Nicole Scherzinger wearing the Twitter dress

3D printing: fashion enters the technosensual era

3D printing and computer tools are changing the way fashion designers approach not just design but materials and manufacture.

"The future of fashion is code, not couture," says designer Francis Bitonti, who demonstrated what this can mean when he collaborated with costume designer Michael Schmidt to create a Swarovski-crystal-encrusted, 3D-printed gown, worn by burlesque icon Dita von Teese.

Knitting and weaving machines provided some of the earliest forays into computer-controlled and computer-generated fashion. 3D printing takes digital creation into the realm of what has become known as 'technosensual' design. The technology, which allows digital plans to become reality by sintering metal or solidifying polymers layer by layer from a liquid feedstock, is providing designers with the means to create intricate objects.

Computer-generated objects rendered by 3D-printer hardware have been used in jewellery, shoes and handbags. Iris van Herpen's creation of a skeleton dress and the angel wings worn by model Cara Delevingne at the 2013 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show demonstrate complex, if perhaps impractical, everyday wear designs.

By adding an interactive surface to the materials, 3D printing could mean "one day we will wear the surface of a computer on our bodies", says creative director at fashion and technology company Studio XO, Nancy Tilbury. This could even include machinery, as demonstrated by Lady Gaga's 3D-printed 'Anemone' dress complete with a bubble factory.

Van Herpen explains: "I find the process of 3D printing fascinating because I believe it will only be a matter of time before we see the clothing we wear today produced by this technology. Because it's such a different way of manufacturing, adding layer-by-layer, it will be a great source of inspiration."

Renowned for her haute couture embedded with technological designs, the designer unveiled an 'ice sculpture' 3D-printed dress during Paris Fashion Week. The dress was designed with the help of architect Niccolo Casas and 3D printing company 3D Systems. Van Herpen used the stereolithography form of 3D-printing technology, which works by using a liquid photopolymer that is hardened in sequential layers by ultraviolet light. The result is a smooth and translucent solid.

The dress was printed on 3D Systems' ProX 950 printer in two runs. The first print took 45 hours and the second took 36, with an additional eight hours of polishing.

3D printing is not the only technology helping to move design and manufacture away from hand-drawn sketches and needles and thread. Designer brands such as Paul Smith, Coach and Victoria's Secret have used software from vendor Optitex for 2D pattern making and 3D virtual prototyping, to create fashion garment and accessory samples.

"3D virtual products were the largest factor for shortening time to market in industries such as automotive and industrial design. However, these technologies are being recognised by the fashion industry," explains Optitex marketing manager Dana Aroch-Soffer. "Virtual samples can be created in one to three days, instead of the typical waiting for three to four weeks for the first physical sample, plus they come with the real look and feel of the garment's cloth."

Optitex uses its 2D Pattern Making Suite with embedded CAD pattern design software to enable users to create patterns from scratch that require darts, seams, pleats, complicated curves and advanced measuring techniques. The software can be combined with Optitex's 3D Suite, which turns the 2D visual into a photorealistic 3D avatar. It also features three applications: the 3D Creator, 3D Flatter and 3D Digitizer. The 3D Creator creates varied body types, which can adjust to the flat patterns; the 3D Flattener works with compressed materials such as swimwear and can be stretched over the avatar; and the 3D Digitizer alters 2D patterns by marking the virtual 3D pattern.

Smart textiles

Smart materials, dubbed 'e-textiles', provide a further avenue of development, helping to merge the trend towards wearable technologies. Within the fashion, medical and fitness and wellbeing industries, wristbands, watches and even interactive jewellery are emerging as new product areas. These wearables are embedded with technologies, enabling the user to track performance and manage health conditions.

E-textiles are innovative fabrics embedded with electronics and interconnections that remove the need to use separate wiring and hard-shell electronics. Smart garments offer the wearer added value, and they have the ability to do many things ordinary fabrics cannot do. E-textiles vary from apparel to household fabrics, bandages and bed linen, and will variously be able to sense, emit light, show changing images, heat, cool, change shape, compute and wirelessly communicate or harvest energy to create electricity, and even diagnose and treat medical conditions.

Smart textiles come in two categories: aesthetic and performance-enhancing. The former includes everything from fabrics that light up to those that change colour. The latter can monitor physical performance, typically for health and fitness but also military industries. These fabrics can help regulate body temperature, reduce wind resistance and control muscle vibration.

The 'E-Textiles: Electronic Textiles 2014-2024' report from market-research firm IDTechEx claims there is a multi-billion dollar future for e-textiles as they are adopted by a variety of specialist designers. According to the report, we spend at least 70 per cent of our time in contact with textiles that have the potential to be replaced with more intelligent forms. The research departments of top design houses are looking at incorporating fibre optics, carbon nanotubes and other light- or electron-carrying elements into clothing.

