How 3-D Printing Could Change the Fashion Industry For Better and For Worse

3-D printing could have tremendous effects on the fashion industry. It has the potential to do great things for the industry: create shorter lead times for designers, offer the ability to produce things in smaller quantities, and create easy personalization. On the flip side, 3-D printing could render many jobs in the manufacturing industry obsolete, as well as present some tricky legal issues surrounding copyright.
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Dhani Mau
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3-D printing could have tremendous effects on the fashion industry. It has the potential to do great things for the industry: create shorter lead times for designers, offer the ability to produce things in smaller quantities, and create easy personalization. On the flip side, 3-D printing could render many jobs in the manufacturing industry obsolete, as well as present some tricky legal issues surrounding copyright.
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In the past year or so, 3-D printing has become one of those things that seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue--every day a new article comes out about some crazy new thing you can print (organs, sugar)--and now it’s starting to become relevant in conversations about fashion. Dita von Teese made headlines when she wore the world's first fully-articulated 3-D printed gown, designed by designer Michael Schmidt and architect Francis Bitonti, at a fashion event back in March. Designers like Iris Van Herpen and Kimberly Ovitz are experimenting with the technology to great effect.

As a 3-D printing "scene" emerges in New York, the fashion industry is starting to embrace it. Shapeways--a company set on becoming the go-to resource for designers’ 3-D printing needs--seems to be at the center of it. They're the company that Schmidt and Bitonti used to create Von Teese's dress, and the company Ovitz used to create 3-D jewelry for her last show.

While established fashion brands are a tad slow in beginning to experiment with it (as fashion brands are wont to be), the technology itself is growing rapidly. As a business, it’s growing rapidly as well. An established commercial 3-D printing company, Stratsys, recently acquired Brooklyn-based startup Makerbot--which makes and sells 3-D printers for home use--for a cool $403 million. Which means 3-D printers are becoming more accessible every day.

During a Financial Times panel discussion about counterfeiting several months ago, intellectual property lawyer Harley Lewin (he repped Christian Louboutin on the YSL case) said the threat of counterfeiting was nothing compared to the threat of this new industry: “When the cost of 3-D printing is reduced, it’s going to create an entirely new generation of businesses,” he said. “It’s not far away.”

The implications of 3-D printing on the fashion industry cannot be understated. It has the potential to do great things: create shorter lead times for designers, offer the ability to produce things in smaller quantities, and create easy personalization. On the flip side, 3-D printing could render many jobs in the manufacturing industry obsolete, as well as present some tricky legal issues surrounding copyright.

3-D printed jewelry designed by Kim Ovitz

3-D printed jewelry designed by Kim Ovitz

Exciting Possibilities

Some of the most common complaints we hear from independent designers about the fashion industry relate to the long lead times and huge minimum orders imposed by factories. This is why sample and overstock sales have practically become their own industry. With 3-D printing, designers have the potential to produce in as wide or limited quantities as they want and have their orders fulfilled within weeks. Elisa Richardson, PR and Social Media Manger of Shapeways, who works directly with designers, told us, “Every designer I’ve talked to is just kind of like, ‘Oh my god.’ It takes so long to source your manufacturer and then the shipping, so comparatively [3-D printing is] so much quicker.”

One of the most valuable functions of 3-D printing is rapid prototyping--which, in fashion, means quick sample making. Eli Bozeman, founder of the digital prototyping and development agency, Occom Group, uses rapid prototyping for every piece of software they create and says, "It's only a matter of time before all fashion products at least get their start this way. It's far more efficient and allows you to get something much sooner with fewer costly design iterations."

The accessibility of 3-D printers could also be a boon to smaller designers who are just trying stuff out at home and seeing if it will sell on the internet (like the designers you might find on Etsy). “The internet has made it possible for people to make a decent income just making whatever they enjoy making and at fairly low volume--at least compared to big brands--and if you’re good enough at it you can attract enough business to do reasonably well and 3-D printing definitely offers new opportunities in that area,” explained Beth Altringer, who teaches and does research in small group innovation at Harvard, as well as consulting for luxury companies including Swarovski and Gucci Group. Shapeways makes this easy for amateur 3-D printing designers--in addition to making things, you can sell them through the site’s Etsy-like marketplace. Jewelry already makes up a huge portion of their inventory.

