First Zero-Waste Digitally Customized 3D Printed Skirt Commercially Available
3D printing is on the verge of going mainstream. Both in the public eye, where 3D printing is starting to figure in the plots of television shows, and in commercial applications. Investment in commercial 3D printing equipment has grown more than tenfold in the last three years, and some industries—notably aerospace—have begun to adopt 3D printing into their design and manufacturing workflows. Somewhere between 3D printing’s history as a hobby and its growing future as a means of mass production lie applications like fashion. As I’ve gotten ready to produce the world’s first digitally customizable 3D-printed skirt, I’ve been thinking about how far the technology has come in the last few years, and how a new paradigm is forming around 3D-printed fashion. More than just a new business model, I believe that 3D printing is the method around which an entire new age of fashion is taking shape.
The Two Eras of FashionFor most of human history, fashion was largely a local affair, usually the domain of women responding to the demands of climate and culture. Even where raw materials like cotton or wool were plentiful, clothing designers rarely had a broad range of materials to choose from. The same thing applied to dyes and fixatives like alum, and to the materials used to provide functional and decorative accessories like buttons and beads. What women in the first age of fashion may have lacked in terms of materials, they more than made up for with technical innovation and ingenious approaches to design that built sophisticated fashion vernaculars out of relatively few components. Those techniques and designs inform fashion to this day, but on a commercial scale they do so at a remove, as inspirations from a past era. The Industrial Revolution had the same impact on fashion that it did on many other industries. New means of transportation brought raw materials from around the world to factories where garments were produced in mass quantities. The tradition of handcrafted clothing persisted for some time, but even then, dressmakers and tailors were usually working with mechanically produced fabrics. In the 20th century, widespread globalization produced the fashion industry we know today. Design has been largely divorced from production: fashion designers work with textile firms to select distinctive woven materials or to produce unique ones; their designs, however carefully developed in the studio, are produced in factories, often in problematic conditions.
Fashion’s Next EraWe are just getting a glimpse of fashion’s third era. 3D printing offers the same prospect of wholesale change to the fashion industry that the Industrial Revolution delivered. In some ways, new era offers a compelling synthesis of the two that preceded it.
The software employed in the 3D printing process reunites the modes of design and production that were rendered discrete by the advent of mass production. On a more practical level, the challenges of 3D fashion design would be familiar to our first-era forebears. 3D designers currently have a relatively small palette of raw materials to choose from, and necessity has given birth to some fascinating advances in technique. At the same time, we benefit from the second era’s legacy: new materials are constantly in development, and are becoming commercially available with increasing frequency. A New Production Model The first and second eras of fashion were defined in part by the ways that fashion was consumed. In the first era, fashion often denoted and reinforced affiliation with local or regional communities. While individual designers and garment-makers of special genius were celebrated locally and regionally, they did not produce fashions for large markets. That has been the second era’s specialty, and the economies of scale necessary for fashion to reach global markets have benefited consumers as surely as they have degraded the lives of garment workers and in many ways degraded the wider fashion vernacular. 3D printing is still an immature enough technology that economies of scale don’t apply just yet. But value- and supply chains serving commercial 3D printing are developing quickly, and the core technology behind 3D printing becomes more powerful each year. 3D clothing was something of a novelty as recently as a few years ago, when designers were devoted to proofs of concept similar to those demonstrated by the more outré entries at fashion shows. It’s a novelty no more. The challenge today is to develop protocols, pipelines, and business models that allow the mainstream production of 3D printed clothing.