The Fashion Consumer Gets Technologically Empowered

If we are seeing the diversification of fashion production and distribution, and the death of cut and sew, what might the emerging future of fashion look like?

This week I showed a group of my students the sweatshop documentary China Blue as we do every semester. It’s always an eye opener for most of them as they begin to grapple with the realities of our globalized clothing production system. Most are vaguely aware of ideas of sweat shops and poor working or environmental conditions that go toward making the clothing they buy and wear every day so cheap and accessible, but when confronted with the personal stories of boys and girls of a similar or younger age the awareness seems to stick.

The many problems of the fashion industry can be traced to its incredible degree of globalization and a lack of skills at the hands of consumers. We just don’t see the clothing being made anymore, we don’t know how it is made, so most consumers have very little understanding of the time or resources (both human and natural) it takes to design, produce and transport clothing because it is made in a factory, somewhere else and by someone else. Adding to the problem, is that fact that many western countries simply do not have production capabilities with producers closing their doors when imports become too cheap to compete with. Many consumers lack the confidence to mend a garment or modify it to better suit them, so instead buy another. So how might a technology driven re-localization of fashion production solve some of these problems?

Imagine this. You are about to go out on a Friday evening and realize you “have nothing to wear!” You pay $50 to download from the internet that latest Fall 2018 dress design you love, software modifies it to fit exactly and then sends it to your desktop 3D printer, 30 minutes later you’re out the door.

The rise of digital fabrication within industry and our communities, is signaling massive changes ahead in the way we consume and design clothing. Already online hubs for product design and dissemination such as Shapeways and Ponoko are pushing the Etsy model of community driven, small scale production and retail of products to the next level. These firms are enabling designers, users and consumers to generate and modify products and have them manufactured and easily distributed, all from their computers.

The location of design and production is shifting from large scale, mass-sameness to a micro-production, co-designed, distributed production model. The headaches of transportation and having the right products in the hands of consumers when they want them will be solved. The technology needed to turn this dream into a reality is already available; companies such as Solidoodle and Makerbot Industries are putting digital fabrication into our homes, allowing users to print household 3D objects such as door handles, utensils and toys. Makerbot Industries say “Instead of going shopping, MakerBot it!” The current drawback for these tools is the relatively low resolution of their prints and the small scale of the objects they can produce. However, as technology improves, the high resolution and larger scales available to industry will become available to home 3D printers.

Additionally the availability of high-end machinery to the public through open systems such as the Fab Lab, means that the creation of complex, high resolution outputs can also be at the hands of almost anyone, from the skilled amateur in Canada to the community group in Zambia.

Fab Labs have spread from inner-city Boston to rural India, from South Africa to the North of Norway. Activities in fab labs range from technological empowerment to peer-to-peer project-based technical training to local problem-solving to small-scale high-tech business incubation to grass-roots research. Projects being developed and produced in fab labs include solar and wind-powered turbines, thin-client computers and wireless data networks, analytical instrumentation for agriculture and healthcare, custom housing, and rapid-prototyping of rapid-prototyping machines.

Apply this scenario to the production and design of clothing and the existing fashion system becomes much more distributed. It would not mean necessarily that the existing model of fashion production and consumption would disappear, more that it would become augmented and accessible to users in ways that we might struggle to foresee. In much the same way that desktop printers and photocopiers changed the way users generated and consumed printed material, making it easier for example, for niche groups to distribute pamphlets and zines to support their own agendas, increased availability of new technologies will further remove control of the fashion system from traditional sites of fashion creation and into the hands of the skilled amateur. Users who cannot pattern-make or sew will be able to easily generate/personalize/manipulate/hack fashion objects or messages through the use of technology made tangible, allowing almost anyone to participate in the local production of fashion.

So what’s happening now? The fantastical Iris Van Herpen and the more accessible Continuum are providing us with contemporary suggestions of what our future might look like. Iris Van Herpen has been pushing the boundaries of 3D printing for fashion creation since her Crystallization and subsequent Escapism collections. She works in collaboration with well-known architects and the leading digital printing company MGX by Materialise, the results of which are some of the most stunning and confronting clothing designs since Alexander McQueen.

While currently these designs are relatively rigid and primarily for the catwalk, as technology improves the availability of new flexible printing materials will change that. An existing application which deals with the rigidity of 3D printing materials in a clever way is supplied by Continuum, who provide their N12 Bikini available on 3D printing site Shapeways, while their online software app allows users to design their own D.dress with a simple click of the mouse. The hybrid of chemistry and fashion in the form of Fabrican allows users to design, create, repair and modify clothing from home with ease, at any time. Rip your pants sitting eating your lunch on a park bench? Pull out your can of Fabrican from your handbag and patch it right then and there. An unexpected cold snap? Spray on some longer sleeves. You arrive at a party to see that someone else is wearing the exact same dress? Duck into the bathroom and modify it.

We can begin to imagine a future where open source software allows everyday users to generate 3D knitted garment design they can send to their local FABLab, while 3D printing their own buttons and closures at home. Fashion designers will sell digital files online for printing through an online digital fabrication hub such as Ponoko, while the more tech savvy users will manipulate these designs to suit their size, climate or taste before the garment is produced down the street from where they live. We can see a future where our everyday tools of clothing maintenance and fashion creation come from a can in our handbag. And imagine this: clothing fibers printed at the molecular level, allowing the raw material to be recycled into new garments when the old design is past its “fashion moment” the ultimate in closed loop design.