It’s not just for amateurs though--Kimberly Ovitz, who made use of Shapeways last season for her first foray into jewelry, is currently selling her nylon and stainless steel wares on Shapeways' site as she restructures her business. While she won’t be producing her fall runway collection, she is continuing her collaboration with Shapeways and plans to do more understated pieces for her next run. We asked her to give us a layman’s explanation of how the whole process works: “Basically we had to learn 3-D modeling. [Shapeways] also hooked us up with a guy in their marketplace that’s really good at 3-D modeling that helped us, so we 3-D modeled [the jewelry] and made our own moldings of it ourselves so we could get an idea of what we wanted. They transferred it over to their system and showed me how one was printed. We used two materials: nylon and stainless steel. For the nylon, they start with a white cube and it gets lasered through the pattern of the digitization and everything else falls to dust. And then you have the piece.”

Crazy, right? “I think that more designers should do it,” Ovitz added. “I think that it allows so many benefits--especially for smaller designers that can’t deal with volume and minimum issues. It kind of eliminates all that because you can do as intricate a design as you want and as many prototypes as you want. There’s not as much of a waste of raw materials.”

And that's another aspect of 3-D printing's appeal: It's pretty sustainable and green because less raw material is wasted.

In that vein, 3-D printing could also appeal to environmentalists, not to mention PETA. In sort of the same way the printing of human organs is being toyed with, lab-grown leather that doesn’t harm a single animal could hit the runway in the next five years according to Modern Meadow, a Missouri-based startup that recently received a grant from the founder of PayPal’s foundation.

And even further into the future, people speculate that 3-D printing could essentially eliminate the fashion manufacturing industry entirely--that instead of buying clothes, we'll just print them. For a design competition in 2010, Joshua Harris conceptualized a clothing printer that will hang on your wall and essentially become your closet. You put in an old shirt that's worn out or you're sick of, and out comes a new shirt that you maybe even designed yourself. He posits that this will be the wardrobe of 2050--not just because it's cool but because by then the world will be so overpopulated and resources will be so depleted that it will become a necessity.

Moving back to less Jetsons-like scenarios, another potentially huge benefit of 3-D printing is extreme personalization--something that’s currently looking most feasible in footwear. For instance, Nike recently made a 3-D printed a football cleat. Imagine: those shoes that are constantly giving you blisters because they’re not the right shape for your foot? No longer an issue. “You could solve that problem by actually printing shoes that exactly fit your foot,” proposed Altringer. “That would change the way people buy shoes, because then any shoe might fit you perfectly. For people who have really unusual fit needs, [3D printing is] going to radically change what’s possible for them.”

Except who would have designed that shoe? A luxury brand? Would you design it yourself? Would you take the design from a designer and then customize it yourself? And then, who actually owns that design? And who profits from it? This is where potential problems--including legal issues--arise.

A Shapeways 3-D printer in action.

A Shapeways 3-D printer in action.

Where Things Get Complicated

All these new developments are exciting and revolutionary and everything, but the transition from a fashion industry that does not use 3-D printing into a fashion industry that does will likely be pretty complicated to say the least. The accessibility of this new technology introduces almost as many potential problems as it does opportunities.

For one, if the manufacturing industry as we know it is eventually rendered obsolete--where will those jobs go?

Another big issue for brands is quality control. Say you could buy a design from a designer, and print it at home. “What’s fascinating to me is that it fundamentally changes the relationship between the brand and the customer, because if you can print things at home, that also means that you can sort of manipulate different aspects, put them together and combine things in new ways,” says Altringer--and that would change the original design. “It would be difficult for brands to keep you from doing that.” This possibility--which is still probably quite a long ways from becoming reality--is likely to send big brands, who dedicate huge portions of their budgets to controlling quality and brand image, into a tailspin. “If you sell something and the seams come apart, it’s your fault. So if you start to put production in the hands of consumers and you start to recombine things or use materials that are not the suggested materials to use, who’s at fault if that doesn’t work out? Who can the customer ask for a return?”

