A Stitch In Time

As high fashion faces the challenges of high technology, an unlikely partnership is afoot between haute couture studios and the 3D printer. Examples of these luxury-tech hybrids are already gracing the catwalks. A craft for the future?
Défilé Haute Couture Automne-hiver 2016-2017 Iris Van Herpen en juillet dernier à l’oratoire du Louvre.
Iris Van Herpen Fall/Winter Haute Couture 2016-2017 show last July at the Louvre Oratory - Photo : Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones

“Look, it’s me naked!“ says Maroussia Rebecq, founder of Parisian brand Andrea Crews, who recently organized an exhibition including miniature figurines of herself in her birthday suit, molded to her exact proportions of her body down to the smallest micro-millimeter. Fused Deposition Modelling is the name of this technique of 3D printing which applies filaments of synthetic resin on top of each other into a marshmallow-like structure at a temperature of 200 degrees Celsius – an impressive robot which has pride of place in Rebecq’s gallery. At a time when man and machine, the intimate and the digital are in ever-increasing symmetry, it is even surprising that such a futuristic technique has become a catalyst for fashion creativity? 

3.0 Craftsmanship 

The process itself was born in the 1980s, used initially for prototypes, models and other elements usually reserved for trade insiders. Today, the technique is earning a new place within the heart and forefront of a new generation of stylists questioning the new parameters of luxury and rarity in the new digital age. The uncontested leader is Iris Van Herpen, founder of her own couture house known for its unique dresses born entirely from technological printers. Season after season, the young Dutch designer develops complex systems and formulas hand in hand with prestigious architects and entities such as MIT. Once she has produced all her textiles using printing techniques whose intricacy requires weeks of detailed work, she assembles them according to the traditional techniques of the couture atelier. She hence succeeds in the tour de force of being able to reconcile the demands of a very high end clientèle and 3.0 craftsmanship. If luxury is traditionally seen as a matter of human contact and age-old gestures, Van Herpen begs to differ: “For reasons that are beyond me, people seem to associate craftsmanship and ancient methods as something that is constantly repeated and never changed. But savoir-faire has always been about technical innovation and being proud of pushing back the boundaries of the possible at any given time,“ she says. Her own pieces defy these limits as she creates dresses capable of giving off light or vapour, of catching fire or conducting electricity, always with the aim of “blurring the lines between fashion, science, art and architecture and going towards a new hybrid media,“ she adds. 

Seen during the show, the Seijaku collection by Iris van Herpen, dresses with frills and drapes defying the laws of gravity - Iris Van Herpen FW Haute Couture 2016-2017 show last July at the Louvre Oratory - Photo : Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones
Seen during the show, the Seijaku collection by Iris van Herpen, dresses with frills and drapes defying the laws of gravity - Iris Van Herpen FW Haute Couture 2016-2017 show last July at the Louvre Oratory - Photo : Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones

A perplexing pair 

This trend sheds new light on the work of German philosopher Walter Benjamin. In his key text The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), he evokes the extreme complexity in being able to define the authenticity of a creation when faced with the possibility of duplication, and the ambiguous link between the human and the artificial. This line of thought has been tested by history, with the arrival (generally accompanied with general panic and conspiracy theories) of new machines such as the photocopier, the compact disc or the 3D printer, capable of reproducing a gesture to infinity. For Benjamin, the face-off between technology and creation troubles us because it juxtaposes two myths from our unconscious: “That of the surgeon, who enters into our intimacy and repairs with an expert hand (…) in a comprehensible process of proximity and knowledge, and that of the magician, who creates the inexplicable, and maintains and element of mystery and fantasy with regard to his audience.“ This technology applied to clothing enters into our everyday life, covers our bare skin in a high-performance manner whilst retaining an element of the miraculous. The best examples of this lie in the field of sportswear, whose brands are always keen to promote and support physical endurance and endeavour. American label Under Armour now offers shoes in printed woven matter, specifically adapted to shocks. Adidas has imagined soles able to take the shape of any foot, New Balance has launched a partnership with scientific brand B-Nervous System to create trainers adapted to the pressure created by the wearer. For the 2016 Olympic Games, Nike and other market leaders had studied individual sprint or swimming champions to produce suits capable of assisting movement and shoes aimed at improving bounce. Cyclists were rewarded with extra light, anti-slip handlebars. 

Connected clothing 

These methods are confirming the place of technological change in history as well as in the future: in May 2016, the Metropolitan Museum of New York opened its Manus X Machina exhibition presenting dozens of garments reflecting both our new obsession with technology and the radical changes that new operating systems have brought about in fashion since the Industrial Revolution. Recently, Levi’s and Google unveiled joint research into denim pieces that could prevent the wearer from putting on weight, allow them to answer their smartphone or book a table in a restaurant simply by applying pressure on a part of the jacket. A science-fiction utopia? For Hubert Barrière, artistic director of embroidery house Maison Lesage, now part of the Chanel group, it is not a question of rejecting the human hand, rather of updating it and allowing gestures to move forward with the times. The Chanel Fall/Winter 2015/16 Haute Couture collection featured suits entirely created through 3D printing, without any seams. “This is a stunning tour de force for a designer, delighted to find new proposals and suggestions faced with this futuristic craftsmanship,“ says Barrière of the pieces, which his ateliers then decorated with lavish embroidery, creating a continuity between past and present. “The encounter between an incredible precise made-to-measure and embroidery using antique yet revisited techniques, that is where true luxury stands today,“ he adds.

Iris Van Herpen Fall/Winter Haute Couture 2016-2017 show last July at the Louvre Oratory - Photo : Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones
Iris Van Herpen Fall/Winter Haute Couture 2016-2017 show last July at the Louvre Oratory - Photo : Warren Du Preez & Nick Thornton Jones

A personalized offer 

Does this mean that 3D printing is capable of reinforcing a definition of luxury that is both current and true to its historical philosophy? Pascal Morand, president of the Fédération française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, underlines the possibility for a highly personalized offer. Moreover, this technology answers a contemporary problem: “The ecological aspect is central: these printing methods allow objects to be produced in situ, and therefore to not generate any transport costs or excess stock,“ he points out. At the crossroads between the artistic and the ergonomic, the personal and the mechanized, the anthropic and the android: that is where tomorrow’s sophisticated and connected fashion lies.