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Will 3D printing revolutionise the fashion industry?

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

The technology promises so much, but its progression beyond runway couture is slow. Alexandra Leonards finds out what’s holding it back.

Whenever a new catwalk show of 3D-printed garments hits the headlines, there’s a palpable buzz around the technology. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm doesn’t seem to stick around.

While it may have all the ingredients for realising a far less wasteful and more eco-friendly fashion industry, the progress of 3D printing outside of runway couture and museum pieces is slow-moving.

For all the medium has promised fashion, there’s virtually no opportunity for the public to engage with, let alone purchase, clothing made by the technology.

“Trying to get a handle on the technology is very difficult because it's hard to distinguish between what is reality and what is usable now, and what is futuristic speculation,” says Jonathan Rowley, design specialist and steering committee member at the Design for AM Network, which connects researchers specialising in 3D printing with industry practitioners.

The case for 3D printing

A major selling point for 3D printed fashion is that designers are generally only making items people have already purchased. There’s no need to anticipate demand or order large quantities in different sizes.

With around 20 billion garments being dumped every year before ever making it to the shelves, the on-demand nature of the technology could help combat one of fashion’s biggest problems: waste.

“When I produce my designs, every part has a role and every part is being used, there are no leftovers,” says Danit Peleg, a Tel Aviv-based fashion designer specialising in 3D printed clothing. “All of my designs are recyclable, when you’re done using a garment you can just blend it into a desktop machine, it brings it back to the original material – which is powder – and then new filament can be printed, so there’s a circular economy behind it.”

Designs are based on digital files, which means there are no shipping costs. A design can be created in London and printed in New York; no need to transport goods in container ships across the ocean.

With a few photos and some basic information, designers can create a personalised item that fits a customer like a glove, even if they’re thousands of miles away. A dress, shirt, or bag can be designed without ever meeting the buyer. Nowadays, shoppers can even try on clothing before it’s made with augmented reality or filters on social media.

“From just one person in Japan really liking my garment, people could be immediately downloading and buying it,” explains Peleg, who was recognised by Forbes as one of Europe’s top women in tech. “Then a jacket could become viral just like a video.”

The durability and flexibility of some of the textiles can also be a plus. Modeclix is an additively manufactured, or 3D printed, adaptable textile which comes in the form of flat sheets of chain mail.

“You can then break that down to make a garment which has really interesting sustainability credentials,” says Rowley. “Because it’s very robust, it will last forever, which means you could make a top and when you’re finished with it break it down and turn it into something else.”

What’s holding it back?

While 3D printing has proved successful in a number of industries, including health and transport, it’s still in its infancy when it comes to fashion.

“We’ve definitely seen more interest, but there’s nothing ready for commercialisation or everyday use,” explains Peleg, who has been working with the technology for at least five years. “Materials are one of the biggest challenges we’re facing right now.”

Ultimately, the major gap is working out how to turn existing textiles into clothes that people would feel comfortable wearing.

“Iris Van Herpen, she’s the sort of poster girl for 3D printed fashion, all her clothing is made from digital sculpting,” explains Rowley. “They’re very impressive pieces, but the trouble with them as a viable fashion application is that they are nothing more than sculptures you can wear, they’re very rigid.”

The design specialist describes how he once attended a talk where Van Herpen was asked what her biggest ambition was.

“After a long pause, she said that she hoped to one day produce something the wearer can sit down in,” he says.

Finding a textile that is strong enough to take a person’s weight and flexible enough to move around in is no easy feat.

Peleg has just finished a bunch of new designs, but she’s decided to wait to produce them until “something incredible” happens with the technology.

Rowley says that there are a lot of people within the industry who have seen the available materials and decided they’re not good enough.

“They're waiting for whatever they wish it was to become real,” he adds. “In the meantime, we can only work with what we've got, and the thing that I fear is that they will wait and wait and wait, until then one day when they think it's ready, they’re going to jump at it and it’s all going to be a bit of a panic.”

