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Every year the Met Gala in New York City captures the attention of fashion-watchers and pop-culture enthusiasts.
This year, technology enthusiasts, engineering aficionados and manufacturing fans should pay attention too.
Fashion designer Zac Posen worked with GE Additive and Protolabs to create fashion pieces not stitched together by traditional dressmaking artisans but built and cured by 3D printers.
The theme of this year's fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute is "camp," a concept that's admittedly a bit difficult to describe. It pays homage to Susan Sontag and her 1964 essay, "Notes on Camp." At the time, she described camp as being the "love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration."
The camp theme served as a means to push a collaboration of the three unlikely partners, but Posen said working with printing has been something he has wanted to do his whole life.
"I dreamt it, GE Additive engineered it and came up with how these were going to actually happen. And then Protolabs printed it," Posen said in an interview at his New York office.
It was the day after the 2018 Met Gala when the fashion designer had lunch with Linda Boff, GE's chief marketing officer, and his imagination started churning.
"We flew to Pittsburgh to see a printing facility, and learned about plastics and polymers and polyamides and all these different materials," Posen explained. "Then I started to learn with different materials what was possible, what's not possible. And really the answer is, almost everything is possible."
Brian Peters, Protolabs' chief marketing officer, said, "GE then took his vision and helped produce the CAD [computer-aided design] files, what's needed for us to be able to produce the dress." Protolabs uses "a lot of GE equipment and we have the expertise and design capabilities to actually produce the various items that you'll see in these dresses and pieces."
Twelve months — and much draping, sketching, 3D-body scanning, computer engineering and manufacturing later — five celebrities walked the red carpet at the 2019 Met Gala on Monday in the custom 3D-printed designs. Posen and two other men wore cufflinks and accessories.
The 37 petals on model Jourdan Dunn's "rose dress" took more than 1,100 hours to print at Protolabs' North Carolina facility. Posen said the first petal prototype was a little heavy, and the trio had to work together to figure out not only how to reduce the weight by around 20% but also add a buttress underneath to help support each on the titanium frame. The designer said the team used the actual structure of a rose to help figure out how to hold the forms and ultimately shortened the dress for more organic movement. Even with those adjustments, only 21 of the petals made it to the red carpet.
"It has some real Batman stuff in there," Posen said.
The first version of the 3D-printed bustier that actress Nina Dobrev wore was not as translucent as Posen wanted so it was remade with a different material. The final version took more than 200 hours to print at Protolabs in Germany, then it was carefully shipped to Posen's New York office, where the associated pieces were affixed and finished.
The designer explained the rose petals and bustier were printed using a technique called stereolithography, or SLA.
"So if you could imagine: On a plate you have a liquid sheet of plastic. And you have a laser that's building the form and is curing it, and it's going layer by layer, then it has to be sanded. Once it's cured, then it has to be painted, finished or polished," he said.
Bollywood star Deepika Padukone's custom metallic pink gown has 408 embroidery pieces also printed on an SLA machine. These embroidery pieces were vacuum metalized, painted, and then attached to the outside of the gown, which took more than 160 hours to print and finish.
Actress Katie Holmes' custom dress has a palm leaves collar piece printed by the SLA machine over 56 hours.
Actress Julia Garner's headpiece was the fastest of the 3D Met Gala designs, made of Nylon 12 plastic and printed by a Multi Jet Fusion machine over 22 hours, using a technique called "binder jet."
Posen acknowledged these instances of 3D printing are fashion as an art form, rather than a new standard way of making clothing and jewelry, with mass adoption of 3D printing in fashion not here yet, but getting closer.
GE Additive is more likely to use 3D printing for items such as golf putter heads, aerospace and medical applications.
"3D printing is the fastest-growing type of manufacturing technology there is anywhere right now," Peters said.
"This is another great application where 3D printing can change or help evolve an industry," Peters said. "So while it's a little bit unique to us, it's certainly not out of the realm of what we expect to see in time."
Although it's not likely consumers will be able to buy a custom 3D-printed dress at a local department store in the immediate future, it's no longer just a dream.