3-D printing has been heralded as game-changing technology for industry, and now haute couture designers are getting in on the act, using the process to bring unconventional, customized designs to the runway.
Also known as "additive manufacturing," 3-D printers use a digital blueprint to build up thin layers of plastic or metal to form a solid object.
Until now, the technology has mainly been confined to industry, with companies such as General Electric and Ford using the devices to build components. But a number of designers told CNBC that 3-D printing brought new dimension to the high-fashion industry.
Designer Iris van Herpen said the technology gave her "unlimited freedom" because using a 3-D computer program meant she did not have to compromise when transferring design ideas from her mind to paper.
"I could just suddenly put any structure I had in my head in the computer," she told CNBC. "In the beginning, that was difficult because suddenly everything was possible. You don't know where to start."
Van Herpen began using the technology after she was approached by Materialise, a 3-D printing services and software company, in 2009. She collaborated with architect Daniel Widrig to create outfits made of polyamide - a strong but flexible material.
Widrig said that despite 3-D printing being costly and relatively unknown at the time, he felt it was the best way to show off intricate designs. "The geometries are much more complex when they are developed through programming, so it made sense to print it," he told CNBC.
Gown designed by Michael Schmidt and Francis Bitonti, 3-D printed by Shapeways, worn by Dita Von Teese. [Credit: Albert Sanchez]
Fashion designer Melinda Looi said the technology was especially valuable as it enabled her to incorporate movement into her pieces. Looi worked with Materialise to create a pair of shoes and a cape, among other things, for Asia's first 3-D printed fashion show earlier this year.
"Things that cannot be done with traditional cutting and sewing are made possible with 3-D printing - for example [it allowed] mechanisms in the winged cape to enable its mobility," she said.
3-D printing means that each fashion item can be customized – and this customization comes at a cost. But Michael Schmidt, who is known for designing pop star Lady Gaga's bubble dress, said that for customers of high-fashion, cost is no problem.
"The technology allows for short lead times and total customization. A high-end customer who desires exclusivity is one who is willing to incur the development costs in order to be an early adopter," Schmidt told CNBC.
He collaborated with architect Francis Bitonti and Shapeways, a 3-D printing services company, to create the first fully-articulated 3-D printed gown. The mesh dress, which was made up of 17 pieces joined in 3,000 places, was worn by fashion icon Dita Von Teese.
The future of fashion?
Bitonti, who has been experimenting with 3-D printing and digital design for a number of years, told CNBC he believes the technology is going to be "everything" to the fashion industry the future.
"The next generation of designers is going to have to understand the materiality of what 3-D printing is and how it works," he said.
And it looks like fashion designers are willing to learn. Sven Hermans, account manager at Materialise, said he has been contacted by numerous designers interested in 3-D printing.
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"How fast [it catches on] will depend on how creative [designers] are, and how fast the industry will follow as new materials come into the market and become more wearable and affordable," Hermans said.
Companies like Materialise and Shapeways are focusing on producing new, more flexible materials for 3-D printers. Elisa Richardson, communications manager at Shapeways, said these will be more like traditional textiles, looking ahead.
"Every time we launch new materials, the quality is so much more impressive than previous materials," she told CNBC.
Material innovation is one of the key steps in bringing 3-D printing fashion off the runway and onto the racks, according to Richardson. "Then even bigger companies and more designers will be able to work with it. As long as it's not possible to print for an audience, it will not be the new way for fashion," she said.
Van Herpen is one designer attempting to bridge the gap between haute couture and ready-to-wear – although there is still some way to go. This fall she plans to sell a women's line with items printed to a customer's measurements, with the first 3-D printed jackets to be sold for around $3,400.
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