Luxury fashion and accessories brands stand at the gates of a new era that’s going to change the way we shop and consume. Adam Hay-Nicholls investigates 3D printing and how it’s already part of our daily lives.
Imagine walking into a fashion outlet with a USB flashdrive containing a scan of your body and leaving shortly afterwards in a perfectly fitting garment made on the spot, without a measuring tape or seamstress in sight. Imagine the same for jewellery and accessories customised to your taste, delivered virtually instantly compared to the usual wait for bespoke pieces. Once just sci-fi fantasy on the telly—think The Jetsons fashion mavens Jane and daughter Judy donning the latest computer-generated outfits for the 1962-1988 run of the animated series—this futuristic service is on the cusp of reality.
The technology that will deliver it—originally called rapid prototyping but now called 3D printing—has been in use for more than 20 years, but only recently has it come down in price and emerged from factories to join us in our daily lives. The principle is simple. Like an ordinary printer squirts a layer of ink onto paper, a 3D printer fires droplets of material, layer upon layer, gradually building up a three-dimensional object according to the blueprint, or code, it receives from a computer. Another method uses lasers to sculpt a block of material into the required form.
3D printing has been in use in science and industry since the mid-1980s, when the machines were the size of large cars and cost hundreds of thousands to millions of US dollars. They enabled scientists and techies to create prototypes for testing in a fraction of the time of traditional fabrication, cutting costs and speeding up research or product development. Advances in technology have led to a range of machines the size of a microwave oven and costing from hundreds to a few thousand dollars, bringing them into the realm of the home, office and boutique. At present, the range of “ink” is limited—it includes plastics, metals and even chocolate—but is rapidly developing. Plastic resin can be bought online for as little as US$30 a litre. The fabrics produced by the printers aren’t soft and durable, but that will change.
While the shopping scenario posed above is still some way off, clothes, jewellery and other accessories are already being 3D-printed. Three years ago a New York-based designer, Mary Huang, produced the world’s first 3D-printed bikini. Huang, who describes her brand, Continuum Fashion, as “part designer label and part lab”, has since used 3D printing to make shoes and jewellery. “I came upon the technology with the singular obsession of being able to make fashion without sewing,” she says. “I think the most beautiful fashion would be created entirely by robots, in an autonomous choreography, without any human labour.”
When Tony Stark used 3D printing to make his armoured suit in the 2008 hit Iron Man, it was just fantasy, but New York designers Michael Schmidt and Francis Bitonti brought the concept to reality last year. On a computer, they created a gown tailored exactly to fit a scan of the voluptuous burlesque queen Dita Von Teese. They printed it out in 17 pieces of lacquered nylon, which were assembled and adorned with 13,000 Swarovski crystals. Von Teese looked stunning!
Also last year, the fashion world sat up when pioneering Dutch designer Iris van Herpen unveiled her 11-piece Voltage haute couture collection during Paris Fashion Week. “At the very beginning,” says her collaborator on the collection, architect and designer Neri Oxman, “we set out to create a piece of clothing that was seamless. Using the multi-material technology, we were able to redefine couture by replacing handwork with code. You can now print continuous surfaces without seams or parts, and you have gradients of material that vary in size, flexibility and complexity. To be able to make highly complex things in a relatively short space of time is completely changing the fashion industry.”
The ability to quickly and cheaply create a prototype is the main advantage of the technology for the fashion sector, according to Bre Pettis, co-founder of a leading US manufacturer of 3D printers, MakerBot Industries. “They can innovate faster,” he says. “It used to take weeks or months to get a prototype made, whereas MakerBot allows you to innovate multiple times a day. It can bring things to market faster.” Without the need to make dozens or hundreds of garments to send out to stores, the technology effectively cuts the manufacturing cost to zero until a garment is ordered. It also allows designers to experiment in small batches and to sell limited editions.
Van Herpen reckons 3D printing will eventually find its way off the catwalk and onto the high street. “I can imagine people getting their bodies scanned in the future, and they can order clothes that are a perfect fit,” she says. That would fill the gap between haute couture and ready-to-wear.” What’s more, on-demand clothing would cut down on the millions of tonnes of waste produced by the industry each year.”
3D-printed T-shirts and jeans are still some way off, she notes, but not too far. “If you look at the flexible materials that are being printed in fashion now, they feel like a brick compared to cotton or wool. I wouldn’t want to wear a 3D-printed T-shirt right now. But it’s really a matter of time. The materials have to be improved to become softer and thinner and then it’s heaven. In some years, 3D printing of exotics like leathers will be interesting.”
Pettis says it’s only a matter of time until an A-list brand such as Louis Vuitton or Chanel embraces the technology. “Some brand is going to take it and go crazy, and change the way we think about fashion.” In other words, code will compete alongside craftsmanship for the luxury industry’s profits. Adds Van Herpen, the luxury design powerhouses will start with accessories. “Clutches, jewellery, shoes, hats etcetera will be the first. [3D printing] also has big potential to be an alternative to traditional sewing-machine production, especially in the high-end ready-to-wear segment where detail is leading, customers like a perfect fit, and quantities are relatively low.”
