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How Iris van Herpen's Ice-like 3-D Printed Dress Was Created

Plus: how the one-of-a-kind piece will be translated for mainstream fans.

Iris van Herpen's spring 2015 show in Paris was filled with technological wonders and barely comprehensible feats of engineering. Our favorite piece was one that, to an untrained eye, appeared the most subtle: look 31, a strapless, structural, somewhat translucent mini dress worn by Dutch model Iekeliene Stange.

The dress, which almost looks like an ice sculpture, was created in partnership with American 3-D printing company 3-D Systems. "[Van Herpen] wanted to use a technology that we developed," says Annie Shaw, the company's creative director. She's referring to technique called SLA or stereolithography, which 3-D Systems founder Chuck Hull invented in 1983. "It’s been used for industrial applications up until now, and the way it works is that a beam of ultraviolet light is focused onto the surface of a vat filled with liquid photopolymer, so layer by layer the photopolymer hardens and you pull this print out of the vat and there you are! It’s really an amazing process to watch."

Before it was printed at a 3-D Systems facility in Lawrenburg, TN, Van Herpen worked with architect Niccolò Casas to finalize the design and create a 3-D model. Van Herpen also had to create a dress form based specifically on Stange's measurements (she as a 22-inch waist!) and a scan of that dress form was used to create the file for the printer.

Shaw compared the collaboration to one between a designer and a talented seamstress in a French atelier wherein "the designer would rely on them to realize their vision." The dress was printed in two pieces -- a front and a back -- and it wasn't easy. "Our team was challenged to print them out in a very short timeframe, and with a huge amount of engineering skill, there was a high chance of failure." The first print took 45 hours, the second print was 36 hours, and that was followed by about 8 hours of polishing and finishing work. They used 3D Systems' ProX 950 – "an ultra high resolution 3D printer capable of printing as large as a full size tiger and as accurate as the eye of a needle," according Shaw.

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Could this dress be worn in real life? "This dress is pure haute couture," Shaw says. "It fit that one girl and it looked incredible, but there is no sitting down."

Indeed, one challenging thing about Van Herpen's designs generally is that unless you're, like, Daphne Guinness, you can't really buy or wear them: A single garment can cost thousands of dollars and isn't exactly suitable for the office. However, 3-D Systems is working with Van Herpen to make her designs more commercial. They plan to produce a range of accessories, price TBD, with the same technology used to create this dress. Jewelry, hair accessories and bags will likely be part of the collection, says Shaw.