Will 3D Printed Fashion Destroy Retail?

It’s futuristic, it’s beautiful….but will 3D printed fashion destroy retail as we know it?

By Chantal Brocca

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 in your mind with just about any object and manufacturing process. Now, 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.

But what does that mean for the future of fashion? Will 3D printed fashion destroy retail as we know it?

Will 3D Printed Fashion Destroy Retail?

Danit Peleg
Image: Danit Peleg

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 fashion 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. What’s more, 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.

3d printed fashion
Image: Iris Van Herpen

The Latest In 3D Printed Fashion

Gerber technology, one of the leading providers of fully integrated software solutions for the clothing industry, has paired with Blender. This is easy to use, open 3D creation software. It was initially aimed at artists and small project teams.

Add Danit Peleg to 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. It was composed of a set of five 3D printed fashion pieces.

The outcome was shown at the annual Blender Conference, and it 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.

Iris van Herpen, Voltage
Image: Iris van Herpen, Voltage

A DIY Wardrobe?

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. Voila! A unique, custom fit, entirely ethical and, (maybe?) best of all, you didn’t have to invest in a single brand.

3D printing has also been lauded for its 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, such that  finished goods only get on a plane when a delivery order is made.

3d printed fashion
Image: United Nude

Darker Implications

Believe it or not, Blender is free to download. It 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 3D printed fashion technology will lead to lower 3D printer ownership and maintenance costs, increased user friendliness and 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 beyond huge – and in more ways than one. If you can print off a dress, why not print off an AK-47? Indeed, printed guns are already a ‘thing’.

Whilst we worry now about whether or not garment workers are getting paid ethically, the issue could almost seem quaint by comparison with the mass unemployment clothing factory workers could face. It would be a complete system overhaul. Those fashion retailers we love to hate could go bust. Yep. It will happen 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) will go down to nil.

Not only that. If this system isn’t managed to go in the right direction, complaining about  the environmental impact of cheap, fast fashion on our high streets, could eventually even translate into complaining about having virtually unlimited access to fashion that’s so ‘fast’ that we entire wardrobes could be created  in a day, perhaps kicking the planet’s butt even harder.

Zero waste is one thing, but what are the actual fabrics we would be using?

3d printed fashion
Image: Iris Van Herpen

Jobs Killed By Tech: More Than You Think

What’s more, 3D printing isn’t alone in the game. Other technological advancements could just as easily kill 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? It can also help you design the perfect piece of clothing. Just upload the design into your printer and press a button! Well, kind of.

Don’t run off and buy a 3D printer quite yet, though. I should probably mention that at the moment, this is all a bit easier said than done.

A deeper look at Peleg’s creation process shows that it took significant time to model, print and assemble the collection. Definitely not practical for the average person simply looking to have a self-sufficient wardrobe. Currently, applications of the 3D graphic prototyping/3D printer combination in the fashion industry seem confined to resourceful independent fashion designers, entrepreneurs, or large companies looking to streamline their production process by embracing technology.

Danit Peleg
Image: Danit Peleg

The Future Moves Fast

I’m no Cassandra. I’m just pointing out the potential effects of such a disruptive technology. Especially when we consider that technology moves fast. Smartphones and laptops haven’t even been around for 20 years, yet life without them seems completely unimaginable. A decade ago, no one had even heard of Instagram. 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.

Covid lockdowns have already forced buyers to shop using tech rather than their feet. So, the potential – and demand – for 3D printing and other forms of consumption is even greater. And the consequences for jobs are already being felt.

Before 3D printed fashion becomes ubiquitous – because it will – we should consider the full range of implications. We need to reimagine a system that would still allow for an enormous industry, and the millions of people it employs, to exist.

History has shown us that revolutionary innovations have a habit of coming with a completely unexpected price. We’d better be prepared before it becomes another case of be careful what we wish for.

Chantal is the girl  behind Underneath My Silk, a thought catalogue on fashion, culture and style.

Follow her on Instagram here. Main image: Iris Van Herpen

Chantal Brocca

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