Will the 3-D printer replace the sewing machine as the favoured tool of fashion designers? In recent months, 3-D-printed clothes and accessories have shown up on Project Runway (a contestant printed belts), the actual runway (Dutch designer Iris van Herpen's 3-D-printed collection called Voltage) and on the Neiman Marcus website (which sells 3-D pieces such as Bathsheba Grossman's sculptural stainless steel orbs).
A few days ago, 3-D-printed fashion had perhaps its biggest moment when CBS broadcast the annual Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. Model Cara Delevingne walked the runway in computer-generated angel wings, while Lindsay Ellingson was outfitted in a corset, bustle and arm pieces intricately designed to look like snowflakes.
Architect Bradley Rothenberg, who operates studioBRAD - a design studio based in Manhattan, collaborated with Victoria's Secret to create the garments. He is excited about the technology's potential to change how clothes are made and fit.
"Clothing can be custom and even specific to your body," Rothenberg says, citing as an example the way a garment could be made to stretch more in the elbow than in the forearm," he says.
"The other advantage for 3-D printing with textiles is the level of complexity. When you think of constructing with a sewing machine, you are always thinking in terms of the thread. With 3-D printing, you are not limited to that. Imagine having a knit sweater mixed with a T-shirt mixed with a jacket."
At the moment, the material used in 3-D printing is not super-thin, so the process does not yet lend itself to printing delicate and soft clothing.
The 3-D-printed garments tend to be made of nylon and are still more art project than everyday attire. But the improving functionality of 3-D fashion was illustrated earlier this year when Francis Bitonti designed, in collaboration with costume designer Michael Schmidt, a laser-sintered gown for burlesque performer Dita Von Teese. Constructed like chain mail, the gown had 3,000 articulated connections.
Bitonti, a New York-based fashion designer, has been working with 3-D printing since 2007.
"The materials are getting better every day," he says. The design and fitting process for Von Teese's dress were done virtually, he says. "When you see it in reality, and it's exactly as pictured, it's surreal."
The dress was printed by Shapeways, a company that acts as a marketplace and service for 3-D printed goods, as well as a booster for designers.
Duann Scott - whose title at Shapeways is design evangelist - says the low financial risk from printing objects on demand is ideal for fashion designers looking to push boundaries. "Short seasons, doing new things all the time: that's what works for the fashion industry," he says.
The Dutch-founded company's all-white, futuristic-looking factory in New York houses several industrial printers. Designers can work with a range of materials, from nylon to bronze to stainless steel.
Kimberly Ovitz turned to Shapeways when she wanted to design rings and other jewellery to complement her women's clothing line.
"The technology allowed me to revolutionise the timeline," Ovitz says. "People could look at my jewellery on the runway and get it in two weeks. And they could customise the material and colour."
That embrace of the new is drawing fashion to 3-D printing. "We don't need to reinvent jeans," Scott says.
"Cotton is good. It's about making something unique that would otherwise be impossible."
The New York Times