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3D Printing Poised to Reshape the Fashion Industry

In 3D Printing, brand-building, Fashion, New York Fashion Week on October 8, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Fashion Strategist Bob McKee Foresees 3D Fashion Flights of Fancy

by Jeff Sandgren

Melinda Looi design, realized by Belgium-based 3D Printer Materialise

Melinda Looi design, realized by Belgium-based
3D Printer Materialise

It’s easy to think of the fashion industry as innovative and agile, a perfect match for the rapidly-evolving world of 3D printing. All those ever-changing styles and designs – radical, elegant and everything in-between – surely these are the hallmarks of a culture that adapts to change at lightning speed. Fashion seems like a tailor-made 3D printing launchpad. To get the industry insider view, we checked in with Bob McKee, longtime fashion industry vet, currently Global Fashion Industry Strategy Director for Infor. We were in for some surprises.

“The fashion industry is historically slow to adopt new technologies,” said McKee. “We have changed very little since the industrialization of fabric manufacturing.”

McKee offered performance fabrics as a good example. These stretchy materials that practically define athletic fashion today are not a recent invention. They were created back in the 1940s; but it took the industry more than 30 years to adopt them at scale. Today stretch fabrics incorporate features that help them wick away moisture and provide anti-microbial surfaces. “Cotton apparel in workouts is history,” McKee noted. Some of the more forward-thinking adopters have chalked up significant successes. In the area of stretch fabrics, McKee cites Under Armour as an example. The company, formed relatively recently in 2006, just reported quarterly revenues of $455 million, a 23 percent increase over the same period in the prior year.

So how will 3D printing fare? The pace of adoption seems to be accelerating. Consumer-friendly design applications like AutoDesk have helped democratize graphic design by tapping into a far broader base of talent outside the traditional big-name design houses. And now 3D printing may be poised to be the next big thing in reshaping how clothes and accessories come to market – and the variety of forms they take once they get there. Examples were evident at the recent New York Fashion Week, where London-based designer Catherine Wales showed off her 3D printed ‘Project DNA’ collection of masks, futuristic corsets and helmets, and Kimberly Ovitz’s 3D printed jewelry commanded audience attention … and headlines.

3D printed Catherine Wales design

3D printed Catherine Wales design

Online design communities are going to play a key role, McKee pointed out. “Threadless.com is a great example in the 2D printing world. It’s a wonderful venue for frustrated graphic designers. But it still took time.”

Threadless was founded in 2000, as a hybrid design community and e-commerce site focused on tee shirts, where artists submitted designs, community members voted on their favorites, and the most popular were printed for sale. By 2004 it was printing new shirt designs every week; in 2008, Inc. magazine declared them the most innovative small company in America, with an estimated $30 million in sales. At last count the Threadless community included more than 2.4 million designers. “It’s not hard to imagine the same evolution with 3D fashion accessories and jewelry,” said McKee.

Indeed, such communities for 3D printing are already expanding, led by Shapeways (which earlier this year closed a $30 million Series C round of financing, led by Andreessen Horowitz), i.Materialize, Ponoko and Styleshapes. Like their graphic tees counterparts, these sites allow designers to upload their creations, and consumers to buy the material realizations. An added twist in this case, given the already proliferating population of consumer-grade 3D printers for home enthusiasts, is that the designs themselves are often the commodity. The trendy/techy consumer can get custom-made bangles without ever going to the store, or even the mailbox, as long as there’s enough thermoplastic in the print tank.

BrandTech News believes that co-creation and co-branding are fertile fields to till for innovative fashion brands in apparel, accessories and footwear. As McKee notes, “fashion is all about making a statement that differentiates us from the masses … even if we look like everyone else we like.” So will we see consumer goods bearing both a name brand look and logo and the personal emblems of hipsters and fashionistas?

“Brands are cautious,” noted McKee, “so I think it will come about, but slowly. It’s not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when.’ Consumers are driving the retail business, and they increasingly turn to brands and retailers who are creative and innovative. But brands have to figure out the right way to do it, preserving the brand essence while designing in personalization elements. You have to design the mold before you pour the gold.”

Fashion visionary Bob McKee

Fashion visionary Bob McKee

McKee even foresees a hybrid of graphic design and 3D printing in the development of the actual fabrics. He predicts that printing of synthetic fabrics on consumer-friendly (and relatively affordable) 3D printers is on the horizon. “You’ll see it within five years. Ten years from now it will be common to wear articles that we don’t even think twice about printing ourselves.”

Designers will continue to play a role. McKee posits that Vera Wang, Jimmy Choo and other edgy designers willing to experiment could well be early brand adopters. “Vera’s always a half step ahead,” said McKee. And celebrity emulation will be another powerful driver that leverages the agility of 3D printing. For consumers who want what their favorite celebs are wearing, 3D printing promises nearly instant gratification.

“We’re near the point,” said McKee “where you’ll see celebrities step onto the red carpet for the Emmy Awards and, before the ceremony is over, consumers will be ordering the apparel and accessories of their favorites.” – JTS

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