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.