Fashion designer and 3D printing pioneer Iris van Herpen tells us how printing and scanning technologies could transform the fashion industry in an exclusive interview for our print-on-demand publication Print Shift. Update: this interview is featured in Dezeen Book of Interviews, which is on sale now for £12 (+ transcript).
Advances in material and printing technology mean that flexible, washable clothes are now possible, says Dutch designer Van Herpen, whose latest ready-to-wear collection includes printed garments.
"I’m really happy that 3D prints finally act with the movement of the body," she said. "[My] last show was really a big step forward because it was totally flexible and the jacket we created, for example, you could put in the washing machine."
Van Herpen is one of the first fashion designers to investigate the potential of 3D printing to create clothes and accessories. Her 2010 Crystallisation collection featured dramatic printed items resembling body armour while her more recent Voltage collection features more delicate and wearable items.
"I always collaborate with architects or someone that specialises in 3D modelling because I don't specialise in it myself," she says. "I know a little bit, but not as much as the people I work with."
She also ponders how 3D scanners could revolutionise the way we order our clothes in the future. "Everybody could have their own body scanned and just order clothes that fit perfectly." See all our stories about Iris van Herpen.
Print Shift, a one-off, print-on-demand magazine, was created by the Dezeen editorial team and produced with print-on-demand publisher Blurb. For more information about Print Shift and to see additional content, visit www.dezeen.com/printshift.
Here's an edited version of the interview with van Herpen, conducted by Claire Barrett:
Claire Barrett: What was it about 3D printing that first interested you?
Iris van Herpen: With 3D printing, it was the first time I could translate the 3D image I had in my mind immediately to the 3D model in the computer and then the 3D printer.
With hand work or with the usual fashion designing I have something in my head that’s three dimensional, which first has to be translated into something two dimensional, like a drawing, then it goes to three dimensionality again, so it feels really, really old-school. It’s a strange way of working - you have a step in between.
The things I have 3D printed I could never do by hand. It would just be impossible. The beauty of handwork is that it's always a bit different and you can never have something totally symmetrical. At the same time, I think that's the beauty of 3D printing - it is one hundred percent symmetrical in the smallest details, even the printing layers. That's the fingerprints of the technique.
Claire Barrett: Was the use of digital technology something that you were exposed to in college?
Iris van Herpen: No, it's actually really funny. When I was young I was raised without television and we didn’t have a computer. I think we were the last people to have the internet and when I was at the academy I didn’t have a computer myself. I actually had computer lessons but I didn’t like the computer at all. I had discussions with my computer teacher and he said "you can't work without a computer," and then I was really stubborn and I thought "I can, watch me". I did everything by hand all the time.
With 3D printing I suddenly saw how many possibilities it would give me in terms of three dimensionality, which convinced me to start working with technology.
Claire Barrett: Did your collaborations start from wanting to work in a more digital way?
Iris van Herpen: With 3D printing I always collaborate with architects or someone that specialises in 3D modelling because I don't specialise in it myself. I know a little bit, but not as much as the people I work with. If you start from the beginning with something that someone else is already experienced in, I think that's a waste of time.
Even if it wasn't necessary, I would still do it because I don’t want to start to walk in circles, like being in my own mind all the time. For this collection, for example, we worked with Neri Oxman, Julia Koerner and Philip Beesley. It's really bringing two worlds together because I think fashion is super interesting, but the architects who are bringing other things are just as important to me.
Claire Barrett: Why do you largely seem to be alone in pushing the use of 3D printing technology within fashion?
Iris van Herpen: I'm really open to sharing ideas and working with somebody, but I feel in fashion it’s quite a locked industry. Fashion designers are used to collaborating but usually with musicians they dress or an artist that makes a print for them. Working with scientists, architects or people that have different knowledge is just not a part of fashion and that’s something that surprises me.
Claire Barrett: Do you foresee a time when you might work with a material scientist to try and create something different?
Iris van Herpen: I always get inspired by materials, but I feel that I'm choosing them, not designing them. Of course it takes a long time so you can't design materials for every season, but if you're at least able to create something new every one or two years then I think you have more control over your design process.
Claire Barrett: Do you agree that your pieces are becoming less like sculpture or armour and more like garments?
Iris van Herpen: Yeah, I’m really happy that 3D prints finally act with the movement of the body. Now a girl can even dance in it. This last show was really a big step forward because it was totally flexible and the jacket we created, for example, you could put in the washing machine. You could sit on it. It's really a garment now.
With [the Voltage collection] I really tried to make that step away from sculpture and find a field in between traditional weaving fabrics and 3D printing. With 3D printing you can decide how much flexibility you want in millimetres or centimetres on a specific part, for example the knees or the shoulders, and you can just include that on the file.
Also, something that's really interesting is that they can include colours in the 3D prints. The colouring is in the file, it's not something that they add later on. That's a big step. If we continue with that you can create 2D prints within the 3D prints and then it feels like you're creating something 4D.
Claire Barrett: How long do you think it will be before 3D-printed clothing becomes mainstream?
Iris van Herpen: I would love to be the first to include 3D printing in ready-to-wear. The flexibility is there, I think now the focus is on developing the materials, the long-term quality and size, because there are no printers that can print a whole dress yet.
But fashion is a super big industry. You have all the factories with the traditional sewing machines, so I can imagine maybe the industry will not be ready for such a big change because you need technical people with knowledge of 3D printing, 3D printers and software, instead of people that know how to sew a seam. I can imagine the technology is there but the industry is not ready for it or the change is too big.
Claire Barrett: Can you foresee a time when people will be able to download and print out an Iris van Herpen dress at home?
Iris van Herpen: Yeah, I can really imagine everybody has their own 3D skin and you can just order something online, but I don’t know if people will print it out at home. I can imagine you could have printing factories, order your dress and maybe the customer gets a little bit of a say in it as well. They could say "well, I want this one but with longer sleeves".
Everybody could have their own body scanned and just order clothes that fit perfectly. I think it's super old-fashioned that it's only the 100 richest women in the world who have clothes that actually fit them and I think 3D printing can really fill up a gap there.