the backing of a rather distinguished patron — Napoleon Bonaparte — Jacquard built upon earlier attempts to mechanise the weaving process by creating a loom that was capable of ‘remembering’ fabric designs via a punch card. Jacquard’s iteration of the loom was not just the most successful effort to automate and refine the precision of garment manufacturing — it has often been thought of as an early version of a computer.
We’ve come a long way, baby
World shaking as Jacquard’s loom was, it’s unlikely the inventor could have imagined the developments mechanised garment manufacturing would take in the centuries following his punch card system.
Fast forward to 1983 — the year American engineer Chuck Hull invented the 3D printer. A form of ‘additive manufacturing’ — that is, making something out of nothing by adding successive layers of materials on top of each other until an object is created — 3D printing has become one of the most important developments in the manufacturing world. Its impact across sectors from automotive production, to medical hardware, to food is absolutely unprecedented. But 3D printing isn’t just serving our practical pursuits in life — it’s also revolutionising the way we express ourselves through fashion.
Prior to 2009, Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) 3D printers were used primarily in industrial applications — not surprising, since the printers would cost upwards of $20,000. The expiration of the patent meant 3D printers became accessible by the consumer, with a much more appealing price tag (think $500 — $2000).
Bring on the experiments!
Since 3D printing became widely available, we’ve seen fashion designers and makers adopt the technology in garment creation and fabrication that would put the Jetsons to shame.
Take the work of Iris van Herpen, the Amsterdam-based Dutch designer at the vanguard of high tech couture. Her pioneering work, crafted using a combination of age-old techniques and cutting-edge technology, saw her become the first designer to ever present a 3D printed dress on a runway (the piece was subsequently named one of 2011’s best inventions by Time magazine). 3D printing makes it possible to create shapes without a mould, which has in turn made it possible for van Herpen to achieve incredibly intricate and complex geometries in her garments — one of the defining characteristic of her work.
Founded in 2014 by Palestinian-Lebanese designer Gabi Asfour, Tajikistani-German Angela Donhauser, and Israeli-German Adi Gil, the New York-based studio has become known for creating pieces that are fiercely geometric and stunningly ethereal. Coming from a mix of mechanical engineering, architectural and fashion backgrounds, the trio is particularly interested in the way technology can be used to manipulate the internal geometry of textiles.
“3D printing has allowed us to create a new textile that does not exist,” says Asfour. The textile has a similar appearance to chain mail except each unit of the weave also has the added capability of what Asfour calls a ‘four-dimensional stretch’. Each component can stretch up, down, forward and backward in a way that has not been possible in a textile before, as seen in their painstakingly constructed Pangolin dress, which took 500 hours to assemble.
Because of the rigidity of existing 3D printing materials, the process is still better suited to the creation of Integral pieces — that is, garments made from constituent parts. This means 3D printed clothing, for the time being, is reserved almost exclusively for couture shows, galas and museums. The Bahai dress from threeASFOUR’s 2013 collection MER KA BA was so fragile that the model wearing it couldn’t sit down, or it would shatter — not an ideal scenario for ready-to-wear clothing.
But this is just the beginning. When design and manufacturing thresholds like these are being crossed, it’s not hard to imagine the ways 3D printing could expand fashion creation beyond what’s currently possible. A world where textiles aren’t just remarkably flexible, but bulletproof, fireproof, pressure-resistant and able to trap heat or cold is just on the horizon.
Tel Aviv-based designer Danit Peleg has begun to address the rigidity constraints of printed garments by creating the world’s first 3D printed ready-to-wear collection with lacelike mesh systems. Because of this structuring, Peleg’s printed garments move beautifully.
The first collection required nine months of research, and each piece took 40 hours to print — an impressive feat that ushers in a whole new way of thinking about personal clothing collections. As the technology develops and proliferates, the possibilities of spontaneous garment production are endless — think printing a jacket if you are suddenly cold and left yours at home, or never needing to travel with luggage again because you can print clothes from your hotel room.
