Having begun my career as a patternmaker at a high street supplier, I am acutely aware of the 2D manual pattern and digitisation process that has underpinned much of fashion’s mass manufacturing for decades. 2D, whether manual on paper or digital using software by Lectra or Gerber, who recently joined forces, continues to be taught at fashion schools across the globe. 3D, in many cases, is the preserve of garment technology and pattern-cutting students rather than fashion design students. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, fashion students lost access to 2D tools and were forced to adopt 3D design software on their laptops at home. The result? A global cohort of self-taught 3D fashion designers, upskilling and problem-solving their way to digital final collections, showcased online to a global audience. As a consequence, fashion design students, emerging designers, and the startups hiring them are beginning to ask: with all the advances in 3D, do we still need 2D? I spoke to leading voices in fashion education, software innovation and startups to find out what the future of 2D and 3D holds.

“I still feel that 2D patternmaking is essential. There are so many techniques, like draping, that are pretty impossible in 3D,” says Greta Gandossi, MA garment technology and pattern making graduate. In her role as a 3D patternmaker at Swedish outerwear company Ridestore “the 2D pattern is the basis for everything,” she says. Working simultaneously in 2D and 3D within CLO, she admits, is quick and easy, but she misses being able to occasionally print out patterns and work on them by hand. In previous roles she used Gerber’s AccuMark for 2D pattern making, before rendering in 3D in CLO, highlighting the variation in 2D methods currently applied in different workflows.

The benefits of working only in 3D, for Gandossi, include faster design development and increased collaboration between pattern-makers and designers. On the subject of how working in 3D software is changing the traditional role of pattern making, Gandossi said:

“I think the designer has more of a vision of what the garment is inside the collection, but in my experience, it becomes real at the 3D stage with me, so I get a bit more say (in the garment design development) at the creation, rather than sampling, stage. Designers are very visual, so 3D is a way of communicating what I think is good regarding the pattern.”

Reinforcing the symbiosis of 2D and 3D, she explained that developing foundation back and front pattern pieces in 2D first, then adding details such as cut lines, sleeves and hoods in 3D saves rendering time and helps control margins for error.  Although she works in 3D, she clearly continues to think in 2D.  Despite Ridestore’s reliance on 3D software, Gandossi says “most manufacturers don’t use 3D,” instead they use 2D patternmaking software for production patterns, where technical details and grading of sizes are “more easily handled.” “It can be a fiddle to find the right way to export the files for the suppliers,” said Gandossi, hinting at some workflow and accuracy challenges between 3D and 2D software. However, the benefits of 3D across design, marketing and sales, and of 2D for production patterns, lay planning, and technical specifications appear to ensure ongoing codependency of 2D and 3D within their supply chain.

Mouhannad Al-Sayegh, Creative Technologist at London College of Fashion (LCF) delivers workshops and support to students and staff wanting to use AR, VR and 3D design within their work. The interest in 3D from both students and teaching staff has surged since the pandemic, Al-Sayegh said. This has prompted the university to invest in virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to ensure students and teaching staff can access university-owned licenses and software from anywhere in the world, on any device. Crucially, this allows online learning without students needing to attend the university, or to even be in the same country. “It allows full (access to) CLO3D desktop on your phone,” Al-Sayegh explained, offering an insight into the appeal of working directly in 3D in the current climate. 

How are students not yet skilled in 2D patternmaking able to develop workable designs in 3D, I wonder? Al-Sayegh explained that many fashion students use 3D as a creative tool to test visual ideas and experiment with silhouettes. They can try things that would be unaffordable due to the cost of physical materials, or impossible due to time constraints and restricted access to patternmaking facilities. They can also eliminate textile sampling waste. Once their design ideas are refined, they then turn to 2D to make their patterns. In this sense, 3D is purely a creative tool that replaces sketching and toiling, to a degree, but also allows easy creation of interesting AR, VR and other fashion content well aligned with fashion’s rapid digital transformation.  Here, 2D is delayed, rather than circumvented.  And it is true that students lacking pattern making knowledge experience difficulty animating garments that are aesthetically, but not structurally, sound. 3D avatar software Mixamo, for example,will show gapes or rips in animated garments where there is insufficient tolerance for movement, demonstrating the limitations of 3D without an understanding of 2D.

Adam Andrascik, ex-Creative Director of Guy Laroche Paris and Founder of Ravensbourne Digital, is spearheading the inclusion of 3D in the Fashion Design curriculum at Ravensbourne University London. “We are getting emails from 1st year (students) demanding to learn 3D,” he said, citing the Balenciaga game Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow (video embedded above) and Prada Virtual Reality as triggers. Students are also making their own AR filters, experimenting with digital tools to express design concepts. Do these students believe 2D is redundant? It seems the answer is no, but also yes. 

No, because students still learn 2D manual patternmaking in their first year, before progressing to 2D digitisation and 3D design from year two onwards. Andrascik expects 2D and 3D to continue hand in hand, despite a growing number of fashion design students for whom he says “physical fashion is not their end goal.” And herein lies the ‘yes’. This has prompted a new BA Fashion pathway that will allow a digital-only final output, where students may wish to create digital clothing ‘skins’ for games, for example, rather than physical fashion. Andrascik warns, however, that this digital evolution should not be equated to a lack of interest in 2D. “What (the students) are really interested in is the correct way to make a shirt, a jean – all the (pattern) pieces that go into it. From that point, they are open to trying 2D and 3D – whatever tools work.”  The fashion designers of the future appear to be technology agnostic in a way that previous generations may not have been.

