Redefining custom style: 3D printing and the fashion industry

Dita Von Teese models a 3D-printed gown, Asher Levine's 3D-printed sunglasses

Dita Von Teese models a 3D-printed gown, Asher Levine’s 3D-printed sunglasses

The future of 3D printing is looking good. Real good.

While guys may not be as keen to get our hands on a replica couture dress, the emergence of better and more accessible 3D printing technology means instructions for anything from accessories to shirts may soon be available to create, share and produce in the comfort of our own homes.

Recently, queen of burlesque and all-around show-stopper Dita Von Teese modeled what has been billed by its designers as the world’s first fully articulated, 3D-printed gown. Crafted from nylon chain links and embellished with more than 13,000 Swarovski crystals, the gown and its method of production could mean aspiring designers may soon be able to easily produce pieces more complex than simple tie clips and cuff links.

One particular development that has me believing this is the direction we’re headed in is a breakthrough by German company Nanoscribe GmbH. They recently revealed the world’s fastest nano-scale 3D printer, capable of of producing objects thinner than the diameter of a human hair. With a bit of ambition, some of menswear’s most complex accessories could become point and click, including tiny watch movements. While that day may still seem far off, designer Asher Levine has already collaborated with MakerBot, a 3D printing company, to debut a pair of printed sunglasses at this past New York Fashion Week — not exactly the simplest of designs.

However, not everyone can afford their own printer, or has the technical and style savvy to draw a viable 3D design. It is because of this that custom 3D printing fashion labels such as Continuum Fashion might soon be popping up all over the place. Calling itself a crowd-sourced label, Continuum provides basic designs for a few garments, including a dress and even a shoe. All the users of Continuum’s website interface need to do is specify a custom print and their exact measurements, and the new garments are digitally printed and assembled for them with no need for a tailor. Custom men’s shirts, ties and blazers, in more natural-seeming fabrics, may be next.

As 3D printing gains more momentum, the roles of retail, distribution and manufacturing in fashion will have to be reevaluated, if not diminished. Lamentably, so too will be the roles of designers. The same technology that has the potential to unbridle the creative force in each of us also has the potential to seriously alter how the industry has traditionally operated.

While it’s no secret that designs are copied — if not outright stolen — in the industry, the possibility of widespread counterfeiting is a major concern due to the shareable nature of digital blueprints. The easier the designs get to duplicate and share, the harder it will become to protect intellectual property that might take some designers a lifetime to develop. However, if the music industry’s handling of Internet piracy is any indication, my guess is that this may simply lead to better creative and marketing efforts on the label’s part.

If you think about it, it’s not been too long since the industry got over the shake up mass production had caused. Hopefully it won’t be long before this emerging home technology will have positive effects on how we make and consume our clothing in a more responsible (and creative) manner.

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