The creation of ornaments that can be added to an outfit is another way 3D printing is being used for ready-to-wear fashion. Also hailing from Israel, Noa Raviv is a fashion designer who integrates 2D graphics and 3D elements into her garments to create eye-popping ornamental objects that defy comparison. Her collection ‘Hard Copy’ was influenced by distorted digital drawings, the lines and grids of each piece evoking impressions of corrupted 3D images. “I’ve translated those lines into textiles that creates this sort of optical illusion,” Raviv says, employing a multi material 3D printer to print each design as a ribbed polymer piece — a kind of hyper-real, ‘jewel-like’ adornment.
From exquisite ornament, to exceptional equipment
Beyond avant-garde couture and experimental ready-to-wear, 3D printing technology had begun to find its way into mass apparel production in the shape of a collaboration between Adidas and Silicon Valley startup, Carbon. Launched in 2015, Carbon’s 3D printer uses digital light synthesis technology to create 3D objects. In a spectacle akin to something from Terminator 2, the Carbon 3D printer mixes light and oxygen to create perfectly customised soles that rise from a pool of resin. The availability of this technology, which is said to be 100 times faster than traditional 3D printing, means Adidas could eventually experiment with mass customisation —a future where you can go into a store, have the sales assistant scan your feet, record the particular points of pressured caused as each foot hits the ground, develop a midsole cushioning profile personalised for you and have the sole sent to be 3D printed via cloud-based software.
We’re not quite there yet, but Adidas do plan to ship 100,000 pairs of the the Carbon printed Futurecraft 4D shoes to stores by the end of 2018.
Holy laser-cut materials, Batman!
From additive manufacturing, to subtractive, the laser cutter is another cutting-edge piece of technology transforming the way we create fashion. Unlike 3D printing, which creates something out of nothing, laser cutting uses a laser controlled by computer numerical control or G-code to take away elements of a piece. Of the different types of lasers available, the CO2 gas laser, which produces an infrared light, is the preferred option for those looking to cut wearable fabrics such as neoprene, silk, leather, nylon, cotton, and polyester. This is is because the infrared light is better absorbed by organic materials.
One of the main advantages of laser cutting is that it allows fashion designers and makers to create incredibly intricate patterns with a precision far better than anything that can be achieved by the human hand. The immaculate work of a laser cutter can be seen in the exquisite dress from American label Marchesa’s 2011 Spring Summer ready-to-wear collection, pictured above.
Unsurprisingly, Iris van Herpen has frequently incorporated laser cutting into her process; from weaving laser cut wool with leather in her ‘Syntopic’ coats, to cutting mylar, cotton, organza and transparent acrylic to create her ‘Mimesis’ corset dresses. Van Herpen has also used laser cutting to create computationally distorted parametric patterns in her collection ‘Data Dust’. The technology adds a whole other dimension of uncanny perfection to her otherworldly creations.
Another designer, known for his innovative user of laser cutting, is Rotterdam-based Martijn van Strien, who launched his fashion company — ‘The Post-Couture Collective’ in 2015. Post-Couture allows consumers to download, personalise, produce and assemble clothing designs, all on their own. Each piece from the collection can be customised to the wearer’s measurements, the design is then downloaded which can either be laser cut at a local makerspace, or delivered as a kit for the consumer to self-assemble. The garments, with seams that slot into one another, are designed so they can be made without the need for a sewing machine. The company exemplifies van Strien’s belief that digital fabrication technologies can give designers greater scope to make bespoke patterns or “custom garments …. [that] exactly fit the consumer’s size and demands”. Van Strien has also taken the opportunity to make the process eco-friendly — the collection is made using Spacer Fabric, which is a 3D-knitted material made from recycled PET bottles, similar to neoprene. All this is a step in the direction of van Strien’s dream to have retail stores fitted with intelligent systems capable of producing perfectly fitted, custom-made garments for shoppers, laser cut on the spot. “Offering people a chance to influence and be part of the design and production process of their garments will create much more attractive products than the current mass-manufacturing industry does.”
Where to from here?
The ways that advancements in technology could affect the fashion industry are as immeasurable as the advancements themselves. In part two of our exploration of the latest frontiers being crossed by tech-focussed designers, we’ll be looking at the rise of ‘wearables’ — garments and accessories that are integrated with technological elements, from LED lighting, to intelligent devices, and beyond.
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Article authored by Genevieve Callaghan from research conducted by Ying Zhang, for FAB9.
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