Enter the world of 3D printing and picture devices spurting out guns, bones, toys and beautiful, functional fashion accessories. Using special software, accessory designers can now create 3D models on screen then instruct a 3D printer to manufacture their design there and then. To visualise what 3D printing is, imagine piping icing on to a cake; the nozzle moves across the cake leaving a sugary trail that can be layered up. Now replace icing with plastic or metal. The printer’s nozzle moves along a baseplate depositing layers of material until the design has been made. It can then be removed from the base and used – or worn, in the case of jewellery, hats and shoes.
Last weekend, I (and four thousand others) attended the first 3D Print Show at The Brewery, London. Here I discovered that with some imagination and investment, 3D printing could transform luxury fashion accessories to the scale of Peter Pilotto’s digital-print-dresses multiplied by Burberry Bespoke: think a new fashionable aesthetic and more customisation options than Christopher Bailey could conjure up – all made to fit perfectly.
The 3D Print Fashion Show added new names to a growing list of ‘Ones To Watch’ in this young strand of design: people making practical and desirable products. Amongst these is Janina Alleyne, whose Exoskeleton collection saw her nominated for the 2012 Mulberry Accessory Award at Graduate Fashion Week. Alleyne follows in the footwear-steps of London College of Fashion (LCF) graduates Kerrie Luft and Ross Barber, who were both awarded prizes – for their 3D printed titanium heels and intricate soles respectively. At present it is easier to 3D print harder materials, hence the focus on footwear.
Unfortunately, none of these designers’ shoes are yet on sale commercially. The current cost of manufacture necessitates a luxury price tag that young designers struggle to fund without sponsorship. But interest is increasing and where demand goes, supply follows. As 3D printing expert Peter Hill explains, the best is still to come.
“We have yet to see what aesthetic 3D printing will give birth to,” says Hill, 3D Design and Technology Manager at LCF. Mary Katrantzou could, for example, create the 3D equivalent of one of her dresses. “Consider what a digital fabric print is – it’s a drawn image on a fabric canvas. With 3D printing, you don’t need a canvas. Imagine a 3D paisley or a 3D William Morris print,” elaborates Hill. Indeed the technology lends itself well to intricate designs not seen since the Baroque and Rococo movements in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In use for over a decade, 3D printing’s first purpose was to make rapid prototypes of designs before they were cast in pricier materials. “But now with more interesting materials, greater awareness and ease of access to 3D, we’re seeing growing numbers of designers accessing it for production,” explains Hill.
This has led to growing numbers of people considering the issues surrounding 3D printing, such as intellectual property; with personal 3D printers now available for under £1000, what’s to stop someone printing a knock-off version of a luxury item at home? A new report by The Work Foundation explores these issues, highlighting the need for a policy framework in the UK to support the growth of 3D printing. Simply put: more needs to be done before Prada, Gucci et al are likely to go near the technology.
Instead, look to designers working with 3D printing companies for a taste of what the technology has to offer. EOS, a company that manufactures commercial 3D printers, sponsored both Luft and Barber to create their final collections. This collaboration between creative designers and technical engineers is vital. “If you tell a designer they can print at 20 microns, it means nothing. If you say, it’s possible to print a stiletto that looks like hair but is strong enough to withstand weight – well, that’s much more interesting,” says Hill.
EOS also works with Digital Forming, a software design company, to help designers understand the world of 3D printing. Recognising the trend for customisation, Digital Forming recently launched an online interface that allows designers to upload 3D product designs, which shoppers can then customise before ordering. Digital Forming then arranges for the item to be 3D printed and delivered.
Using EOS’s new precious metal 3D printer, Digital Forming printed gold cufflinks (personalised with initials) to display at the 3D Print Show. Whilst these were quite tacky, it only takes a little vision to see the potential – think stunning heels, clasps, jewellery and more. Imagine intricate titanium Alexander McQueen heels that you can adjust slightly so that yours is unique.
The image in your head could soon be a reality on your feet. As Hill confirms, “3D printing is here to stay and it will appear in luxury.” The only question is when.