Reinvention required

Combining fashion and technology can face some major challenges, which means adoption will take time. IDTechEx's chairman Dr Peter Harrop says part of the reason for the poor progress that his company forecasts in e-textiles sales lies in the difficulty of the technology.

"Almost everything has to be reinvented, partly because the development programmes poorly align with what is needed," says Harrop. "In electronics, there is very little development of any weavable fibre component beyond sensors. The portfolio of component functions being prepared is insufficiently broad for much to be designed by way of complete circuits even ten years from now. Plus textile manufacturers are hesitant to work with completely new fibres."

In the absence of comparable e-textiles, much of the early development in smart fashion is likely to be in discreet wearable devices. The wearable industry is predicted to be worth $8.36bn by 2018, says analyst firm MarketsandMarkets. It is no surprise, then, that the likes of Google, Samsung, Apple, Nike and Adidas have heavily invested in wearable devices. However, these giants have created products which are better suited to the healthcare, military, medical and fitness and wellness sectors rather than fashion.

As wearables move into the fashion world, is there really a difference between them and smart textiles?

"You could say wearable technology and smart clothing are morphing into the same thing. So it could be smart materials.They may be active. Or passive, and so do not involve any electronics. Those can be impact polymers or materials that react to environmental stimuli," says Cath Rogan, principal of consultancy Garment People. "The wearable technology side has surged because of the external influencers such as technology developers, but also, on the smart garments side, we have got better at integrating these solutions. Clothing is naturally the next area to put technology onto the body."

Rogan explains the most common requests from her clients include remote physical monitoring, integrating sensors and wearable displays. The latter, however, is a while off yet. "People are asking for sophisticated requests but the technology is not ready yet," she says. Despite the lack of technology options, she adds: "People are starting to look beyond activity and health monitoring and more towards how they can apply them to the Internet of Things.

"Timing is everything; the enabling technologies have enabled us to do more, for instance we have better conductive materials for sensors compared to a few years ago, plus the electronics and the devices have become a lot smaller and more power efficient," Rogan adds. "These enabling technologies are beginning to catch on and now designers are beginning to take an interest. There is only so much real estate on the body and if these technologies can be integrated into everyday clothing, well maybe that's the next big opportunity in the fashion industry."

Another challenge with embedding technologies into fabrics is ensuring the garments stay connected for long periods. "Power is an issue, in particular batteries. When you look at how microelectronics have evolved they are getting so much smaller, but batteries are not keeping up with that," says Rogan. "There have been efforts to tackle this by looking at energy-efficient devices to ensure batteries last longer, and there is the possibility of wireless batteries, but at the moment the technology is not quite there.

Electric weaves

Harrop says of the plan to bring energy to e-textiles: "In electrics there is some work on battery e-fibre and quite a lot on supercapacitor e-fibre and on photovoltaic harvesting with energy storage together." But he adds that other useful technologies such as fibres that can be used as rechargeable batteries have seen little development.

As electrical components are incorporated into clothing, an obvious difficulty is the laundering process of these garments. Rogan explains: "Surprisingly it is not always the water and detergent, but the mechanical stress from the spin cycle which causes damage; people assume it is the water, but that's the easy part."

She adds: "People are thinking innovatively, but it will take time before the development and infrastructure catch up."

Although batteries and electronics still need to become more fashion-friendly, designers have pressed ahead. The combination of code and clothing provides a way to expand fashion's relationship with self-expression. Fashionistas will always want to define who they are to the world by what they wear. "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only," fashion designer Coco Chanel once said. "Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening."

To show what was happening around its wearer, London-based fashion house CuteCircuit created the UK's first 'Twitter dress' in 2012. The gown, worn by singer Nicole Scherzinger, was embedded with 2,000 LED lights and become a message board for displaying incoming tweets in real-time. Other popular designs by CuteCircuit have included the 'M dress', which accepts a SIM card and enables the wearer to receive and make phone calls without carrying a phone, and, most recently, the company unveiled glittering garments embedded with LED lights, giving wearers the ability to alter the colour, glow in the dark and play video loops.

CuteCircuit is demonstrating the potential the Internet of Things becoming a contender in the fashion world, but along with this the attention towards big data will arise.

Rogan adds: "Big data will be a key concern once wearable clothing truly kicks off. If we look at the successful devices they are simple products which monitor activity but do not interfere with daily life. But they can generate masses of data and will cause a big impact, especially if the fashion and technology experts are unprepared for the surge."

But Rogan believes the "products that will win are those that have a function other than just fashion, such as monitoring health and well-being. Practicality is essential". 

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