Dita Von Teese turned more eyes than usual earlier this year, when she wore a Swarovski crystal–encrusted "mesh" black dress, a dramatically netted floor-length piece with elaborate shoulders and a structural frame that hugged all those curves and likely cost into the thousands. It would have made for a great reveal at one of her burlesque performances, but instead she chose it for the final night of a two-day 3-D printing conference hosted by the Ace Hotel in New York.
The dress — one of the first fully functioning pieces of three-dimensional printed fashion — was created by celebrity favorite Michael Schmidt, who typically uses leather, suede, and other traditional textiles to create looks for Debbie Harry, Madonna, Rihanna and Lady Gaga. This time, he worked with architect and designer Francis Bitoni to digitally conceive the gown, which was then printed out on layers upon layers of “powdered nylon” in a machine at Shapeways, a New York–based 3-D printing company. Seventeen different parts were printed with more than 2,500 custom-designed, intersecting joints, which were hand-linked together, painted a lacquered black, and hand-dotted with 12,000 black crystals to create a one-of-a-kind work of wearable architecture. "I first became aware of 3-D printing in the late eighties while attending NASA's 'technology transfer' seminars," Schmidt explained, though this was his first time creating a garment this way. "When I was approached by Ace Hotel to create the finale ensemble for their recent symposium, I lunged at the chance."
Though this type of printing has been around for decades — aiding architects, engineers, and scientists with models and prototypes, mostly — its breadth has expanded as new technology has allowed for smaller machines, more flexible materials, and quicker, increasingly adaptable processes. Now almost any object imaginable — from functional organs, homes, skull replacements, to edible frosted cupcakes — can be pumped out of a machine, and fashion designers in particular are hoping, someday, for a modern and digital update to a centuries-old loom; perhaps it’s something like the MakerBot, a consumer version of a 3-D printer that can produce desk toys, dolls, garden gnomes (and, someday soon, maybe handguns), and was purchased by a competitor last month for more than $600 million.
In anticipation of the technology becoming more mainstream, high-fashion clothing and accessories companies have begun experimenting, but with some requisite hand-holding. "I always work together with an architect, as I am not good with the 3-D programs myself," says Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, one of the pioneers in 3-D printed fashion. She first began dabbling in 2009, and has since sent couture 3-D printed works down the runway in six different shows, often to the confusion of onlookers. The first time she tried it, many reviewing her work erroneously thought the piece was made out of paper, and even she wasn’t quite sure what she had made: "It was my first time working together with another person creatively so closely. I had no idea if it would fit, how it would look, and the process took way longer than expected,” she recalled. “The piece came to me on the day of the show. The moment I saw it was also the moment it was presented on the catwalk." Still, van Herpen was convinced that 3-D printing would be a viable method to create clothing in the future. This season, she sent 12 pairs of shoes — lightly reminiscent of Alexander McQueen's Armadillo heels — down a runway, created in collaboration with 3-D printing company Stratasys and United Nude's Rem D Koolhaas (the shoe designer, not the architect.)
To create one of these pieces, both her architect and van Herpen brainstorm structures based on materials and printers available. While van Herpen mostly works in 2-D — collaging, stretching, reassembling her ideas — the architect begins reimagining her sketches in a 3-D program. Throughout the entire process, a company called Materliase prints out samples of the structures to ensure that the design is properly translated. When the final 3-D drawing of the design is finalized, the look is ready to be printed and assembled.
Currently, the main drawback is that it’s both exorbitantly expensive and, because of that, uniquely exclusive. Since 3-D printing isn’t easily accessible to those outside the industrial design sector, gowns remain one-of-a-kind couture items or custom-made products; van Herpen’s new shoes would sell for $2,000, if someone were to order a pair. "If the prices become cheaper and various flexible materials are printable, then 3-D printed dresses will [someday] be ready-to-wear,” she adds.
Because of the expense, Jenna Fizel and Mary Huang, who run Continuum Fashion, have relied exclusively on nylon for their 3-D printing endeavors, which have included both printed N12 bikini and intricate pumps that have the added perk of an adjustable heel. They cost $900, which isn’t cheap, but still competitive with more well-known (leather) luxury brands. "We like using nylon because it’s quite strong,” Huang says. “You can buy it in lots of colors, and it’s relatively inexpensive [on the 3-D printing end],” especially compared to other options that currently exist, like elastic polymers, titanium, and various lightweight metals.
