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Taking 3D Printing Beyond the Hype

Photo: Bradley Rothenberg

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By Bradley Rothenberg's estimations, the 3D printing revolution is set to sweep through the fashion world any minute now. Once major fashion houses embrace the technology, industrial-strength 3D printers could become a garment-district norm, with every brand clamoring to get one of the hulking things into its showroom. But first, there's just the small matter of convincing the fashion community that 3D is all it's latticed up to be.

At this point, the hype surrounding 3D printing is at levels seemingly only reserved for Taylor Swift album releases and Cara Delevingne's eyebrows. We know 3D printing is going to change the world, we just don't know exactly how. As Rothenberg tells it, unlike some of the other startups that have seized media attention lately, it's not an "Uber for [blank]," but a system that could upend the fashion supply chain as we know it.

"I really see this method as a new way of making textiles and really the first new method of making textiles since digital knitting machines," Rothenberg, who has worked with Victoria's Secret and Katie Gallagher, among others, said in his spare lower Manhattan studio, which he runs alongside his business partner, Greg Schroy. "Where 3D printing starts to really become interesting is when you start making complex, interlocking stuff, where you have" — he stopped and lifted up a sample — "something like this, couldn't be made through regular manufacturing at all, because it's 15 parts, interlocking with each other, and they all kind of make these springs in between one another." Translation: we can make things we've never been able to make before, and what's more, we can do it more quickly and reliably than ever. "Beyond just being difficult to make in traditional manufacturing, I think it's having the ability to update, edit, change and customize for specific uses."

[Photo: Bradley Rothenberg]

Gabi Asfour, a founder of the label Threeasfour who has collaborated with Rothenberg, agrees: "I feel like 3D printing will become the next big thing in fashion." He continued, "I think there is no way around it, because it will be cheaper, faster. In fashion, you have different stages: you have fabric development, then you have pattern development, then you have style development — which is construction, sewing — and through 3D printing you're skipping all of these steps."

"There isn't a software out there that exists to allow us to do this kind of work, so we wanted to basically build that.""

Thus far, 3D printing's potential eclipses its actual capabilities. Printers are expensive — several hundred thousand to a million dollars — and aren't yet able to print at a small enough size to produce the textiles fashion designers would like to see. "The machines still are not there yet," Rothenberg admitted. "They're close, but you're not going to beat the comfort of a wool sweater. I'm not wearing a 3D-printed sweater right now for a reason." But Rothenberg said he thinks any smart company should invest in the technology, and Asfour likewise predicts a 3D printing arms race: "Somebody like Louis Vuitton, for example, cannot afford not to have the technology, because if Hermès does something with the technology, then Hermès will be the leader," he said. "Then if H&M, for example, goes into it, then Zara will have to go into it, and Mango, and Topshop, they will all have to join."

By the way, if your first reaction to 3D printing was "oh, like MakerBot," think again. "I think that the reason why the general public knows about 3D printing is because of the proliferation of consumer-level machines," Rothenberg acknowledged. But those devices, the MakerBots, the Form 1s, have little to do with Rothenberg's work, he said: "I mean, the MakerBots I think are not useful for us because there are so many limitations on what you can make. It's basically like a hot glue gun on a moveable arm."

The history of 3D printing actually goes back to the '80s when it was dreamed up by an inventor named Carl Deckard. Today, top players include a Belgian company, Materialise, the Dutch-founded, New York-based Shapeways and a German company called EOS. (Like the lip balm, this reporter asked hopefully? Alas, it stands for Electro Optical Systems.)

To be sure, the level of intricacy in Rothenberg's work is near-incomprehensible. "There's a project for Threeasfour that we did that was like 9,000 interlocking truncated octahedra that were all different sizes," Rothenberg said. "As a human being or a designer, you can't understand 9,000 connections between octahedral, right? But if you understand how one connects to another, and then play that out, you can basically write the code to allow those shapes to connect and grow."

Therein lies some of what's so astounding about Rothenberg's sartorial ambitions: he's not really a fashion person at all; he's a math person. He discovered 3D printing as an undergrad at Pratt, where he was studying architecture. "I wasn't interested in making things at all, actually," he remembered of his early days in the school's digital fabrication lab. "You know, people that go to architecture school, some people are in the wood shop all the time making stuff; I was on the computer writing code. I wasn't making anything. And honestly, I wasn't interested in getting my hands dirty at all. That wasn't me. But as soon as we got the 3D printer, I was like, 'this is it.'"

At first, he stuck with architecture, going to work with landscape designer and architect Vito Acconci after graduation. "I was never actually thinking about using 3D printing on a performative level for stuff; in school, I was thinking about using 3D printing to make scale models," he explained. But through that job, he met Asfour and shared some of his work. "I showed Gabi, and he was like, 'why can't we make a dress out of that?'"

Rothenberg eventually partnered with Schroy, a friend he'd known from the time they spent together on the competitive skiing circuit as kids, to start a company. "I would say fashion was a jumping-off point for us," Rothenberg said. The pair realized that 3D printing had potential in a slew of industries — from aerospace to sneakers — and had to drill down to decide what to focus on. "It was really doing these fashion projects that made us realize there isn't a software out there that exists to allow us do this kind of work, so we wanted to basically build that," Rothenberg said. With a small team, the two are working on a software they hope will connect the dots for others who hope to work with 3D printing and are aiming for a mid-2015 release.

Rothenberg will also be teaching computational fashion at Parsons in the spring semester, and there he hopes to entice the next generation of designers with the possibilities of 3D printing. "If I was in fashion school right now, I would be learning the computer as much as possible. I would be learning to code, I would be learning to use 3D software," he said. "I think you can do a lot with scissors and paper and draping stuff, but I think being able to also kind of understand how these forms work in 3D and design in 3D digitally adds a lot. There's a nice back and forth between making it in 3D on the computer and printing and kind of making it again." Call it reinventing the wheel, though in this case the wheel might just turn out to be an octahedron.
— Heather Schwedel