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Danit Peleg has an idea: It’s the night before a big job interview, and you have nothing to wear. What if, just like you frantically print your resume, you could frantically print a new dress?
For Peleg, though, it’s not just an idea. In fact, the Tel Aviv-based designer recounts a similar scenario that took place while she was visiting New York a couple years ago. Peleg, 29, was in the middle of 3D printing her latest creation, a skirt, when she received an impromptu invitation to appear on Tyra Banks’s talk show. “They were like, can you come tomorrow?” she says, recalling her panic. (She’d been running six machines at once, each for 18 hours, to print its pieces.) She quickly assembled the new garment in her hotel room that night, and it made its TV debut in the morning.
Peleg, who is wearing her Tyra skirt — a surprisingly traditional-looking black pencil skirt made of rubbery, linking pieces (think high-fashion K’NEX) — when we meet, is one of a few experimental designers whose work is testing the limits of 3D-printing technology. For her 2015 graduation project at Shenkar, Israel’s top art and design school, she presented a five-look fashion collection that was entirely 3D printed at home — from weblike, architectural dresses down to the futuristic red stilettos that models wore on the runway.
The first of its kind, the collection took Peleg 2,000 hours to print. But first came an even bigger challenge, she says — finding a printable material that was flexible enough to be made into comfortable, wearable clothes. After months of trial and error, Peleg discovered Filaflex, a Spanish-made filament that’s more pliable than its hard plastic competitors. Spooling it into a series of home-sized Witbox printers (which retail for $1,900 each), she was able to print a bendable, chainmail-like textile constructed of small interlocking triangular structures. “Then, it was like a puzzle,” Peleg says, explaining how she pieced together her creations.
Since that student runway show, Peleg’s designs have gone viral, thanks to a video documenting her process that she shot with the help of her fiancé, followed by a TED talk that’s amassed more than 1.5 million views.
Now, she’s putting the finishing touches on her second collection, which includes one of the first 3D-printed garments you can actually buy: A limited-edition pink bomber jacket, made of her signature “fabric” and lined with silk. The jacket, which will be available to 100 buyers on a first-come-first-serve basis this spring, is hand washable (though most of Peleg’s pieces can simply be tossed in the dishwasher), and customers will be able to use the 3D body-scanning app Nettelo to customize it for both fit and flair.
For the moment, Peleg will be shipping her jackets to customers, but her ultimate goal — one she thinks is within reach — is to be able to email her clients design files that they can print on their own. In fact, says Elizabeth Esponnette, a professor of product design at the University of Oregon and co-founder of the textile innovation company Unspun, Inc., “Depending on your clothing standards and needs, you may be able to do this at home today.”
Most consumers don’t have access to 3D printers and software, says Peleg, “But I can email you a dress today if you like.”
Peleg becomes animated while talking about this possibility — which is, in her view, an eventuality. She has always been fascinated by making clothes out of alternative mediums (bedsheets at age 10, LED lights in design school), and the summer before starting her first collection, she interned for a New York creative studio, where she helped design two dresses produced by an industrial 3D printer. “I loved that the designers had the freedom to make the dresses look exactly as they imagined. I loved that they could create the textile by themselves,” she says. But the process involved a lot of guesswork, and the factory was located in Belgium. “We only had one shot to print them because it cost so much!”
Only later that summer, at Burning Man of all places, did Peleg’s idea come into sharper focus. In the desert, she was handed a small plastic 3D-printed necklace by another festivalgoer. “I knew he used a tiny desktop printer,” says Peleg. “And while I didn’t know anything about them, I still understood: If this guy could print so many necklaces, I can print something else. Why not textiles?”
She became hooked, spending most of her time at a makerspace in Tel Aviv, scouring through open-source software, and connecting with active 3D-message-board users. Her professors were hesitant to greenlight the project because it seemed like an impossible task to complete in the nine months she was allotted, but Peleg wore them down. “I wanted to create the whole thing by myself with just a computer and printer,” she says.
That kind of immediacy is in lockstep with the see-now-buy-now trend that leaves traditional fashion designers struggling to keep up. But it also poses a hypothetical with an even farther-reaching impact: Could 3D technology do for fashion what Napster did for music?
Pre-production customization, for example, does more than just personalize the shopping experience. In theory, it minimizes monetary and environmental costs for both consumers and manufacturers. “The fashion industry suffers from overproduction,” says Yael Chojnowski, co-founder of Nettelo, whose virtual tailoring technology can help optimize clothing orders not just of the 3D-printed variety. “3D technology brings disruptive innovations to the very early stages of a product’s life cycle.” For consumers, that means never ordering two sizes with the intention of returning one again. For manufacturers, it means cuts across the board — in production, inventory, shipping, and waste. And in a broader sense, it means giving shoppers a hand in the creative process, inviting them to co-design rather than browse racks.
Peleg is not the first designer to tinker with these theories. She joins a small but growing pool of talent on the vanguard of 3D fashion design, the most prominent example being the Dutch couturier Iris van Herpen, who has been incorporating 3D printing into her looks since 2010. Some of them were displayed as part the “Manus x Machina” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute last year. The US design studio Nervous System has developed a dress that emerges from the printer in one meticulously folded, ready-to-wear piece, no assembly required. And major footwear companies like Nike, Adidas, and New Balance are using 3D printing to evolve and accelerate sneaker design.
But what Peleg does that they don’t is bring the entire process home. “She has shown that you do not need to be a part of a company or research group to 3D print wearables,” says Esponnette. Rather, Peleg pares down an often complex, costly, and remote process to a DIY method she can oversee, start to finish, in the comfort of her apartment. (The only other designer receiving attention for work in this realm, notes Esponnette, is the South Korea-based Lee So Yeon.)
Still, for the rest of us, who are not Danit Peleg (or Lee So Yeon), most of these theories are just that. If designers are already able to send dresses as email attachments, why does the idea of opening them still feel like a fantasy to consumers?
It’s not a matter of cost. At $1,900 apiece for a Witbox plus raw materials, 3D printing is not cheap, but it’s not as prohibitively expensive as most manufacturing processes. Rather, the medium is not yet versatile enough to drive demand. “3D printers are limited by their resolution and materials’ capabilities,” says Esponnette, so the clothing that comes out of them is “not comfortable, covering, nor drapey.”
Like Peleg’s, most of the garments have an ultramodern, architectural aesthetic due to their web-like construction. And while it’s undoubtedly chic to garnish your wardrobe with statement pieces that resemble Norman Foster skyscrapers, they’re not exactly the stuff of fall basics. “As machines are able to print at higher resolution, the fashion will start to look more like everyday wear,” says Esponnette. But first, filaments need to get finer, and printer nozzles need to get smaller.
Another barrier, says Peleg, is a shortage of software. Right now, she creates her patterns using Gerber Technology’s popular design program AccuMark and then 3D models them using the open-source tool Blender. Peleg has partnered with Gerber, though, to develop software that will serve as a one-stop shop. Feeling indebted to the open-source code she learned from, Peleg also plans to release some of her design files for free online.
Of course, many of the forecasts coming from the 3D-printing space are still speculative. But Peleg is sure that what now seems like a technique all her own will become commonplace once the technology catches up. “It’s just like 20 years ago, wondering ‘Why do I need email?’” she says excitedly. “Today it’s not possible to live without it.”