A user’s guide to 3D printed fashion

3D printing stands to revolutionize the way we understand fashion, and here at SSENSE, we look forward to the day when we can introduce luxury fashion printable directly from your desktop. Fancy printing out that Saint Laurent bag, those Giuseppe Zanotti sneakers, or an Alexander Wang t-shirt? So do we. In the meantime, we’ve looked into the technology, key players, and hard numbers to offer you a guide to the intricate world of 3D printed fashion.


3D printing employs an additive process: layers of material are laid down successively until the desired shape is created. This allows you to make virtually any shape or object, moving parts and all - even a working gun or a fully-functional camera can be 3D printed.

Selective laser sintering (SLS) is the main process used for small-scale objects like jewelry, accessories, and clothing - the things we care about. Layer by layer, a polyamide powder made from particles of raw material is turned into the desired object. SLS is the method preferred by proponents of 3D printed fashion: it’s used by everyone from eyewear label Mykita to designer Francis Bitoni and Dutch couturier Iris van Herpen, whose Spring 14 collection arrives at SSENSE this season.

As for the materials, products can be produced in everything from nylon or plaster to ceramic and metal. Soft materials like TPU or elastomer polymer can also produce flexible products. “In most cases we are doing something no one has done, with a new material no one has worked with before,” Bitoni, the designer behind the world’s first 3D printed dress, explains. “We are transforming matter into media.” He’s right – the range of materials is evolving every day.


First 3D printer invented / 1984

World’s largest 3D printer / The D-Shape - built from scratch by Enrico Dini (6m x 6m build map)

World’s smallest 3D printer / The 3D MicroPrinter - built by Klaus Stadlmann (20mm x 30 mm build map)

Number of hours to print a small object / 10

Number of hours to print a full-sized gown / 400+

Number of hours to print an entire car / 2500

Smallest 3D printed object / Nano-scale objects as wide as a human hair

Largest 3D printed object / Enrico Dini and Andrea Morgante’s 2m tall “The Radiolaria” sculpture

Cost for printed wearables / $50 - $400

Cost for 3D printed couture / $5000+ 


Berlin based label Mykita has been setting the standard for luxury eyewear since 2003. Just four years after launching their label, co-founders Moritz Krueger, Philipp Haffmans, Daniel Haffmans, and Harald Gottschling began experimenting with selective laser sintering. They eventually produced the first SLS-made serial eyewear products and patented their own new material, MYLON. Mykita remains the most influential label in high-tech sports eyewear, with the MYLON Collection earning awards from the International Forum Design Hannover and the Red Dot. Here, Mykita co-founder and CEO Moritz Krueger shares an inside look the making of MYLON.

What exactly is MYLON?

MYLON is extremely fascinating – it s ultra-lightweight, flexible and thermally adaptable. With an appearance to match: the fact that the color is not applied like a coating, but as a dye creates a completely new character of material.

How do you think that 3D printing is changing the face of modern fashion?

3D print technology and materials like MYLON give us complete freedom to create any desired shapes, combining precise handcrafting with modern technology. This led to models like our Nova or Daisuké frames, which have only been made possible because of this process. 3D printing is challenging and changing not only the product itself, but also our way of thinking about those products.

What are the benefits of 3D printing in fashion?

The MYLON material, first of all just from a functional perspective, is great to use. There is no other eyewear material out there that compares to MYLON - it’s lightweight, it’s adjustable, it’s durable, it's flexible. At the same time, it also offers a very new aesthetic. Since technology is moving so fast, we have to strive to keep up with the latest developments to reach our full potential.  


“The limits are endless with a 3D printer,” muses Bre Pettis, co-founder and CEO of MakerBot Industries, just one of the companies championing the 3D printing movement. “It's feasible that within a few years, 3D printing wearables will be a common occurrence.” A wide range of materials and techniques also means a wider palette of products. Moreover, a hands-on approach that links the consumer with the design process is a huge benefit where fashion is concerned. As Jessica Rosenkrantz, co-founder of generative design studio Nervous System, explains, "3D printing provides a compelling alternative to the way products are designed, manufactured, distributed, and sold today. Instead of designing objects that need to have mass appeal, companies can produce their products on demand and custom-tailored to customer preferences." Creativity is, essentially, back in the hands of the consumer.


The undisputed queen of 3D printed fashion is Iris van Herpen. A Dutch designer and former McQueen intern, van Herpen's eponymous label debuted in 2007 and has since become synonymous with words like "futurism." And it's not hard to see why. In 2010, van Herpen sent a skeletal 3D printed shirt down the runway in Amsterdam: the debut of 3D printing in fashion. Inspired by movement, sculpture and visual art, every season shrewdly incorporates 3D print in some way, from simple elements to fully-fledged dresses or architectural shoes.  

Her work has not only inspired a solo exhibition at the International Center for Lace and Fashion in France, but has ushered in new wave of high-tech couturiers. The aforementioned world’s first fully articulated 3D printed dress was designed and engineered by Francis Bitoni and designer Michael Schmidt. A jaw-dropping sculptural piece constructed out of 3000 independently movable hand-connected links, the dress is more art object than clothing. Last September, Bitoni teamed up with Pettis and MakerBot on the Verlan dress, made of revolutionary flexible filaments. Victoria's Secret also sent 3D printed lingerie down the runway: their 2013 Angels show featured snowflake-inspired corsetry, wings, and arm-pieces.


While 3D printed wearables remain firmly within the “someday” category for now, experts agree that it’s not as far off as it seems. “It could be anywhere between five and 20 years before 3D printed clothing can begin to match conventional garb in price, comfort, and durability,” Rosenkrantz concludes. “But right now, the prices and material properties of the 3D printed products can't compete with off the shelf clothing.”

Although much can be said for the fantasy of the 3D printed movement, now, more than ever, we’re understanding the economic and ecological benefits of 3D printing. As for the fashion? The possibilities really are as limitless as they seem. Unique and forward-thinking designs will be possible on a scale that has never before existed.