Designers are also limited by scale. Today’s commercial 3-D printers are not large enough to spit out a dress in one solid piece. Instead, various portions of a design are queued up and then pieced together by hand. That labor-intensive process doesn’t prevent designers, like Huang, from counting down the days for 3-D printers to become fully accessible to people in their homes. Rather than create garments, designers like her would serve more as blueprint-makers. "We have this magical vision of a closet-sized printer that’ll download the dress design and print it right then and there," she says, altogether eliminating the task of shopping. "It would not really be 3-D printing as people are describing it now.” Because it’s far less technical. “But if you think about being able to download a design into your home and make it — we’re actually not that far."
When we do get there, one thing is certain: More of us will be clad in synthetics, which will be both cheaper and more easily adapted to the nascent printing technology. “I do think cottons and silks will be gone, but it will take a long time,” van Herpen added. “What will replace them is impossible to say, and depends on all other biologic and technical changes that will come.” If clothing like this is to be more embraced by the fashion world, there will come a day when most of us will be strutting around in suits and skirts made out of powdered nylon — or even intricately gridded chainmail, another material Schmidt is now experimenting with.
But if you’re a more natural type, take comfort: Right now, at MIT, scientists are working with 3-D printers to turn silk worms into a next-generation assembly line. All they need now is a dress pattern.
Click through for a sampling of new, 3-D fashion.
Shop: The Cut's June Picks
Most Viewed Stories
Why the Casey Affleck Sexual-Harassment Allegations Just Won’t Stick
The Best, Worst, and Most Headbanded Looks of the 2017 Oscars
Everyone Realized All at Once That Was Mel Gibson’s Girlfriend, Not His Daughter
Nicole Kidman Does Not Know How to Clap
How Christian Siriano Is Changing the Red Carpet
Meryl Streep Issues Scathing Response to Karl Lagerfeld’s Oscar Dress Comments [UPDATED]
That Jimmy Kimmel Joke About Weight in Hollywood Sounds Kind of Familiar
The Best and Weirdest Oscars Beauty Looks
Casey Affleck Wins Again
The Young Professional Whose Mom Paid for Her Breast Augmentation
The Cut’s Latest Fashion FeaturesCiara's Wedding Dress Was Too Big for the Chapel
To be fair, it was a 13 foot-long dress.You and Rihanna Will Both Want to Invest in Dior’s New Bag
It's got something for everyone.Polo Shirts Have Turned Their Back on Ryan Lochte
Along with his other major sponsors.Ryan Lochte Will No Longer Be Paid to Wear Tiny Bathing Suits
Speedo remains committed to transparency.Laura Brown Is the New Editor-in-Chief of InStyle
After 11 years at Harper’s Bazaar.Tyra Banks Is Going to Teach a Class on Smizing at Stanford
"If I see somebody not paying attention, I’m gonna call on them."This Floating Pier Is the Most Zen Installation Ever
Walking on water in Italy.Nation Is Appalled by Matt Lauer’s Nude Ankles During Ryan Lochte Interview
What’s the opposite of “Jeah”?8 People at the Life of Pablo Pop-up Explain Why Kanye West Is a God
"I mean, Kanye West is just Kanye West. There's not more or less you can say about Kanye West. He's just Mr. West!"A T-shirt Is Enough
Simplicity, versatility, and cool. What more could you want?
She took a perfect pencil dive off a 30-foot yacht.American Apparel Is Being Sued by Former Workers
As the company considers putting itself up for sale.A Gendered History of the Tailored Suit
From Marlon Brando to Coco Chanel.How Zendaya Developed Such Great Style at the Young Age of 19
The star's best looks from Disney to now.Proof That If You’re Chic Enough, a Little Federal Investigation Doesn’t Matter
Is this the best they could do?5,300-Year-Old Mummified Iceman Probably Would’ve Been a Street-Style Star
He had several different looks and was “pretty picky.”J.Crew Has Identified 226 Shades of Pink
Even more than there are shades of gray.Gigi and Bella Hadid Merch Is Now Somehow a Thing That Is Happening
Today in Hadidiana.Gird Your Loins for the Return of Yeezy to New York Fashion Week
The season approaches.This Indie Brand Had a Great Response to Ivanka Trump
When she bought one of their cuffs, they donated the proceeds to the Clinton campaign.