Kanye West is prone to ranting, which is just what he did when he encountered 3D printing technology at the Tumo Centre for Creative Technologies in Yerevan, Armenia. “This is what I’m afraid of here, 3D printing, because the internet destroyed the music industry and now this is what we’re afraid of right now with the textile industry,” said West in response to this brave new world of fashion innovation. While it is indisputable that the internet forever changed the music industry, it is baseless to say that the internet “destroyed” the music industry. Technological advancement in every arena will no doubt force evolution, but what it does is disrupt and transmute the original model. The internet democratized creative industries, like music and fashion, by displacing the top-down system and providing the resources and tools for individuals to make and distribute their own products at cheaper, faster rates. Essentially, it has taken closed systems and opened them to innovation, thereby giving human beings the ability to express the infinite nature of their creative minds. In other words, 3D printing technology should be embraced since it allows us to inexhaustibly innovate and create.
Although 3D printing technology (also known as Rapid Prototyping Technology) was first invented by Charles Hull in 1983, it wasn’t until 2009 that the first commercially available 3D printer was released. As it stands, 3D printing is a very, very new technology, and the possibilities of its applications are just now being understood on a grand scale.
Syrian-British designer, Nabil Nayal, was one of the first designers to incorporate 3D printing into his designs, which he fused with traditional Elizabethan pleating in 2009 to mesmerizing effect. Iris Van Herpen has also been a pioneering fashion innovator in the field of 3D printing, and first introduced the technology into her work in July of 2012 with a laboriously constructed design called the ‘Cathedral’ dress which she debuted during her “Hybrid Holism” show. Interest in 3D print then began to seize the imaginations of many established and emerging fashion designers, due in part to the limitless nature of the forms that can be created. In fact, the fascinating and relatively unexplored intersection between the manmade and the machine-manufactured is the topic of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibit. From May 5 to August 14, “Manus X Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology” will be on display, highlighting the incredible works of designers like Van Herpen and Karl Lagerfeld, who employ digital technology in their collections.
Although commercial 3D printers have only been around since 2009, seven years is a long time in the fashion industry. That’s roughly 14+ seasons worth of potential innovation and experimentation, but so far, few have embraced the technology’s immeasurable potential. Nayal, Herpen, and Lagerfeld have made their mark, as have Michael Schmidt and Francis Bitoni, who made headlines when Dita Von Teese appeared in one of their 3D printed dresses. A few others, like designers Noa Raviv and Kimberly Ovitz, are coming out with 3D printed ranges as well. Additionally, at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in 2013, 3D printing was used to create a pair of angel wings and a sculptural corset. However, across the wide spectrum of the industry, only a handful seem to be showing interest. The question arises: why aren’t we seeing more 3D printing in the fashion industry? To answer that, one must look at cost and time. Although Herpen and Nayal, for instance, implement rapid prototyping technology in their collections, it is mostly used to craft pieces of a garment, rather than the full look. To create a head-to-toe gown using the intricacies of 3D printing could take months to finish. For example, Von Teese’s dress, made by Schmidt and Bitoni, was made of 17 pieces held together by 3,000 articulated joints and took three months to create.
However, many argue that the time-consuming process of creating garments using 3D printing pales in comparison to the lengthy traditional manufacturing times. Factories, who hold the power when it comes to delivering goods, can demand enormous minimum orders, and implement extensive lead and shipping times. 3D printing eradicates this problem. Not every item will take the three months it took to create Von Teese’s extravagant gown. Designers like Ovitz, who create amazing sculptural 3D printed jewelry, can turn around orders in a matter of weeks. In addition to saving time and production costs, 3D printing wastes less material, and is therefore a sustainable alternative to traditional manufacturing.
Another benefit to the fashion realm that should not be ignored is that 3D printing results in precision fits. Imagine being able to plug your measurements into a computer program and have a coat or pair of shoes printed that fit you like a second skin. Lagerfeld saw this obvious benefit, which is why he employed a selective laser sintering technique to create a new version of the iconic Chanel jacket. Nike has also taken up the technology, and created football cleats using 3D printing that conform to exact foot measurements.
There are still kinks in the system, however. The polymers that 3D printed materials are formed from are both fragile and inorganic, which means they can often be uncomfortable to wear. Further polymer development will be able to mimic organic materials in a more natural way, but this development is yet to be widespread. Another drawback is the accompanying legal issues that could arise when 3D printing is employed to copy a pre-existing design. Prepare to see a future where courts around the world are hearing cases based on 3D printing copyright issues.
In the future, you may be leveraging 3D printing for your own use. Some experts believe that we will all be printing our clothing and accessories at home by 2050 when earth’s resources begin to dwindle and run out. That is why it is more important than ever to understand the benefits and drawbacks presented by this radical new technology. However, there is no reason to follow along with Kanye’s reactionary stance. 3D printing is the future, and is not to be feared, but rather understood and used for the greater good.