Fashion 4.0 Digital materials and 3D printing: a mix of the extraordinary and the familiar

Written by | Fashion, Lista 2, Lista 2

Iris van Herpen, S/S 17 collection

Usually, extraordinary and familiar are two adjectives at opposite sides of the spectrum. But interpretations produced by new fashion paradigms show that this is not necessarily so.

Increasingly frequently, we see and wear stylish clothes and accessories that represent the marriage between the extraordinary dimension of the ideas of fashion designers and their realisation in the form of products that were unthinkable until a short while ago. This marriage is becoming more tangible and habitual. The foremost fascinating realm where numerous stimuli for ideas are found is 3D printing, especially where it is used to confer concrete three-dimensionality to a new way of designing that is sometimes called “generative design”.

Three-dimensional printing starts with a file, generally a 3D drawing, which is transformed into a code by special software. A single computer-controlled machine produces the three-dimensional shape. The machine deposits layer after layer of material to build up the object. This is called additive manufacturing. Generative design is a kind of invisible revolution, as it was recently described, in which a series of algorithms and digital interfaces is used to obtain optimised forms for products and even for buildings. This reduces and almost excludes human effort. It is clear that if this type of approach finds the confirmation that we are expecting, in a nearer future than we perhaps can imagine today, generative design will radically change the shape of the world around us. It will also change the role of fashion designers and industrial designers, and become the new heart of how things are made. When generative design is combined with scientific research, computer graphics and 3D printing, the results can be as wonderful as they are unpredictable. Such results have been obtained by people who have succeeded in interpreting within this framework of mathematics, technology and creativity all the allure found in nature.


The Americans Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, the founders of Nervous System, are considered pioneers in translating the complexity of scientific theories and the models that describe the formation of patterns generated by nature into algorithms that transform powder into digital materials. All of it is released online by means of applications that allow users to co-design and create dynamic and entirely customisable accessories, jewellery and clothing by infinitely modifying the desired shapes and sizes.

Nervous System, Kinematic dress

Nervous System, Kinematic dress

Another pioneer of digital technology at the service of fashion is the Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen, a point of reference for people interested in what lies beyond the frontiers of fashion. For several years now, van Herpen has been inventing extraordinary shapes and highly original sartorial approaches that combine traditional materials with absolutely innovative technology such as 3D printing. She calls her design ethos New Couture, and it is destined to overturn several fundamental paradigms of fashion.

But it is not only overseas and above the Alps where we find illuminating examples of the application of digital technology. In Italy there is no shortage of designers experimenting with innovative approaches. Alessandro Zomparelli from Mhox design is one example. His material is nylon powder, 3D-printed with sophisticated laser technology that makes the complex and elegant shapes of his Carapace collection, whose bracelets, earrings and necklaces are inspired by the microstructure of crustacean exoskeletons. Characteristics such as toughness and permeability are modulated to give the accessories entirely peculiar and pleasant natural, aesthetic and sensorial qualities.

Also in Milan, Odoardo Fioravanti is having fun with the potential of 3D printing. Since 2005, he has been making three different clutches: Armure, inspired by the small cones of cypress pines; Ivy, inspired by the delicate pattern of leaves and by the truncated icosahedron shape of soccer balls; and Bern, inspired by the topography of the mediaeval Swiss city, rendered in an alternation of sinuous extruded lines. All three bags were specially designed for this technology.

Also in Italy, we have the +Lab at the Milan Polytechnic, where 3D printing and research on materials and the technologies of digital production take place. The lab experiments with low-cost 3D printing that uses common materials of natural origin such as polylactic acid (PLA) derived from corn. At +Lab, Michele Tonizzo makes accessories such as Vi, a delicate pendant containing all the beauty and versatility of generative design in a light entwining of non-planar filaments that no conventional technique would be able to replicate.

Another example of intelligent digital materials that are both extraordinary and familiar thanks to new technology is the Jacquard project by Google, developed in partnership with Levi’s. Here, the idea is to go beyond wearable electronic devices by making threads that can be processed using conventional weaving techniques. Conductive wires are inserted into the weave to turn any area of the fabric into a sensitive point, making every garment an interactive surface.

Odoardo Fioravanti, Bern clutch

Odoardo Fioravanti, Bern clutch

Such connected fabrics are carte blanche for the fashion industry. They open an amazing number of possibilities in the ambit of interaction with devices, services and all our surroundings. Fashion designers can use these new materials just like traditional fabrics, adding new spaces of functionality to their ideas without having to learn anything about electronics or informatics. Teaming up with Levi’s led to the production of the Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket, engineered specifically for the urban cyclist. The garment maintains the recognisable lines and characteristics of the brand’s original jeans jacket, and integrates them with a number of digital functions. Connectivity is given by a small intelligent label that contains all the necessary electronics. Except for this removable label, the jacket is machine washable and is worn just like any other denim product in the Levi’s collection.

There are also designers who are creating elegant products with a special focus on sustainability. From the numerous examples, we have chosen two that are distinguished by refinement and originality. They well interpret the most modern approaches of what is called circular economy, a new formula of sustainability that is applied to economies in order to regenerate by themselves. In these systems, all activities from extraction to production are organised so that the waste of one company becomes a resource for another.

The first is Rothy’s of California, which demonstrates how the common recycled plastic bottle can become a pair of stylish, original and sustainable shoes. Rothy’s uses technology where the bottles are first turned into granules, then thread, and are three-dimensionally knitted into shoes that fit like a glove and are as comfortable as socks.

The second example of this brief overview is emblematic of the mixing of the extraordinary and the familiar. Giovanni Milazzo and Antonio Caruso, the founders of Kanèsis, a small, hyperactive start-up, have found value in the waste of agricultural production.

Kanèsis, thread

Kanèsis, filato / thread

Motivated by the beauty of their warm and fertile native Sicily, they have established a relation between primary and secondary industry. By knowledgeably collecting and redirecting scraps, Kanèsis transforms them into second-generation materials needed by other companies. The approach is a fundamental way of conducting business in modern manufacturing. It is how special thermoplastics are produced from local agricultural leftovers. They are of interest for the production of filaments for 3D printing. Kanèsis has begun using them for the creation of fashion accessories obtained from hemp. Another material is made from the residue of citrus processing. It offers particular sensorial and synaesthetic properties that are pleasing to the senses of sight, touch and even smell, by capturing the scent of orange blossoms in an entirely characteristic way.

Marinella Levi

Marinella Levi is professor of Chemical Engineering at Milan Polytechnic. Since 2013 she is director of +LAB, the 3D Printing Lab of Milan Polytechnic, located in “Giulio Natta” building, together with Chemistry, Material and Chemical Engineering Department “Giulio Natta” .

Last modified: 15 June 2017