3D printing. From intricate angel wings at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show to extravagant interior decor and a synthetic pelvis that transformed the life of a patient who had lost his to disease, 3D printing seems to offer a solution for nearly any design problem – large or small.
Nonetheless, as medical futurists and architects have jumped to embrace the latest revolution in 3D printing technology, fashion seems to be uncharacteristically lagging behind. Despite the odd ambassador using it as a gimmick (Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen, for example) or an excuse to integrate a fashion show into Internet Weeks the world over, few main stage or up-and-coming tastemakers have appeared to even experiment with the technology.
Taking a step back, it’s important to understand the history and intricacy of 3D printing as a medium before examining who has attempted to utilize it in the fashion world.
Somewhat ominously, the process of stereolithography – creating a tactile object from digital data – was invented in 1984. As a means of prepared modeling, the pricey technology took off within the automotive and aviation industries as well as larger manufacturing plants. Moore’s Law, an observation on the exponential speed of innovation in computing technologies, took hold and by 2002 3D printers were intricate enough to engineer a fully functional kidney for a lab animal. By the late 2000s, the world’s first self-replicating printer (one that can create the majority of its own parts) was completed as part of an open-source 3D printing enthusiasts program and the technology became more widely available and less expensive. 2011 brought a 3D-printed car and drone. Printers have dropped in price from tens of thousands to around $1,000 for an entry-level model, available at your local Staples.
So, how does it work? The hardest part comes first – building an intricate digital concept through animation modeling software. This results in a “virtual blueprint” in the form of a .STL file which is segmented by the 3D printer and built layer-by-layer out of a material of the user’s choice (normally rubber, plastic, paper or metal). The printer works through additive manufacturing to create the polygonal structure of the file created by the user and, voila, you have an object out of thin air.
Also worth mentioning is the process of Selective Laster Sintering (SLS), which was invented in 2006 as a means of binding powdered material together to create a solid structure. Because the lasers involved don’t actually melt anything, but rather sinter components together, SLS has revolutionized 3D printing and helped to galvanize its global popularity.
From inception as a B2B manufacturing tool to open-source breakthroughs in self-replicating printers and the advent of SLS, 3D printing appears to be entering its latest chapter – an era of broad experimentation. Possibilities, including advanced prosthetics for those who are sick or injured to large-scale 3D printed homes that could serve as the next iteration of pre-fab construction, appear as unlimited as the scope of human invention.
Here, we highlight a few upcoming trends utilizing 3D printing technology in the realms of artistic invention.
In 2011 it became possible to 3D print using 14K gold and sterling silver. Since then, the application of SLS to create delicate pieces of jewelry has increasingly gained credibility in the design community. The revolutionary aspect of the technology is its accessibility, and this becomes clear through the projects of Francis Bitonti. Highly regarded for his 3D printed gown made famous by Dita von Teese, Bitonti has moved on to commercially-available work including an international collection of fine jewelry and multi-material accessories driven by computational design techniques. Taking advantage of “cloud manufacturing,” the collection includes a series of “hackable, shareable and downloadable” products that are distributed through a printer network of 3D Hubs and printed on-demand.
The issue emerges of certain printers only being able to manufacture with specific materials, however. Attempting to confront this, firms like Bitonti’s often will only make available the models for those products that can be printed nearby an interested consumer. The resulting ecosystem could see luxurious objets printed in Paris, complex rings in New York and made-to-order sunglasses only available in Sao Paulo, for example. Thus the use, and availability, of this global technology actually has the potential to herald a return to local manufacturing. The closer a consumer is to their favorite designer, the more likely that his or her 3D printed products will be available locally.
Despite the fringe faction aura that still surrounds most of the printed fashion community, there are signs that the winds are about to change. As stated earlier, in 2013 Victoria’s Secret took full advantage of the technology available to it in order to continue its tradition of oneupmanship during its annual fashion show. Additionally, major high-fashion retailer SSENSE even recently dedicated an entire editorial section to explaining the processes behind 3D-printed fashion and exploring some branded favorites. Among these highlights was MYKITA, a German eyewear brand known for popularizing the use of 3D printing technology in the optical field.
There’s also possibility for 3D printing to transform the worlds of fine and contemporary art. An obvious application of the technology is for scaling architectural models. Sometimes, however, the lines between structural roadmap and philosophical project merge. Take, for example, Leapfrog 3D printers’ endeavor to reproduce the entirety of China’s Forbidden City using only 3D printing technology. The successful undertaking resulted in a collaboration with Dutch museum Nieuwe Kerk and the Chinese Nanjing Museum and an exhibition in Amsterdam wherein the final model was curated alongside of Ming Dynasty artifacts.
Then there’s “Blossom,” a work by artist Richard Clarkson. Taking advantage of 3D printing’s most cutting edge innovations, Clarkson utilized multiple build materials to incept the world’s first inflatable 3D print. By forcing air into the artist’s “blossom” models, flowers “bloom” and reveal the complexity of their interiors.
There has even been some concern that 3D printing of perfect replicas of famous works of art could become a serious issue in the future.
What the future may hold is limitless. The evolution of brand-sponsored sneaker customization programs, for example, could include 3D-printed insoles made especially to mold to the foot of the wearer. “Mass fast” furniture brands could do away with directions and shipping altogether and instead instruct buyers to pick up their freshly-printed couch, chair or dinnerware set at their local 3D Hub. Used in combination with body scan technology, there is hope for 3D printing to revolutionize the worlds of couture and bespoke fashion – modeling and building the perfect made-to-measure gown or suit out of a printer that only works through SLS with cashmere, wool and chiffon. Within 10 years, building planes, shipping containers and even homes in under 24 hours via giant 3D printers could be the norm.
What about teleportation through replication? Although we may still be lightyears away from the reality of The Jetsons, it’s not unreasonable to imagine a time when scanning an item through one’s at-home personal 3D printer results in that same piece popping up at the office of a friend or associate halfway across the globe. As technology becomes more complex, the potential for such a capability in the fields of medicine, travel and urban planning can’t be understated.
Fashion and art have always taken advantage of the latest innovations and technical advances made available. There’s no telling where 3D printing will lead the next generation of creators. There is, however, almost certain satisfaction in the knowledge that it’s here to stay – and only getting simpler and more rewarding to use.
Douglas Brundage has written about fashion and marketing for several years, with an emphasis on trends and culture. He currently lives and works in New York City.