Credit: Iris Van Herpen/Team Peter Stigter via Flickr

Manus x Machina: 3D printing in the fashion world

By Rachael Allan

Rachael Allan explores the future of accessible technologies in fashion.

The fusion of fashion and technology was at the forefront of the media during the 2016 Met Gala, when the theme “Manus x Machina” was chosen as an exploration into this unfamiliar dynamic. Manus (the hand) meeting machina (the machine) is fundamental to fashion, and using this idea as a starting point fashion designers were tasked with integrating technology into their designs. Some used 3D-printing, while others opted for illuminated dresses. As the audience, we were left to examine their strange and sometimes bewildering creations. It was a spectacle presenting to us a showcase of innovative design; yet, importantly, it was also presenting to us something inaccessible. This raises important questions. Could this be the next sustainable movement, or is it simply an unattainable novelty enjoyed by the wealthy? 

“It was a spectacle presenting to us a showcase of innovative design; yet, importantly, it was also presenting to us something inaccessible.”

This newfound union gained prominence around 2010, and was pioneered by Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen. In 2011, Van Herpen exhibited her Crystallization collection which featured several 3D-printed dresses. With this collection, Van Herpen created mystifying and complex dresses with the use of technology, mimicking forms typically found in nature. Van Herpen considers her fashion endeavours “works of art”, making designs custom to order, thus cutting out waste as they are not overproduced. Van Herpen exists in a world of Haute Couture and extravagant fashion week productions, so can we envision a world where these designs are made ready-to-wear? 

Israeli designer Danit Peleg works towards making this technology available to everyone. In 2015, Peleg succeeded in creating one of the first commercially available lines of 3D-printed fashion. After a lot of experimentation Peleg chose to use Filaflex, a filament that is a mixture of plastic and rubber and enables flexible material to be printed in order to create her garments. The collection took 2,000 hours to print, with one A4 sheet of material alone having taken around 20 hours. In 2017, Peleg launched a website enabling people to custom-order a 3D piece designed by her. A 3D-printed jacket sold for around $1,500. In 2020, Peleg started to offer digital files that allowed the consumer to download and print her garments at their nearest 3D printer. Peleg, with her constant innovation, shows how fast-paced the advancements using this technology can be. If more designers were to keep pushing the boundaries of this field, there would be little stopping it from developing into a realistic, sustainable choice. 

“Peleg, with her constant innovation, shows how fast-paced the advancements using this technology can be.”

Yet, despite these advances, 3D printing is still yet to make it to the masses. It is rarely, if ever, seen outwith the elite circles of those who can afford it. There is no denying that to participate in this sustainable endeavour you need money; a dress by Iris Van Herpen costs anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000. It is expensive, time consuming, and, currently, not a realistic alternative to the current materials we use. 

Nevertheless, technology is progressing on the right path. According to Van Herpen, the time it takes to print a garment has been reduced substantially since she made her first dress in 2009. Materials that can be printed are becoming more flexible and comfortable to wear. For the designers, the use of 3D printing cuts out the middleman so they are completely independent producers of their pieces. Everything can be produced and put together in the same studio, cutting potential waste and production costs. Those using 3D printing are not part of a waste-based system. Materials used for 3D printing can be reused and recycled for new items and so would have a massive impact on reducing the millions of tonnes of textiles thrown into landfill each year. 

One day, I hope the constant shift in trends slows down and changing tastes are carefully considered with the potential environmental impact in mind. Ultimately, technology in fashion has a lot of challenges to overcome before it is considered the norm, but it could be the key to sparking the conversation around sustainable alternatives in fashion. Incorporating 3D printing into everyday fashion might seem like a radical step but in an ever-changing world plagued by the effects of climate change, it might be exactly what we need.


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