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.