Image courtesy of finesse

For AI-fashion startup Finesse, though, jumping straight into 3D and circumventing 2D is a crucial facet of their optimised workflow. During an interview with founder Ramin Ahmari, he explained the unique digital-first approach they take to designing directly in 3D from data. 

Every Sunday, online data is scraped and analysed by Finesse’s natural language processing algorithms to determine the most ‘buzzed about’ style tendencies and influencers, according to specific criteria. According to Ahmari, it is the way the clothes are worn that create the design, which can lead to highly unorthodox patterns, like their V trouser. The Finesse 3D fashion designer and the VP of product have a wealth of ‘in real life’, or IRL, knowledge from more traditional 2D and physical sampling workflows, which they bring to Finesse’s fully digitalised ‘URL’ workflow. The entire process from data scrape to final 3D design takes around two days, at which point the style is launched at a partner factory in China, who also use 3D design software. Ahmari says only one physical sample is made, which Finesse approves virtually, and their lead time is only 25 days.

Given that 3D serves the purposes of design and production as well as creating engaging website and social media imagery, what benefit could working in 2D possibly offer to Finesse? Also,what role does 2D have when the origins of (AI-led) designs are code, I wonder? Furthermore, do sketching and subjective design have a place in data-driven fashion? No, according to Ahmari. But he concedes that this 3D workflow is possible because of the ability and experience of the team, who cut their teeth in traditional patternmaking and physical sampling before honing their 3D skills.  Add to this his willingness to rip up the traditional pipeline rule book (being from a computer science, rather than a fashion background) and it’s clear that Finesse is relying on extensive 2D knowledge (if not practice) and data-driven decision making to operate efficiently and effectively in 3D.

Product images courtesy of finesse

With such fashion brands relying heavily on 3D, the level of accuracy of the 3D design – from fabric rendering to drape and the final 2D garment pattern – is paramount. Does 3D digital design reliably result in a physical twin? Why is it still necessary to make a physical sample before launching production? During a discussion with Alan Murray, VP of Product at software startup Seddi, he explained, “where (the industry) falls short from a 3D perspective is giving an accurate and trustworthy digital twin, versus something aspirationally correct.” Seddi software, still in the pilot phase, simulates textiles and garments based on computer models of real-world scenarios, rather than artistic interpretation. The accuracy of their simulations arises from modelling the actual mechanical performance of soft materials on soft bodies, which is very complex, explains Murray.  

Their garment engineering software is scheduled to launch in late 2021 and is being designed to allow the import of digitised 2D patterns for fully detailed garment simulation, right down to the ISO standard stitch selections, giving true simulations of the final physical garment construction. The exportable bill of materials and tech pack are intended to  interface directly with garment manufacturers. Where accuracy, predictability, repeatability and accessibility are key, “3D has to start with the accurate representation of the physical world,” says Murray. He points to legacy CAD software originating from other industries that operate with hard materials, for example architecture and automotive, and the fundamental differences between these and the fluidity of fashion. Inherent within Seddi’s solution is the import of accurate 2D patterns, whether created manually or digitally, once again demonstrating the co-dependence of 2D and 3D.

Image courtesy of Seddi Inc.

Throughout my interviews, it became clear that the question ‘do we still need 2D?’ does not accurately reflect the industry challenges and shifts of today. A more accurate question might be: what are the ways that 2D and 3D can be used to optimise workflows for a wide range of outcomes, spanning digital to physical clothing and IRL and URL experiences? Fashion is evolving digitally and 3D is a route to VR experiences, AR filters and interactive fashion games, which are all now a part of fashion consumption and are therefore linked to fashion design, sales and marketing processes. Only a combination of 2D and 3D tools can, for the foreseeable future, meet the various fashion outputs (digital and physical) along the supply chain and across marketing and sales. It has to be said, though, that 2D appears to increasingly mean ‘digital 2D’, rather than manual patternmaking, and that digitisation is becoming an essential aspect of 3D product creation for not only design, but for sales and marketing content creation. With dispersed supply chains and various digital platforms in place, the design and optimisation of workflows appear to be the biggest challenge. 

On the fashion education side, 3D is being introduced to complement 2D training, but there are clear indications that fashion design students want to work in 3D – a natural form for them – rather than 2D, whether that be digital or manual. 2D is somewhat of a means to an end, but the ability to work closely with 2D-trained patternmakers within 3D means higher levels of collaboration and development of hybrid skill sets. This appears to be shaping a new generation of fashion design and production talent who do not fit squarely into traditional siloed roles.  They tend to be technology agnostic and are digital-natives, driving  them towards hybrid manual and digital workflows. The upshot remains that, wherever it is used, upstream or down, convincing and physically-viable 3D fashion must be underpinned by accurate 2D processes – whether they originate manually or digitally.