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Fashion Forward

Tech & Innovation | December 7, 2015

In today’s world, consumers can monogram almost anything, pick up a pair of custom-fitted earbuds, and even order a rubber stamp of their own faces. The ability to customize is no longer novel; it’s the norm. And the technologies that make it happen are becoming more intricate, advanced, and available. 3D printing, which has carved out a place for itself in the manufacturing world, is finding a new niche in the fashion industry. Uploading a body-scan to a program will “print” a dress perfectly tailored to an individual. This potential for product customization has become attractive to both designers and consumers.

Nervous System is a Somerville-based design studio that creates many of its products using 3D printing technology. The plastic-looking jewelry and sculptures displayed in the studio have all been created using a 3D printer. Jessica Rosenkrantz, an architect who also holds a degree in biology, and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, a computational designer who has a background in mathematics, lead Nervous System. Though the two come from seemingly different fields, they work in tandem on day-to-day design processes. Their team is on the cutting-edge of integrating computer-based technologies with the world of fashion design.

Nervous System’s collections are inspired by biological processes, which explains why the 3D-printed art in the studio looks so much like elements of nature (one plastic sculpture looks almost identical to a potted succulent on the neighboring windowsill). Nervous System “translate[s] scientific theories and models of pattern formation into algorithms for design,” said Design Associate Margaret Swanson.

To print their designs, Nervous System creates programs that do not have fixed outcomes but instead expand and morph based on input, like a growing plant. A plant develops differently depending on the amount of light it sees or how much water it receives, and the same is true in these programs—depending on a user’s input, the output can vary. Two products created by the same program can be unique, yet share the same core qualities. Instead of an assembly line process where a machine creates identical pieces, Nervous System’s flexibility in the code allows for product customization.

This groundbreaking system, which Nervous System used to print their first 3D dress, is called Kinematics. Kinematics is not only dynamic, but also space-efficient. “Jesse and Jessica were exploring a system by which larger models could be compressed to be printable in a smaller machine space,” Swanson said. The dress comes out of the printer in a folded mass that unfurls into a complete garment—no assembly required. Now acquired by MoMA, the Kinematics dress flows naturally like fabric, though it is made entirely of hard plastic. To create this illusion, the dress is composed of thousands of tiny, interlocking pieces in different sizes. “[It] also allowed us to explore a 3D-printed textile that…could move and conform to a person’s body,” said Swanson. The result is a flexible medium, a human equivalent to scales.

Because this new technology is groundbreaking, Nervous System’s Kinematics dress is too expensive to be on the market. Though Swanson is excited about the dress, ultimately, she said, “The goal is to create wearable and customizable garments and not museum pieces.”

Nervous System is not the only design studio to explore the intersection of 3D printing and clothing design. MIT-based assistant professor and architect Neri Oxman collaborated with fashion designer Iris Van Herpen to create a 3D-printed dress that debuted at Paris Fashion Week.

In a TED Talk given in Vancouver earlier this year, Oxman explains how design, biology, and technology are more connected now than ever before. She talked about the classic architect’s dilemma: “The split personality of every designer and architect operating today is between the chisel and the gene, between machine and organism, between assembly and growth.” Oxman challenges viewers not to see nature and industry as inherently at odds with each other—but as something designers should make work in tandem. She applauds 3D printing for making it possible to design these complex structures with code.

In her own work, Oxman exemplifies this melding of biology and technology. Her dress with Iris Van Herpen is printed as a series of tiny, interconnected cells combining stiff and soft materials to fit the contours of the human body. Her printing technology allows a material with multiple textures to be printed as a single sheet, much like the skin of a living being. Oxman says, Designers have access to such high-resolution analytical synthetic tools, which enable us to design products that fit not only the shape of our bodies, but also the physiological makeup of our tissues.”

What is the future of this technology? As a fashion-conscious person myself (who lacks drawing, design, and sewing skills), I immediately imagined the possibility of designing and printing my own wardrobe someday. Swanson brought me back to earth, explaining that the future of 3D printing is not to give everyone free reign as a designer—the ideal outcome would be to create the ability to customize one’s own garments within the bounds of the programs that Nervous System and Oxman design. This is ideal for a generation that’s already accustomed to personalization.

Both dresses will be on display at the MFA in their #techstyle exhibit, beginning March 6th. The exhibit will showcase “the synergy between contemporary fashion and technology,” by conglomerating the works of many progressive designers.

Michelle Finamore, Curator of Fashion Arts at the MFA, highlighted that the key to many of these innovative works is collaboration between designers and tech-focused people. Like Rosenkrantz and Louis-Rosenberg, or Oxman and Van Herpen, a designer-coder duo is often necessary for a project that’s deeply rooted in both technology, and clothing design. “There are some really amazing collaborations going on with people who are in the technology field and fashion designers who are coming together to create these unique objects,” she said.

With 3D printing technology, making a truly unique object becomes bothpossible and encouraged. “The combination of having the output come directly from computer-aided design and…that it comes out of a 3D printer has great potential for what the fashion industry can do in the future,” said Finamore.

But Finamore and Swanson echo the same idea: the 3D-printed fashions of today are mostly limited to art, and they hope to see the technology become more accessible. “I think that it is going to have a dramatic effect in the future,” said Finamore, “but right now we are kind of on the cusp of all this excitement, energy, and experimentation.”