The Rise Of 3D Printing In Fashion

Naomi Kaempfer, Creative Director, Art, Fashion and Design at Stratasys, shares the benefits of 3D printing and, as a result, the rise in adoption. Stratasys explores the possibilities of 3D printing cross border in the creative disciplines and with their experience enable and promote designers and artists to stretch the creative envelope.

The role of 3D printing in fashion is continually evolving, with a notable increase in awareness and interest in the technology from designers. This growth in curiosity is coming from across the fashion spectrum – from high-end fashion to the low-end, and in various fashion applications.

One of the key factors for this is education. Many academies are now integrating 3D printing within their education programmes. High fashion has previously had a traditional methodology, so the notion that fashion education is now embracing these innovative technologies is an encouraging step forward.

Educating a new generation of designers, and introducing 3D printing technologies and software to all the parties involved in fashion creation, is naturally a gradual and ongoing process. This might explain why the shift in the industry is, perhaps, not immediately apparent widespread in mainstream fashion, but is likely to emerge in the not so distant future.

Stratasys 3D printed fashion piece, designed by Noa Raviv, produced on Stratasys’ Objet500 Connex Multi-material 3D Printer. Photo credit: Ron Ked

The Advantages Of 3D Printing Over Traditional Techniques

3D printing permits fashion designers to expand beyond the traditional boundaries of design, allowing them to turn some of the most challenging design concepts into reality. We are seeing an evolution from traditional textile production methods, such as pattern-cutting and sewing textiles together, towards a textile being totally 3-dimensionally grown.

Digitally-created materials are offering up vast possibilities in terms of enabling sophisticated physical properties to be embedded in specifically defined areas of a textile. For example, you can create a specific textile that is waterproof, opaque, flexible or rigid and then combine these elements together, meaning that these properties can all be present in a single garment.

Without the need for a specific mold, designers are free to create intricate geometries and structures, which are not only aesthetically pleasing, but can add smart functionality. For example, when we create a garment that needs to be held together, instead of using traditional buttons we can integrate this locking functionality directly into the textile itself, by making certain areas adhesive. We’re still in the early stages of developing our geometrical understanding and working out what is feasible, but the possibilities are vast.

The immense opportunities for customization that 3D printing offers is another important benefit for the industry. Apparels can now be created to perfectly fit the size and curvature of each part of the body, allowing for true personalization. This capability will also enable 3D printing to branch into other areas of fashion, such as leisure and sportswear, and potentially in cases of medical care. As this is a new domain, we still need to really challenge ourselves to envision the next steps and embrace this new design freedom in order to open up its true frontiers.

Material Developments Drive Adoption Of 3D Printing In Fashion Design

Material developments are a key element to accelerating the adoption of the technology within fashion design and there is a great deal of interest from the design community with regards to this. At Stratasys, for example, we work with students and leading fashion companies alike to address various design challenges, supporting them to explore uncharted grounds in contemporary fashion that can be realized with 3D printing.

The reality is that we are continually discovering more advanced possibilities in terms of materials, aesthetics and colors, and therefore the diversity of fashion design applications is constantly evolving. Some important milestones have certainly been achieved in this area, most notably the introduction of the Stratasys J750, the world’s only full color, multi-material 3D printer. We’ve seen some wonderful creations from leading designers – such as Neri Oxman, threeASFOUR, Iris Van Herpen, Julia Koerner and Noa Raviv – who have leveraged this technology to create complex geometrical designs, not achievable with traditional fabrication.

3D Printing Directly On To Textiles

This year, we have seen the development of a new technique: PolyJet 3D printing directly onto textiles. For us, our aspiration is to uncover how 3D printing can actually work in harmony with textiles, rather than how it can replace the textile itself. Thanks to our R&D efforts, this year marked the first time that this has been achieved using our high-resolution PolyJet 3D printing technology – representing an interesting breakthrough for the industry. By combining traditional textile materials with digitally-created 3D printing materials, we’re hoping to bridge the gap and facilitate a faster integration of the technology in textile design.

Foliage dress, presented at the Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie in Paris, part of the Ludi Naturae haute couture collection from Iris Van Herpen, developed by TU Delft scientists and 3D printed using Stratasys PolyJet technology. Photograph: Yannis Vlamos

An inspiring example of this can be seen in Iris Van Herpen’s latest haute couture collection “Ludi Nature”. The foliage dress incorporates traditional textiles with 3D printed plastic elements utilizing PolyJet technology. Three variations of the 3D printed material were altered on a droplet level, achieving the unique color and transparency on the dress which allows it to seamlessly fuse with the fabric material.

Another benefit of integrating 3D printing and textiles together, is that it enhances the practicality and comfort of the garment for the wearer. The interface that touches the skin of the wearer can be the soft fabric, while the complex 3D printed design elements can be enjoyed on the outer part of the garment – enhancing the comfort for the wearer and addressing this previous drawback.

The Future Of 3D Printing In Fashion

People sometimes mention the notion of 3D printing reaching the mass-market, but we know that caution must be taken when considering the implications of mass-market solutions. Ultimately, we hope that the fashion world returns to a more sustainable model, which involves more localized production, allowing smaller design and production houses to compete in the market. Nevertheless, it will be fascinating to witness the evolving impact of 3D printing on the fashion domain and to see how it continues to challenge and transform our perception of fashion.

In a world of constant technological advancements, fashion can also be considered as a key vehicle for demonstrating the vast capabilities of 3D printing for design in other sectors – whether it be consumer goods, automotive, aerospace or others. Not everybody can connect with technology when it derives from a very particular niche market. However, fashion opens up a new way of relating to technology and allows greater participation.