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3D printed fashion hits the catwalk, and heads towards desktop

3D printed fashion hits the catwalk, and heads towards desktop

11 Feb 2016

In fashion, there are rarely any rules. Even the one about only wearing white in summer no longer applies. But one rule—law, even—that many follow is this: If Karl Lagerfeld does it, it’s chic.


The designer for Chanel, Fendi and his eponymous label recently added 3D printing to the list of all things fabulous. At Chanel’s Fall 2015 Haute Couture fashion show this year, the designer featured a 21st-century take on the house’s iconic tweed suit—3D printed with no seams. This means really one thing: 3D printing is officially in vogue.


3D printing has been around for decades, but now plunging costs and a growing array of printable materials are bringing the technology and high fashion together. Elaborate 3D printed designs began trotting down runways in 2013, draping the likes of Lady Gaga and Bjork, and making a debut in their own fashion show in New York.



3D printing is luring designers as it allows them to create amazingly intricate, highly customized clothing and accessories in just hours—as opposed to weeks or even months with traditional seamstresses. The technology is raising the artistic bar while lowering costs. It has opened doors for small, independent designers who otherwise would need millions of dollars to launch a ready-to-wear line.


And as for mainstream retail, consumers are beginning to experience the potential benefits of 3D printing. Footwear giants Nike and New Balance are customising shoe components for professional athletes, and 3D printed jewellery is inexpensive to buy online from sites such as Amazon and Etsy.


That said, there are still kinks that need to be ironed out before we find 3D printed clothing at local malls. For example, current 3D printing materials (called filaments) are inflexible and require a chainmail design to produce a semblance to fabric. And firms are looking into formulas of polyester and cotton to create experimental fabrics that would eventually allow consumers to design and print clothes at home.


3D printing poses an exciting yet unsettling future for fashion, an industry steeped in tradition, and worried about protecting the originality of its designers’ work.


From tradition to revolution


3D printing was invented in the 1980s and was first used mostly for prototypes and models. It has come a long way since then and is now used widely across industries from biotech (bone and tissue transplants) to construction (building mansions in China).


And perhaps one of the more compelling uses for the fast-changing technology is in the $1.2 trillion global fashion industry. Up-and-coming designers are using it to cut costs associated with putting out collections the old-fashion way.


‘It’s ironic that so many ways have changed in the last 100 years, but if you're going to make clothing or shoes, it's the same process’, says Brooklyn-based designer Mary Huang, whose company, Continuum, specializes in custom 3D printed clothing. ‘This technology gives you a bit of an edge over the traditional way of designing—it adds a digital story, gets you out of the door faster’.


And what’s good for designers could be revolutionary for consumers, according to the founders of 3D fabric printer Electroloom. The San Francisco firm funded its fabric printer in June 2015 via Kickstarter, raising more than $82,000. While the device is still at an experimental stage, it’s a vanguard of things to come for the retail industry.


‘The point of Electroloom is to add customization to the retail market and democratize the world of design’, says cofounder Joseph White. Democratizing design and fashion is all about bringing the ability to create to everyone, not just designers, he says.


He and his colleagues have a bold vision of the future. It is one where ‘the design and customizability of clothing—and even, more broadly, fabrics: linens, lampshades, curtains—was open to everyone, rather than a small elite. Where you didn't have to store and wash clothes that hung in a closet, but instead you could push a button and have whatever you wanted ready and perfectly fitting’.


Electroloom has printed its first seamless cotton-and-polymer garment—a tank top—from a prototype machine. And if such devices become cheaper and easier to use, consumers could eventually print much of their clothing at home, either by making their own designs or downloading templates from retailers, fashion houses and other machine users. Some designers are even mulling a future in which clothes are printed and then recycled into other designs each day.


‘This still sounds very much like science fiction, and indeed, it's a long way away for us if we continue towards that vision’, adds White.


Indeed, 3D printed fashion is not quite ready for household use: Good printers, though much more affordable now than a few years ago, can still cost thousands of dollars, and the materials cost far more than traditional fabric. Even for the democratizing Electroloom, Kickstarter funders had to fork over $4,500 each to get a prototype.


Danit Peleg, a fashion student at Israel's Shenkar College of Design, printed her entire student collection and admits that it wasn’t cheap or easy. ‘What I did was a proof of concept. It took 2,000 hours to print, so it's not something that can be done easily’, she says. ‘So for this to become commonplace, two main things need to improve: the speed of the printers, and better filaments’.


Nevertheless, 3D printer makers such as Makerbot are optimistic that their vision of 3D printing being part of everyday life will pan out. The Brooklyn-based company was acquired by 3D printing firm Stratasys in 2014, and recently announced that it would be expanding into Asian markets.