London-based designer Catherine Wales, who has 3D-printed a range of bespoke fashion accessories, relishes the medium’s potential. “What excites me is that technology can power both the designer and the consumer to collaborate on a more personal level, each having an equivalent impact on the other.”
Liz Bacelar, the founder of fashion technology incubator Decoded Fashion, predicts that 3D printer code will be part of the luxury industry’s DNA within three years. Francis Bitonti and Bre Pettis give a similar estimate, but they say realisation of its full potential is further off. As materials improve, the market for 3D printed prêt-à-porter and high-end goods will only expand. They predict that in 10 to 20 years a good proportion of our clothes and accessories will be 3D-printed as opposed to bought off the peg.
Given the technology’s ability to produce prototypes and small runs of products, it’s a natural fit for the luxury sector and firms providing bespoke services. Mainstream brands such as Nike are already using it to create athletic shoes perfectly tailored to the individual customer’s feet, and to allow buyers to customise colours and design. And it’s really shaking up the jewellery sector. Big department stores now carry lines of 3D-printed rings, necklaces and bracelets, and some companies offer bespoke services. For example, American Pearl takes a customer’s design, creates a digital blueprint, and prints and delivers the finished jewellery in three or four days.
Top-end jewellers use 3D printing to create life-size mock-ups of designs before artisans get to work with precious metals, thus reducing development costs by cutting waste, says Paul Redmayne-Mourad, the Hong Kong-based Asia development manager for London jeweller David Morris. But it may be a while before they use it for the item itself. “I’m not sure high-end jewellers would use [3D printing] just yet in finished pieces,” he says. “As yet, no machine or computer can replicate or replace the years of experience of a craftsman.”
New York’s Francis Bitonti this year launched the Cloud Collection, a range of 3D-printable decorative bowls, trays and vases. Clients can customise the items, download the digital blueprints for US$1 each, and print them out at home or have them printed at the most convenient of 75 production hubs. “Ninety per cent of our customers are producing their items pretty well, and 1 per cent are doing something really special,” says Bitonti. “That’s free development for me.”
So the home is on the verge of being a mini factory. In Bitonti’s words, “Consumers are becoming producers.” Soon, with a wider range of materials available, we’ll be able to browse the web, choose an item, customise it, click to buy and download, and press print—and our new dinner service, or whatever, will appear as if by magic.
With the promise of such performance, the market for 3D printers has phenomenal potential for growth. It was worth more than US$3 billion last year, having grown six-fold in a decade, according to Forbes magazine. Industry analyst Terry Wohlers forecasts it will hit US$10 billion by 2021, a figure many consider conservative. Already several hundred companies are making desktop-class machines priced from US$500 to US$5,000, and the US$100 Peachy Printer is due to hit stores by the end of the year. IT giant HP has announced it will be joining the bandwagon later this year.
However, Bitonti is uncertain about the potential of home printing and doesn’t think the luxury audience will bother with it, though he sees a big opportunity for Amazon and its ilk. “I’m not sure about producing at home. Not everyone wants to assemble their own things. But the shipping companies are going to be the factories of the future. Files will be sent to local hubs, printed there and then delivered.”
Decoded Fashion’s Liz Bacelar has mixed feelings about the technology. “I’ve never seen something that is so inspiring and so scary at the same time. It’s like you’re selling the sketch but letting go of how it’s produced. Designers spend so much time selecting the right material, deciding how it’s going to be stitched, how it’s going to be cut.” By selling the computer code rather than the finished garment, “you’re pretty much [reducing] an artist like Zac Posen to a sketch artist.”
There are other concerns, too, such as product safety and piracy. Imagine, for example, the risk of a child downloading the code for a gun, printing the parts and assembling them. And how do luxury goods powerhouses, or any owner, fare when everyone has the technology to be a bootlegger? Once 3D printing and materials are capable of accurate, high-quality duplication, how long will it be before a Napster-style file-sharing website makes the codes for luxury goods available for free?
“It’s important to consider the implications of this technology, for better and for worse,” warns Hod Lipson, professor of engineering at Cornell University and co-author of Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing. But he says brands shouldn’t panic. “When it comes to home 3D printing something like designer sunglasses, the quality is not there yet, and it’s not economically viable when you consider all the effort required.”
But there’s nothing to stop organised counterfeiters from using expensive industrial printers. Such machines “could make accurate duplicates of designer goods, certainly, and they can be traded online and shipped around the world,” Lipson says. “Again, though, quality can vary.”
When in 1980 Bill Gates voiced his vision of “a computer on every desk and in every home,” many scoffed at him, but look at our homes and offices today. Now that 3D printing technology has gone desktop, there’s no stopping it. In its leap from the domain of science and industry into the hands of boutique designers and consumers, it’s democratising manufacturing and likely to change the way we consume everything.