3D printing in fashion

We’re on the cusp of a digital revolution in fashion.

by Helen Saunders
Head of Intelligence and Operations | INCOPRO

While the fashion industry may not spring to mind as a beneficiary of advances in technology, 3D printing is starting to influence fashion designers and houses. In 2013, designer Iris van Herpen made headlines after debuting an entire 3D printed collection at Paris Fashion Week and the trend has been seen on catwalks with increasing frequency world-over ever since. The technology offers the fashion world real benefits – from less material waste and shorter lead times, to increased personalisation, and lower barriers to entry for new designers. For consumers, we’re still some way off mass-market penetration of the technology but, when it does come – which it will – it could entirely transform how fashion is consumed. The technology presents a huge opportunity for the fashion industry and we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface. But, as with any change, there’s also going to be challenges, particularly when it comes to IP protection.

A new world of creativity

As it stands, we are still some time off 3D printing becoming the norm. There’s still a high cost associated with the equipment required and until this is reduced to the point where garments can be easily and cheaply mass-produced we’re unlikely to see the technology explode on the high street. 3D printing will, however, empower fashion designers to produce more creative pieces, which will drive innovation and truly push the boundaries of fashion.

While the equipment required wouldn’t be considered cheap, for smaller designers and entrants to the market, it may prove more cost-effective that traditional manufacturing processes. The technology, for example, provides the means to design numerous prototypes and create designs in smaller quantities than would otherwise be possible. The technique is particularly evident in jewellery design, where a number of designers are 3D printing their pieces to sell online, to great success. In fact the technology has lowered the barriers for entry to jewellery design, allowing those who do not want the means or skills with silver and gold to model it on a computer and print their designs.

The technology also provides consumers with more scope to customise their fashion than buying off the rail. Whether that’s the ability to choose the shape of a belt buckle, or the pattern of a printed dress, 3D printing offers unparalleled opportunities for customisation. There’s some argument over whether or not the technology will be become a household staple but, should 3D printers eventually fully penetrate the consumer market, a complete revolution in the fashion retail space is likely. Could we, for example, one day leave our luggage behind on holiday, and instead simply take a selection of Computer Aided Design (CAD) files to print clothing as needed? Or, more realistically, will it become the norm to purchase CAD files from retailers, and print them to our own personalised specifications?

Determining if and when 3D printing will reach an inflection point for mass market adoption is a work in progress for analyst firms and other commentators, but the fashion industry should prepare – especially when it comes to IP protection.

The IP protection challenge

Across the world, the fashion industry is estimated to be worth $2.4 trillion. In fact, if we ranked its value within individual countries’ GDPs, it would represent the world’s seventh largest economy. Globally, luxury fashion alone is worth €224 billion, representing a lucrative market for counterfeits and copycats – the global fake goods market is itself worth over $450 billion. 3D printing will make it easier than ever for counterfeiters to manufacture ripped-off designs and, when combined with 3D scanning, is likely to make their copy-cat products almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

3D printing will make it easier than ever for counterfeiters to manufacture ripped-off designs and, when combined with 3D scanning, is likely to make their copy-cat products almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

While professional counterfeiters will clearly use the technology to their advantage, so too will others. Using traditional manufacturing processes, it would be almost impossible for the average consumer to produce, for example, a fake Mulberry handbag but, should the technology advance and allow for printing leather (not inconceivable given the advances in bioprinting), 3D printing will make doing so far more accessible. Multiple marketplaces offering 3D printing designs are already available with models available for anyone to download both for free and for a charge. A search for “Tiffany” on marketplace, CGTrader, for example, reveals numerous results with models for pendants almost identical to Tiffany’s available for as little as $10. Even with the cost of printing metals factored in, the cost is likely to be significantly lower than buying the genuine article.

Blurring the lines

From a legal standpoint, 3D printing blurs the lines between traditional content and physical IP protection. While physical goods are the intended end-product, it’s the digital files that ultimately make replication possible.

However, as 3D printing gains traction, it’s unlikely that brands – particularly in the luxury space – will be willing to risk the lost sales and potential reputational damage that could come from consumers being able to easily copy their designs. As such, it’s likely that those sharing CAD files online will become the focus of legal action. As we’ve seen in the music, film, publishing and software industries, removing links to infringing content on the internet can be an effective mechanism for limiting the spread of illegal files and, until the law catches up with technology, this may well be the most effective route for those looking to protect their IP from both commercial and private 3D printing. Other options, already explored by the content industry, such as building in some form of authentication into the hardware so only certain files can be printed may be considered. However, as with any form of technical countermeasure, it has to be acknowledged is that technology will be need to fight technology.

3D printing has the potential to entirely disrupt the fashion industry in terms of both design and commercial opportunities, but brands and designers will need to equip themselves with as much knowledge as possible to help manage the future disruption. Players in the fashion industry need to consider the resources at hand today to combat IP issues, yet still embrace and commercialise contemporary technology. Ultimately, brands will need to be prepared to counter the risks presented by 3D printing in order to realise the opportunities.

To find out more how INCOPRO can help your brand protect itself in the ever challenging online environment, please contact us.