‘The technology is there—this is going to happen’, says Makerbot CEO Jonathan Jaglom. ‘Why would you not have a 3D printer to print art or cutlery or door knobs or a door holder that’s funky to suit your needs? If it’s accessible, why not just do some of that at home?’


And that’s perhaps the big draw for designers as well—the idea that fashion accessories, parts of clothing or even Chanel suits can be customized to the customer’s wishes, making each piece unique.


Peleg agreed that customization was key. ‘If the technology improves significantly, then yes, this could be the future of the fashion industry. The consequences are going to be huge: [lower] shipping costs, more personalization and, most importantly, making fashion design accessible to many more people. Anyone could design and manufacture clothes’.


The copyright conundrum


And anyone can print out other people’s designs. This is where the future love affair between 3D printing and fashion gets murky. If anyone can print out a dress or top they see online, what happens to intellectual property (IP) law?


Suing for IP in fashion isn’t straightforward. Design and inspiration are subjective concepts. Laws vary by country, with countries such as the UK, France, and Italy protecting the designs themselves while other such as the US protecting only certain elements.


IP attorney Rose Auslander warned the industry to ‘buckle up’ and prepare for challenges, pointing out, in an essay for, that US laws allow copyright owners to order Internet providers to take down material that infringes on their work—even if their copyrights aren’t registered. ‘At least one DMCA [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] takedown notice has already proven effective against online 3-D manufacturing’, she notes. In that case, a 3D printing service got a warning letter from HBO for selling a Game of Thrones-themed 3D iPod dock.


Author and futurist Ray Kurzweil is a strong proponent of 3D printing. He believes that 3D printing of clothing will become mainstream by the early 2020s and that there will be a vibrant open-source exchange of free designs, allowing one to print out clothing at ‘pennies per pound’.


‘This won't kill the fashion industry in that people will still pay for the latest cool designs from hot designers,’ he says. ‘Look at other industries that have already shifted from physical to digital products such as music, movies and books’.


Proponents such as Kurzweil liken the impending transition to that of the music industry when Napster introduced peer-to-peer file sharing on the Internet. They say the fashion industry has to catch up to the latest technology by revamping copyright laws, adapting manufacturing and most of all, be aware of what’s coming.


Will 3D printing change everything in fashion?


Of course there are sceptics.Tim Caffrey doesn’t think traditional methods of fashion manufacturing will change because of 3D printing.


‘You’re talking about an industry that knits and weaves clothing.’ says Caffrey, a senior consultant at Wohlers Associates, an independent consulting firm that specializes in the 3D industry. ‘Will printing revolutionize manufacturing? I’m not sure that’s going to happen. I think it’s going to be an adjunct to it. It’s going to be a high-end, add-on accoutrement to fashion. I don’t know if 3D printing will ever replace the mainstream methods’.


Others say the moment is coming, but not soon. ‘We are still a fair bit away for printable fashion to go mainstream, until further development and research is done to increase flexibility, breathability and comfort for the end user’, says Kae Woe Lim of XYZ Workshop, which created the In Bloom Dress, a fully 3D printed outfit that was featured on the Discovery Channel and at the 3D Printing Fashion Show in New York this year.


Carolyn Kan, the Singapore-based designer behind the jewellery line Carrie K., uses 3D printing for prototypes and some custom work but says the fashion industry isn’t ready for widespread adoption yet.


‘3D printing technology allowed us to create designs with very fine detail that traditional methods do not allow,’ she says. ‘3D printing will allow us to be more experimental and create unique detailing. It will also allow us to explore more widely. However, 3D printing and the process of going from design to a prototype is not currently that easy in Singapore, as the skills and experience are not yet widespread. Secondly, the cost makes this a “nice to have” option rather than a “must have”’.


The idea that anyone can print out a T-shirt or piece of jewellery in a home office may still seem ludicrous—now. But 10 years ago the concept of smartphone in every pocket was absurd. And that’s the comparison most experts point to when talking about the future of 3D fashion.


‘I think 3D printing is where PCs were in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, to give perspective on where it’s going’, says aerospace engineering instructor David Sheffler of the University of Virginia, who develops 3D printing applications for aviation. ‘I think it’s likely to change everything. Where that’s going I don’t know, but I see the potential to revolutionize anything. Even the evolution of 3D printing—it’s in its infancy. I doubt anyone would have predicted the Internet or Google or self-driving cars’.


‘I think the No. 1 thing is to not ignore it and not say “I will not be affected” or “I can survive without addressing it”’, Sheffler says. ‘I think all those things are dead-end attitudes. This is changing everything, and you need to leverage it to your benefit. I think, ignore at your peril.’


Photography by Francois Lenoir for EDB and is part of Melinda Looi's dazzling “Gems of the Ocean” 3D haute couture collection.