Each new technology adopted by the fashion industry brings with it waves of possibility, uncertainty, and change. The history of garment production is characterised by these turning points; perhaps the most notable (but by no means the only) example is the “tremendous scale of production” that defined the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. This explosive growth in manufacturing led to the colloquial naming of industrial cities like Manchester as “Cottonopolis” (Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis). But, as the Industrial Revolution strove to increase efficiency, creating more apparel at an increased speed, it laid the foundations for bleakly competitive (and unprotected) global labour practices, as well as vast overproduction and unnecessary consumption – what we today understand to be ‘fast fashion’.
Today we are again faced with new tools that have the power to “increase efficiency”, in the form of 3D and digitally assisted technologies. These tools are being used across the current fashion spectrum, by independent designers and multinational brands alike. The question remains, of whether 3D technologies may facilitate a new, potentially less wasteful mode of manufacturing, or whether digital tools are simply a modern update to the famous example of the obsolete Luddites, displaced by newly adopted textile machinery of the 19th century. Each wave weighs heavy possibility, uncertainty, and change.
There is evidence to suggest that despite struggling to keep pace with the technological advancements of other industries, with the invention of the 3D-printer and CAD CAM manufacturing, progress is evident. In a Levis supplier factory in Mexico an individual needs thirty minutes to sand down a pair of jeans, whilst a Jeanologia laser machine is able to achieve the same result in ninety seconds (Quartz). Meanwhile, US-based start-up Sewbo is using robots to stitch single white T-Shirts together (Quartz). But surely, like in the case of the Industrial Revolution, this speeds up the process, therefore producing more, with no evidence of increased consciousness.
3D technology provides an intriguing case for increasing both efficiency and consciousness within the garment industry. The London-based designer Scarlett Yang “researches and develops innovative approaches on the intersection of fashion, design and technology”. Yang’s project Decomposition of Materiality and Identities explores sustainable concepts through the experimentation of 3D technologies. The final result, “a glass-like garment crafted from algae extract and silk cocoon bio waste” (see pictured) was made possible through the implementation of 3D technologies: creating on-screen prototypes, digitally cast models of the final piece, and eventually having the possibility to digitally present the garment. After the final garment is printed, the delicate dress of algae and silk waste proves sensitive to its environment outside of the digital sphere, and once submerged in water is able to biodegrade within 24 hours. The dress lives on in its digital form after it has physically decomposed. Yang’s work reads as an intellectualised commentary on the disposable nature of the fashion industry, challenging the viewer to submerge themselves in the digital in order to reassess the definition of sustainability.
Another game-changer within the technologically-driven sphere of fashion design is the Central St Martins graduate Mathilde Rougier, who last year presented a “modular augmented capsule collection”. Through internships at the likes of Louis Vuitton and Christopher Kane (Reverie), Rougier was exposed to the wasteful practices of pre-consumer waste. This motivated the designer to engage with already-existing garments from her personal archive, using 3D scanning and AI, to distort the physical garments to create upcycled, digitalised pieces of clothing. The end product is a delirious mix of reality and dystopia, an ominous foreshadowing of the future.
Moving from the avant-garde, brands within the mainstream have incorporated 3D technologies into their methodologies. The British brand Pringle of Scotland showcased 3D printed pieces by the material scientist Richard Beckett in 2014. Far from the surreal work of Yang and Rougier, the pieces offer a more accessible entryway into this advanced technology for creating clothing. Using laser sintering (Dezeen), a technique that uses a laser as the power source to sinter material through a 3D model, Pringle presents unique pieces of digitally created fabric sewn through the more classic fabrics. The result is a striking reconciliation of traditional knitwear and cutting edge technology.
The novelist Dana Thomas describes how Fritz Lang’s narrative of exploitation, Metropolis, “forecast a dystopian future”. Appearing today as a disturbing mirror to the world projected in the film, the fashion industry remains under the constant threat of ever-increasing levels of consumption, prompted by the endless “efficiencies” heralded by new technologies. However, 3D technologies specifically afford designers the opportunity to stand in front of a computer and deliberate the necessity of a garment before it enters production and, as demonstrated by Yang, Rougier and Beckett, the digitalisation of planning a collection is increasingly possible and necessary. As we battle against the swathes of waste to emerge from the fashion industry, what remains abundantly clear is that new tools will always provide us with possibility, uncertainty, and change – it is up to those within the industry to determine that those tools are used positively, as a force to build a slower, more deliberate fashion landscape, unlike that of the 19th and 20th centuries.
– By Eliza Edwards