Technology turned haute couture at Fashion Week in New York this week as the extreme New York designer Threeasfour wowed audiences with two flamboyant, flexible and chainmail-like dresses made on 3-D printers, not sewing machines.
Stratasys, based in Eden Prairie and Israel, helped the design house create two over-the-top, one-of-a-kind dresses. The runway pieces, each with a cool $60,000 price tag, were constructed in three countries with 11 specialized 3-D printers working 400 hours per dress.
“It became more like a science project than like making clothes,” said Threeasfour designer and co-owner Gabi Asfour. “We were fascinated with animal and plant skins and anatomy. So we took the geometries from nature” to design the dresses.
While Threeasfour and other designers had used 3-D printers before, the available printers then created hard, “structural” pieces. Someone wearing the dresses could not sit, lean or move much without them cracking.
“They are very fragile. They would break,” Asfour said.
Regardless, in 2014 his team created and showed an entire collection of the dresses. In the meantime, they looked for something better.
A year ago, Asfour received a call from Naomi Kaempfer, Stratasys’s Belgium-based creative director of art fashion design. She wanted to show his team Stratasys’ new 3-D printing technology and its experimental “nano-enhanced” elastic fabrics.
The goal? To see if Stratasys and Threeasfour could co-create a truly functional and durable 3-D printed dress, Kaempfer said.
While Stratasys’ 3-D printing machines have long made prototypes and car, airplane, industrial and medical parts for commercial customers, the company hopes to find a footing in fashion.
“Our mission is to change the way people think about design and to redefine its possibilities,” Kaempfer told the Star Tribune during a phone interview from New York’s Fashion Week.
Analysts following the industry said players have long attempted to make 3-D printed clothing with varying success. Until now, 3-D printing competitors such as 3D Systems Inc. have largely used the technology to make appliqués, sneaker insoles, jewelry or even hollow circles that get linked together to form artful garments. The idea of comfortable clothlike fabric had largely been elusive.
But in 2014, Stratasys introduced its Objet500 Connex3 3-D printer. It’s unique in the way it can extrude and blend tiny layers of different materials in multiple colors and in multiple grades of softness and hardness. Last year, it produced a skinlike nano material that looks and feels like silk.
Piper Jaffray equity research analyst Troy Jensen said the Stratasys printer has taken the lead in the industry in simulating fabric from 3-D printed materials.
“They do have the lead in this material blending capability,” Jensen said.
But he expects fashion will stay a niche business and not repair Stratasys, which has struggled for two years. Its stock now trades near $17 a share, down from $138 two years ago.
While fashion is innovative, “you won’t have a lot of demand for these crazy, freaky dresses. There is not enough volume to move the needle for the company,” Jensen said. “The only thing that will save this company’s stock is the [3-D printing] industrial side with its applications for aerospace, health care, production tools” and other big-volume areas.
Fashion designers would like to prove him wrong.
The fabric made from Stratasys’ new Connex3 machine is still under development, but the version Asfour saw for the first time a year ago impressed him.
“It is flexible, and it has memory,” Asfour said. “The new material is soft and flexible, so you can sit and lean and it cannot break. What was the most surprising to us was the functionality the new Connex3 offered because you can actually wear these pieces.”
From Belgium, Kaempfer worked with Asfour’s architect Travis Fitch to perfect intricate geometrical designs for each dress.
One dress pays homage to the pangolin, also referred to as a scaly anteater. The other dress pays homage to the harmonograph, a 19th-century device that uses swinging pendulums to create geometrical designs.
In New York City, the Threeasfour team used Fitch’s designs to make two wildly intricate dresses out of muslin and paper.
“We built the dress first and had models wear them. We then 3-D scanned the dress images into the computer so we had the exact shell, the exact body shape, what we call the mesh shape,” Asfour said.
He and his design partners Adi Gil and Angela Donhauser sent the scanned digitalized dress images to Stratasys’ operations in Israel.
There, Stratasys machines printed tiny layer upon layer of plastic and rubber into swatches of precise interlocking geometric shapes — soft in some areas, hard in others and often interlocking.
Threeasfour opened its Fashion Week show Monday with two runway models wearing the 3-D printed dresses while playing an energetic game of musical chairs. Nothing cracked. Nothing broke.
“People were cheering and clapping. And it was a full house,” Asfour said. “We were very pleased.”
The dresses will be on tour, starting next week at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
No rest for the weary, though.
The Oscars called this week and asked Asfour to design a dress for the red carpet. He won’t say for whom.