Will 3D Printed Fashion Destroy Retail As We Know It?

I can only imagine how incredibly sci-fi it must feel to hold a teacup you just casually printed at home with your 3D printer. A perfectly circular, perfectly manufactured teacup whose only prerequisite for existing is your ability to press a couple of buttons

Iris Van Herpen

I can only imagine how incredibly sci-fi it must feel to hold a teacup you just casually printed at home with your 3D printer. A perfectly circular, perfectly manufactured teacup whose only prerequisite for existing is your ability to press a couple of buttons. Up until the era of 3D printing, to make a teacup I'd have to go to pottery class and struggle through batches of wonky creations and bouts of anger management before giving up and going to Selfridges.

Now, replace the teacup and pottery class in your mind with just about any object and manufacturing process, and you've got yourself an idea of the phenomenally disruptive effects of potentially one of the most important technologies of the 21st Century. Did you imagine an intricately knit dress? A pair of fierce high heels? Or maybe a rounded shoulder bomber? You probably should have, because after houses, children's toys, cars and prosthetic limbs, 3D printing's potential has mainly entered the realm of fashion.

The signs have been emerging for a couple of years now: in 2013, Iris Van Herpen entered a two-pronged tech meets fashion collaboration with a leading producer of 3D printers and a manufacturing software solutions company to produce a 3D printed collection at Paris Fashion Week. The gorgeous creations showcased how technology can help bring something new and innovative to fashion. The issue was that, while innovative, not everyone has access to such a collaboration, and it still required a sizeable investment.

Ditto for United Nude. The company has been working for over 10 years with 3D printing, singling itself out as a producer of technically advanced ladies footwear, often collaborating with not only 3D fan Van Herpen, but also heavy hitting architects, too. The label regularly works with 3D Systems, another big player in the 3D printing market. Many fashion innovators, like Diana Law and Catherine Wales, have used 3D printers to create conceptual accessories and jewellery.

But this time it's different.

Gerber technology, one of the leading providers of fully integrated software solutions for the clothing industry, has paired with Blender, and easy to use, free, open 3D creation software initially aimed at artists and small project teams. Add Danit Peleg into the mix, a fashion designer with a love for technology-aided design and a penchant for experimenting with innovative production methods. A collaboration with Gerber allowed her to present a graduate fashion collection at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design composed of a set of five 3D printed pieces.

The outcome was shown at the annual Blender Conference and wowed - not because, lo and behold, a magic box whipped up some wearable 3D printed dresses, but because of the wider implications of Peleg's process for the fashion industry as a whole.

Its use in replacing traditional manufacturing methods and channels is the first thought that comes to mind - in time, 3D printing could turn your standard textile and design producers into unwanted middlemen. With 3D fabric printing, technically, independent designers - or anyone - can design, model and create entire collections from the comfort of their own homes. All you would need is a good understanding of IT, maybe some math skills if you're feeling creative and want to work on an intricate pattern, and, if you're not feeling like a master of the cloth, maybe hire the occasional tailor to whip everything together directly on your body. Voilá: unique, custom fit, entirely ethical and, best of all, you didn't have to invest in a single brand.

3D printing has also been lauded for it's potential as an eco-friendly manufacturing option: there's virtually zero waste, as items are made solely to order from only the amount of material necessary to build them. Transport costs are also reduced, as manufacturing is done on the premises, rather than in another country, which then exports finished goods around the world.

Believe it or not, Blender is free to download, and keeps getting better with time as experts around the world refine it through its GNU General Public License. And if we consider that continuous advancements in technology will lead to lower 3D printer ownership and maintenance costs, increased user friendliness and, if we look at how things unfolded with computers, perhaps even expand to include a wider variety of applications for the general user's everyday life, then maybe, we're looking at something truly life changing.

The implications are huge. Whilst we worry today about whether or not garment workers today are being ethically paid, this problem could almost seem quaint by the comparison of the mass unemployment clothing factory workers could face. Whilst we complain about the environmental impact of cheap, fast fashion on our high streets, having virtually unlimited access to fashion that's so 'fast', we could create entire wardrobes ourselves in a day could potentially kick the planet's butt even harder. Those fashion retailers we love to hate could go bust, the same way video and CD retailers like Blockbuster and HMV did with the rise of digital downloads - and fashion retail jobs (already reduced thanks to online shopping) would be next to nil.

And it's not just 3D printing that could kill most manufacturing jobs in fashion: the Business of Fashion reports that fashion jobs ranging from trend hunting and designing to pattern cutting and sewing will be done by robots or other forms of automation. Automation is even likely to change our retail experience: stores might be remade as distribution centres, geared to "click and collect" with site-to-store package lockers instead of racks of clothes. But all of that is nothing - why even bother leaving the house when you can use your laptop to search the latest trends, design the perfect piece of clothing, upload the design into your printer and press a button?

However, a few things we cannot deny: technology moves fast. Smartphones and laptops haven't even been around for 20 years yet, but life without them seems completely unimaginable. A decade ago, no one had even heard of Instagram, and now there are celebrities whose fame is only possible thanks to it. Like driverless cars and virtual reality, 3D printed fashion, homes and toys may seem like the stuff of eco-fashionista fantasies, but technology has ways of turning those into realities quicker than you think. Before it does, we should be careful what we wish for.


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