Nervous System, a generative design studio founded by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, has pioneered the application of new technologies like 3D printing since the company was established in 2007.

“[Nervous System] designed a dress and then they put it into a software that folded it up to almost the size of a breezeblock,” says Rowley. “They print the breezeblock, take it out of the machine, shake it, and it unfurls itself to become a dress.”

The studio’s famous Kinematics dress, which is included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, is composed of thousands of unique interlocking components. The dress is created in 3D, directly from body scans, and requires no assembly.

“Technically it’s very clever, but when you read stories about it, what they don’t tell you is what it costs, and it would have cost about £5000,” he continues. “I don’t know whether this kind of dress is very marketable in fashion retail, maybe at the high-end but not on the High Street.”

On top of it being expensive, another barrier to widespread take-up is lack of knowledge about the different technologies and materials associated with 3D printing.

“Because not all of them will make any shape you want, you have to understand which material comes out of which technology and which will be suitable to make those kinds of shapes; you need a lot of understanding before you start producing anything,” explains Rowley. “I've seen a lot of projects in the past where it was a really lovely idea, but it was produced in the wrong technology and material, and it didn't work because of that.”

He adds: “Then the idea was thrown away, when in actual fact, if they'd made a different choice, it might have been more purposeful.”

How it’s developing

With that being said, there are a number of promising developments happening in the industry.

Danit Peleg says that the pandemic has pushed more and more fashion brands towards creating digital styles. She believes that 3D printing will be the way to produce these designs in the physical space.

Peleg is currently exploring the use of non-fungible tokens (NFTSs), units of data or virtual assets stored on a blockchain ledger, for her fashion designs. NFTs are becoming increasingly popular and can come in many different formats, including digital artwork and photographs. In May, eBay became the first e-commerce platform to sell these tokens.

“I'm actually selling my digital styles, so when you buy my NFT, you will get an unlockable folder that contains all of the files you need in order to print a dress, or a crop top, and a PDF on how to assemble the garment like an Ikea instructions pack,” says Peleg. “You’ll also be able to wear the garment in the metaverse, or on Instagram, use it for filters and try it on in augmented reality.”

She’s also working on a research project with a Japanese company which is investigating ways to improve 3D printed fabrics.

“You can also design rigid materials that are flexible, they move because they are designed to move,” says Jonathan Rowley.

Modeclix, for example, is a 3D printed textile that can be used to make a number of different kinds of flexible products, from clothing and accessories to toys and interior decorations.

The company says that the material is made up of a simple linking component that can be locally manufactured into sheets of flexible material. After printing, the textile can be infinitely deconstructed and reconstructed by hand after printing.

“Modeclix doesn’t have to be an entire dress, it can be a collar that’s fixed onto something else, it could be cuffs, a belt, embellishments, this is less expensive so designers could start off with this,” says Rowley. “Some designers are making 3D printed buttons, focussing on smaller items while their fantasy material is being developed in the background, so that when it does come, they're already pretty knowledgeable about how it all works.”

Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) Manchester School of Art is researching the materialisation of 3D printed textiles that use the same structures found in traditional knitting. The 3D printed forms utilise both single-face and double-face weft knit structures, using a laser sintering process of nylon powder to create flexible knitted materials.

Rowley is setting up an event later in the year which will bring together academics and experts working in the industry. There they can experience samples of viable textiles, like the knitted material produced by the university, and also put their heads together to help find ways to accelerate 3D printed fashion.

The future of fashion

“I don’t think 3D printing will revolutionise fashion, but I think it can already augment it today,” adds Rowley. “As it develops and people’s understanding of it improves, you will start to see more and more of it being applied.”

He concludes: “But hopefully you won’t be aware of it and things will just start to be more interesting, hopefully it’s a quiet revolution where nobody understands why it’s improving unless they ask.”

Peleg says that the future of fashion will be digital.

“Like what happened with music,” she explains. “We used to buy CDs and now we can just download digital music and it's the most common thing – I think this will happen with fashion, and I think 3D printing will be the solution to close the gap between physical and digital.”'


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