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Fashion Technology Series

When the fashion industry began to accept 3D printing, it was primarily spotted on high-fashion runways as stiff, unmoving pieces placed on models. But as the technology has matured and become more refined, these wearable couture sculptures are beginning to share the stage with fashion that could be seen walking down the street.

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing has drastically expanded its capabilities in the past decade. Not just a tool for the home trinket creator, it continues to spur innovation in a variety of fields. Beyond the machinery and welding of the manufacturing floor, the fashion industry is continuing to push 3D printing’s artistic and consumer boundaries—and not just for prototyping, either. The technology is now being used to create final products that the general consumer can wear.

Although there are different processes of additive manufacturing, the basic concept is that it builds up the materials. Instead of starting with a larger block of material and removing portions until a final product is made, additive manufacturing creates objects one layer at a time. Through this, fashion is able to take on not just new types of intricate design, but also mass customization.

Fashion designer Danit Peleg was the first to bring 3D-printed clothing to the online shopper. Peleg designed a series of jackets that could be customized and purchased online. Instead of creating them from a typical hard 3D-printer plastic like polylactide (PLA), Peleg found success with FilaFlex. This material allows for more flexibility and motion than what’s found with PLA. The jacket’s exterior is 100 percent printed and has a fabric lining.

Peleg was also the first to create a 3D-printed runway line on her home 3D printers. Her five-look collection, called “Liberty Leading the People,” premiered in 2015. Peleg also created a 3D-printed dress for Amy Purdy, the headline dancer at the opening ceremony of the Paralympics Games.

Want to own one of these custom jackets? Peleg printed a limited run of 100 jackets and sells them for $1,500. (Just because they’re 3D-printed doesn’t mean they’re cheap: This price cover the hours of production and design that go into each garment, as well as a virtual fitting session.) Despite the advances of the industry, time and cost for larger products are still a challenge. This jacket actually prints three times faster than Peleg’s initial collection.

Customization comes at a price, but it’s the name of the game. The ability for 3D printing to create items as they are ordered allows for reduced inventory and increased customization. Based in New York, the 3D-printing company Shapeways allows computer models to be 3D-printed on demand and in the material of the customer’s choice. The company offers the standard plastic options, as well as materials like steel, gold, and porcelain. At-home jewelry designers can utilize Shapeways to create prototypes and finished products; consumers can browse the large collection of designs uploaded by 3D modelers from around the world. Artists no longer have to feel constrained to sell only what they have in inventory, and the consumer has the freedom to match their jewelry and accessories perfectly to their personal style. This service offers an easier entryway into purchasing 3D-printed fashion by offering items at a much lower price point: From a stainless-steel anatomical heart pendant for $38.40 to black plastic hashtag cufflinks for $19, these pieces are not out of reach.

Starting in 2000, Italian brand XYZ Bag has taken advantage of 3D printing’s personalization opportunities to create custom purse cases. Annalisa Nicola, CEO of the company, says the choice to use 3D printing was easy: “Three-D technology was the best technology to allow flexibility, design, and speed to market,” Nicola says. “A prototype becomes a product itself.”

However, Nicola has also embraced the combination of handmade and industrial manufacturing. Although the clutch’s exterior is 3D-printed, the inside is sewn, allowing the company to create a handcrafted luxury good.

Personalization of style reached new levels with the Nervous System’s Kinematics dress. Drawing inspiration from patterns found in nature, Nervous System works at the intersection of science, art, and technology. Using programs that generate unique patterns that can be turned into jewelry and accessories, the studio allows the user to design custom works of wearable art. The company 3D-printed a dress composed of thousands of interlocking pieces using its design work and Shapeways’ technology. The fabric flows and conforms to the body. A perfect fit is ensured since the dresses are created directly from body scans. Different versions of the dress now exist in permanent collections of major art museums in the United States and Australia.

Fit can be most difficult when considering shoes and feet, but Wiivv is using 3D printing to tackle that issue as well. Using photos you submit, Wiivv digitally maps each of your feet with more than 200 points to create a 3D-printable file that is unique to each foot. An app records your foot’s measurements and creates the perfect insole fit for you. The company then uses nylon to 3D-print the arches of your foot and ships your insoles within 10 days. Although you might not get them as quickly as insoles you pick up from the store or Amazon Prime, you are getting a 3D-printing-powered product made with your exact foot in mind.

Speed might not yet be the strong suit of consumer-oriented 3D-printed fashion, but the pioneers of the industry are working to capitalize on its advantages. Personalization, custom fitting, unique materials, and printing on demand are all being utilized to carve out a powerful place in the market.