Authenticity could also become a huge issue. “Would you go to some local center that prints [an item] out for you and confirms that it’s the authentic design?” asks Altringer. “Where does the authentic design rest anymore when you have so many people participating in the process?”

Scafidi foresees numerous lawsuits as 3-D printing could also facilitate counterfeiting. “Imagine five years in the future everyone is just downloading files and printing their own 'Tiffany jewelry'," Susan Scafidi, Academic Director at Fashion Law Institute says. "People could also take a page from the Canal Street counterfeit vendors and easily print out, say, a silver Prada triangle and stick it on some cheap generic handbag."

“It’s really just endless, the concerns that could arise,” Scafidi continued. But all hope is not lost. “That being said, I don’t think [legal issues] will hold back the technology at all. I think that every new technology that has come along from printing to photocopying has had similar issues.”

Both Altringer and Scadfi likened these issues to those that plagued the music industry when the internet made way for file sharing and illegal downloading. And the solution could be similar--an iTunes or Spotify for fashion. Altringer speculates: “I imagine that some of the more progressive brands will jump in and explore different pricing models. iTunes just radically changed the way music is distributed, and I imagine that some of the more experimental brands will try to do that and see what happens.” Such a concept is likely to inspire entrepreneurs in coming years. “It may be that you’ll see entrepreneurs experimenting with these models and building them and then getting bought by bigger brands, like Yoox [which was acquired by Kering, then PPR, last year]. That’s probably very likely because the bigger brands potentially have a lot to lose. I know that they’re thinking about it and they have been at least for a couple of years.” (Altringer consults for Gucci Group, which is owned by Kering.)

Of course, that's all hypothetical. Depending on what technology ends up being possible, 3-D printing may not even end up being a very efficient way to produce fabric clothing--at least not for quite sometime.

Iris Van Herpen's 3-D printed dress

Iris Van Herpen's 3-D printed dress

What's happening now

So we're not close to wearing 3-D printed clothes yet. “Actually getting to the point of 3-D printed thread--I just haven’t seen anything that’s really realistic on the horizon yet,” Altringer says. “Until we can actually print in comfortable, breathable fabrics, it will remain a pretty far off concept. I think we have plenty of time to think about these things and how it would work before this is actually really a mainstream thing.”

Mary Huang, co-founder of technology-based fashion label Continuum and a pioneer in 3-D printed fashion design (she made the first ever 3-D-printed bikini) admits that 3-D printing could be more of an asset to conceptual design: “The 3-D printing stuff is kind of still conceptual. Even if you do talk about fashion, brands will have conceptual work and then they’ll have ready to wear.”

But watch out for these designers doing pioneering work with 3-D printing:

Michael Schmidt, who designed that dress for Dita Von Teese (he also designs clothes for the likes of Madonna and Lady Gaga) told us that he created "fluidity of joints" in the dress using "layer upon layer of fine powdered nylon" which was then "sintered" into form using lasers (a process known as select laser sintering). "It’s an articulated fabric built into the 3-D print itself," Schmidt explains.

Another designer who's experimented with 3-D printing repeatedly is Iris Van Herpen. She collaborates with a company called Materialise, which recently staged the first ever 3-D printed fashion week in Malaysia.

Chinese designer Masha Ma, who was part of the recent CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund China Exchange Program, is yet another designer garnering attention both here and abroad for her masterful 3-D printed designs.

More locally, expect more from Shapeways. The company is currently building out a factory in Long Island City which is expected to have 50 3-D printers up and running soon. They also already have partnerships in the works with notable designers. Last year, they put on a 3D printing fashion event at the Ace Hotel (where Von Teese modeled Schmidt's creation) and we hear they may do something similar this year.

Asher Levine, who designs for Lady Gaga, printed out eyewear with Makerbot printers during his presentation last fashion week.

3-D printing has also made its way into the top design schools--FIT, Parsons and SCAD all have 3-D printing resources. If designers are developing 3-D printing skills at the education level, it's yet another sign that this technology is one that's sticking around--and that has the potential to disrupt just about every aspect of the fashion industry, for brands, designers and consumers alike.

Freaked out yet?