The Extra Dimension

New wave 3D printers are redefining how apparel is made.

For the Annual Senior Fashion Show at Drexel University, Neelam Chandwani created accessories inspired by the traditional henna motifs. Except her method of creating the bracelets, earrings and rings was anything but traditional. She used a 3D printer. “3D printing has opened up new vistas in fashion design and is still an unexplored territory,” says Chandwani, who is now working as a designer specializing in knitwear. “With the ease of prototyping, designers are able to explore and create three-dimensional designs.”

3D printers were first invented three decades ago, but only in the last couple years they have begun to cross over into mainstream use and recognition. The process, first known as stereolithography, deposits materials in successive layers as little as 0.0011 inches, building a physical object from what once was just a digital file. The uses have ranged from industrial to medical to lifestyle, and the materials include plastics and photopolymers but also real-world items like metals and even food. And what can you print? Design prototypes, movie props, artificial blood vessels, pizza, houses – you name it.

(If there was any doubt of the validity of 3D printing, it’s been erased by the fact that mega seller Amazon had added a 3D printing department to buy everything from printers to your own custom bobbleheads.)

Now, designers are looking at 3D printing as a way to put a new spin on a practice that dates back millions of years: fashion. More pieces and accessories are becoming available for purchase by big-name purveyors like Nike and Victoria’s Secret. At Drexel University’s fashion program, students have made mostly accessory items such as earrings, bracelets, pendants and rings, as well as garment parts incorporated into sportswear.

In addition, the practice is making its way into haute couture. The most notable example occurred in March of 2013 when architect Francis Bitonti collaborated with costume designer Michael Schmidt and 3D printing market Shapeways to create a dress for famed burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese. The dress (pictured below) featured 2,500 intersecting joint pieces which were then coated in black lacquer and then encrusted with 12,000 Swarovski crystals.

“This is the new generation,” says Leah Delfiner, fashion line designer for kids wear label Pretty Pretty Rebel who has learned 3D printing. “It is perfect for jewelry design as well as great embellishments on garments. If you wanted some awesome flower on a garment, 3D printing would make it perfect and very cool and make it stand out.”

The textures and detailed surfaces with 3D printing are not possible by hand, lending a new look to practically any item in the apparel spectrum: purses, bracelets, dresses, neck wraps and much more.
But 3D printers also offer several manufacturing advantages. “In the industry in the past, for items such as belt buckles, and all other findings, you would have to have a die made and then a sample, which took forever,” says Lisa Hayes, Drexel University fashion design program director and associate professor. “Now with 3D printing, the time is greatly reduced and just one piece can be made. This is a huge savings of money and time, and it also allows for maximum flexibility.”

It also reduces wasteful production and enables extra design capabilities through robust digital simulation programs. “Simulating a garment or a piece of jewelry on a computer screen even before prototyping,” says Chandwani, “lets you visualize and make necessary changes and minimizes waste.”

While most 3D printers cost thousands of dollars, affordable home models ranging in the mere hundreds are now readily available. A DIY community of at-home enthusiasts is starting to form just as established designers also begin to tinker with the possibilities. But not just 3D printed items are becoming readily available. Bitonti, for example, debuted the Cloud Collection in April, which allowed printers for $1 to download the code to print their own housewares.

As Chandwani notes, there seems to be a never-ending set of combinations of what can emerge from inside the box that is the 3D printer. “With 3D printing,” she says, “the possibilities are endless.”