Itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny 3D-printed beach bikini: herald of the fashion singularity?

Paul Raven @ 07-06-2011

N12 3D-printed bikini from Shapeways3D printing just isn’t going away… which has interesting implications, given that the economy’s still deep in the tank and manufacturing is becoming a race-to-the-bottom industry in terms of labour cost. “But you can’t print anything useful and everyday with ’em, Paul! Who needs another tchotchke of their World Of Warcraft avatar, anyway?” Well, sure, we’ve probably all got more bits of purposeless plasticky crap than we need, but the technology is maturing fast, as demonstrated by Shapeways announcing the N12 3D-printed bikini from fashion house Continuum.

Obvious caveats up front: one look at Continuum’s Shapeways store-page will show you prices that aren’t going to undercut high-street retail’s sweatshop textile prices any time soon – the halter straps alone are around €20 each!

And – call me cynical if you like – the N12 strikes me as being far more about raising the public profile of Shapeways, Continuum and 3D printing in general than it is about selling bikinis; it’s a powerful media vehicle, and not just for the novelty/titillatory value that the tabloid editors will seize on (or that those who still find the need for even the most vestigial excuse to print a picture of a skinny model in very little clothing will seize upon, at least).

The fabric and design of the N12 are both “native” to the technology used to create them; you couldn’t just buy the fabric and stitch the clothes together from it manually, as the announcement page explains. This is about revolutionary design potential, a hint at the possibilities ahead as the technology matures and the costs come down.

There are cultural considerations to think about, too. The rise of “fast fashion” houses based on the hypercheap and quickly-changed sweatshop designs reflects a cultural desire for fashion as another medium through which the individual consumer can create and communicate their personal identity quickly and cheaply, as discussed in this excellent essay at N+1:

As the fast in fast fashion implies, the companies’ comparative advantage lies in speed, not brand recognition, garment durability, or reputable design. They have changed fashion from a garment making to an information business, optimizing their supply chains to implement design tweaks on the fly. Zara “can design, produce, and deliver a new garment and put it on display in its stores worldwide in a mere 15 days,”2 and this flow of information is by far the most significant thing the company produces, far more important than any piped pinafore, velveteen blazer or any of its other 40,000 yearly items. The company’s system of constant information monitoring allows it to quickly spot and sate trends and at the same time largely avoid overproduction boondoggles and the need for heavy discounting.

Unlike earlier generations of mass-market retailers, like the Gap’s family of brands (which includes, in ascending order of class cachet, Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic), companies like Zara and Forever 21 make no effort to stratify their offerings into class-signifying labels. They also don’t adopt branding strategies to affiliate with particular luxe or ironic lifestyles, à la Urban Outfitters or Abercrombie & Fitch. Instead they flatter consumers in a different way, immersing them in potential trends on a near weekly basis and trusting them to assemble styles in their own images. Clothes reach stores with practically unspoiled semiotic potential, and consumers are invited to be expressive rather than imitative with the goods, to participate more directly in fashion. We become the meaning makers, enchanting ordinary cardigans and anoraks with a symbolic significance that has only a tenuous relationship to the material item. We work in lieu of advertisers to reconfigure trends and remix signifiers, generating new and valuable meanings for goods. The more new clothes come in, the more creative we can be.

The problem with fast fashion, as already alluded to, is that it depends on highly exploitative labour. This will remain the case until (or, if you’re more of a pessimist, if) fabbing technologies reach a point where they can compete on both unit price and the rapidity of concept-to-product process. At that point, the resistance in the positive feedback loop between consumer and designer becomes almost negligible; everyone becomes a designer/remixer, and the textile factories go out of business almost overnight. Now scale that level of disruption out into all the other industries where 3D printing and fabbing could replace human workers once price parity is reached… that’s something of a singularity, in that it’s a hypothetical point on the future timeline that’s very hard to imagine our way beyond.

In the near-term, I expect 3D printed clothing will remain a catwalk and network-culture novelty for a while, worn more for what it represents than what it looks like, and bought as an expression of futurity in opposition to the still-dominant cultural mode of retroism, as well as a badge of affluence. But as the technorati set grow in their influence as celebrities in their own right, and as the notion of a new form of authenticity (uniqueness through truly bespoke design rather than through unattainable vintage rarity) takes hold, that may change quickly.