For the last several years I’ve pursued the idea of fashion that is digitally manifested–fashion created on computers and converted bytes to bits into physical form. The inspiration has been how modern life is lived online as much as in person, and how we express ourselves everyday through software. It has also been a rebuttal against the incredibly manual and analog processing of fashion design that has largely not changed through the last century. And it has been a fascination with pure formal qualities of digital craft…creating objects that look pulled from a world between fairy tales and science fiction.
Initially I tackled this in a “fashion-collection-as-software” concept. But after the beautiful computerized design process, there was still the labor-intensive physical component of cutting and sewing the physical pieces. It became clear that the focus of innovation had to be in the manufacturing.
Shortly after, I stumbled upon 3D printing. Unlike other designers who might have known 3D printing from architecture or industrial design, I came upon the technology with the singular obsession of being able to make fashion without sewing. This compelled me to design the 3D printed N12 bikini, a collaboration with Jenna Fizel. However, the bikini was really more of an R&D project than a product.
The bikini project is 3 years old, and it is still new even though the 3D printing landscape has changed greatly. 3 years ago, results from desktop 3D printers were mere plastic doodles. Now a variety of desktop machines rival their industrial competitors that are 10x the price. There is now a 3D printing announcement every week, and a steady march of new machines, new materials, and new software. The improving quality of lower cost machines is essential to bringing the technology to consumer application. Yet looking closer, while there are more people and businesses with 3D printers than ever before, the output of the printers has largely unchanged.
Most 3D printers make mechanical parts, prototypes, and the occasional plastic desk toy. 3D printing of finished consumer products remains a dream. But then, do you really need a new phone case or flower vase every day? Not really. And so, fashion is the most significant consumer domain for a technology that optimizes variety above quantity. It would be fabulous to have a new pair of shoes every day.
2 years ago I printed a pair of shoes. It had struck me that 3D printing clothing would, for now, remain in the realm of conceptual design, but printing shoes actually makes sense for ready-to-wear. Aside from spilling fantastic designs directly from computer graphics into reality, 3D printing footwear actually has clear manufacturing advantages. Manufacturing shoes involves many stages of molding, which are straightforward to eliminate with 3D printing. It has taken those 2 years to go from merely 3D printing a pair of shoes as a high end design concept to 3D printing shoes that are wearable and buyable.
From the beginning, I wanted to create shoes that people could buy at a consumer price. The first designs I printed cost hundreds of dollars just for the printing…which placed them firmly in the realm of art objects. The Laurel sandal is available today for $250, a quiet landmark event ushering in an age where consumer products can be manufactured with 3D printing.
Much of the work in the last several months has been in testing materials. I have tested over 30 materials that work with our studio printers. Most significantly, we are printing the urethane sole for the bottoms of the shoes, an essential part of making a wearable shoe. The first design that I am releasing is assembled from more than one part, but all of those parts except for the ribbon are 3D printed, and so they can be printed all together once dual material printing becomes more reliable.
For the record, comfortable shoes have nothing to do with printing and everything to do with design. The Laurel sandal is comfortable because I strived to design a comfortable sandal, and I put in the time to print and test iterations. It is a 4 inch heel, and definitely more comfortable than other 4 inch heels that I own.
I believe creating beauty lies not just in designing the product, but in designing the process that makes the product. 3D printing truly is a beautiful process. The object “grows” layer by layer. It evokes natural processes, like the laminar strata of a Silurian mountainside, the gradienting growth rings of a redwood, or of Precambrian sunlight archived in ancient folds of stromatolite.
My goal is to be able to print fully finished shoes that require no further hand assembly, and this can be achieved within the next year (or with luck a few months). At scale, the dream is to have full automation…where an online order triggers the file sent to a printer in our factory, and printing begins. Once completed, it would be picked up by a robot arm, packed for shipping, and sent through the mail. Or, the printer might be at a local store, materializing our design for a customer on the other side of the world.
It’s tempting to conjecture that everyone will have 3d printers in their homes, but I believe the technology is much more realistic in factory or retail settings. Many people today have sewing machines but few sew their own clothes. Such dreams of seamless digital to physical distribution must start with reasonable steps. It is not enough to just have the technology. We must design great products that can be made with the technology. Only then can we truly disrupt how products are made, and bring the 3D printing revolution to the masses.