Articulating 3D Printing

  • Dita Von Teese in the 3D-printed gown by Michael Schmidt, Francis Bitonti and Shapeways (Photo by Albert Sanchez)

For all the gobsmacking developments in 3D printing, executing something with all the ever-shifting suppleness of fabric has been as much a challenge for the design engineer as it has the fashion designer. How to sinter nylon powder into, say, a dress that actually responds to the natural movements and physical curves of the wearer like a dress made of conventional textile?

With a symposium on fashion and 3D printing on the calendar for New York Fashion Week, Ace Hotel in New York posited this challenge to jewelry and costume designer Michael Schmidt, whose permanent interior installations for the hotel in Palm Springs and, soon, downtown Los Angeles are grand features of the lobbies. Michael paired with 3D printing pioneers Shapeways and architect Francis Bitonti, and the trio recently unveiled their answer with an eye-popping example, the first fully articulated piece of fashion made from the same rigidly inherent nylon powder that has long been a hallmark of architect and automobile modeling.

And if you’re going to put a piece of high-tech haute couture to the test, better make it on a figure with all the curves and moves to stretch it to its limits. Neo-burlesque queen Dita Von Teese served as muse and model for this game-changing work, the floor-length gown custom designed and engineered for the modern bombshell.

Fashion and 3D printing have been bedfellows for some time, of course, and among the most accomplished trailblazers in this coupling is Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen, who has long collaborated with Belgium-born Materialise and, most recently, Minnesota-based Stratasys. At Paris Fashion Week last month, van Herpen debuted a stunning short dress 3D-printed from her design that was flexible and soft because it was made from TPU, a highly elastic polyurethane that is also used in footwear.

In contrast, what Michael, Francis and Shapeways achieved was actually deciphering how to engineer something using the powdered nylon that is the basis of 3D printing. The “textile” is actually the sintered nylon, albeit speckled with 12,000 Swarovski crystals that Michael and his team hand applied on the finished piece. Michael has crafted other jewelry and costume pieces for his longtime friend Dita’s stage costumes so he already knew that this work would have to sparkle.

For the last three decades he has sculpted, welded, cast and crystalized stunning feats of costume for a galaxy of singing superstars, among them Madonna (her last four tours), Rihanna, Gaga, Cher, Katy Perry, Janet Jackson, Iggy Pop, Fergie and longtime friend Debbie Harry, who was there for the unveiling of the 3D dress at Ace Hotel New York earlier this month, the cap of a weekend symposium there on 3D printing and fashion. Among his most iconic costumes for the Blondie singer is a black gown shingled from neckline to hem consisting of  3,000 razor blades he personally hand dulled and hand stitched onto the dress. It’s had its grand museum viewing during the “Rock Style” exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Michael’s a sort of mad scientist of rock wear.

“Francis was able to take my sketches for the dress, which I created specifically for Dita, and render those in the specialized language of the software,” says Michael, whose studio is based in the gritty heart of downtown L.A. During the entire four-month process, he and Francis communicated entirely via email and Skype; they finally met face to face at the Ace symposium. “The fluidity of the joints is all 3-D printed, layer upon layer of fine powdered nylon within the preheated chamber, based on information by the CAD file. The laser hardens the nylon into form, a process known as select laser sintering, or SLS. It’s an articulated fabric built into the 3-D print itself. It’s something that’s never been done.”

To the uninformed eye, the “fabric” looks like wood beads and thread. But no thread and no needles were involved in any part of this dress. And the “beads” and “thread” are actually sintered nylon powder. At the Queens, NY, headquarters of Shapeways, the printer produced 17 sections that were then sent west to Michael’s studio to be hand-linked together. Much of his work in sterling silver mesh and other materials over the years involves this time-consuming process. Michael and his assistants then painstakingly polished, black-lacquered and hand finished the gown with jet and jet hematite Swarovski crystals.”

Michael’s template for the mechanics of the dress was the Golden Ratio theory by 13th century theorist Fibonacci, whose formula for beauty continues to be applied by artists and scientists alike. At the core of the theory is that the spiral exists throughout nature, from a human ear to the pine cone to the spiraling of the galaxy. “It all comes down to mathematics,” he notes, “beauty realized through mathematics.” It’s a construct also drawing from the bias cut silhouettes Madeleine Vionnet introduced in the 1930s, considered among the most flattering cuts for its figure-curving effect.

Michael and Francis applied the spiral formula to the computer rendering of the dress, in a mesh that undulates around the body in the most feminine way possible. For this reason, he tapped Dita, whom he deems the consummate classical beauty. While the shape was built over a nude silk corset, most of the architecture of the silhouette, from the voluminous shoulders to the cinched waist, is the result of the hardened nylon powder. The floor-length gown moves and expands according to Dita’s body contours because of the netting pattern.

The premiere party in New York on March 4 was remarkable (it had been postponed a couple of weeks because of the storm that hit town just as fashion week began: flights in were cancelled, and neither Dita nor Michael could get there!). I flew in to town to assist Michael because I wanted to be a part of this historic event (full disclosure, I’ve long admired his work and included him in my selections for the California Biannual in 2010, and he and Dita have been part of my circle for some time and I parlayed the trip into a meeting with Harper Collins on the beauty book with Dita I’m wrapping up now). For coverage on the evening, go to my signature blog. I also finally got to meet the folks from Shapeways, who also 3D print jewelry by Nervous System (a greater range is in our Abbot Kinney store and soon online) and the baroque sculptures by Josh Harker, two of the new wave of artisans in recent years who are transforming this exciting technology with their individual aesthetics.

At press time, we are organizing a video shot of Dita actually walking in the dress since no one can believe it does move. A video on the making of the dress is attached in this post. And Michael, the video and the dress are going on tour, so look out for a lecture or installation at a museum or other institution near you.

See vid on the Making of the 3D Dress.

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Portraits of Dita Von Teese Courtesy of Photographer Albert Sanchez and Michael Schmidt Studios

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Rose Apodaca