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.

Unbranding and the hipster backlash

Paul Raven @ 26-08-2010

I have an awkward but passionate relationship with academic discussions of popular culture. Expansion: I’ve always found popular culture more interesting as an observer than as a participant, but I think the line between those two states is becoming thinner and fuzzier (if, indeed, it ever existed at all beyond my own desperate, continuous and largely futile attempts to see myself as separate from any form of cultural majority in my current social environment*).

You see, I had a minor revelation on the way to Tesco the other evening, in which I realised that part of the difficulty with, say, writing reviews of books or music in a networked world, is that you can’t isolate any one cultural artefact from the world in which it exists, or from its creator (not entirely), or from its consumers and detractors. To review effectively – to critique – is an act of comparative cultural anthropology, performed in a room lit only by a Maglite velcroed to one’s own forehead. Context is everything. The character and intellectual history of the critic is crucial to your understanding their understanding of the subject of their critique. The critic’s greatest insights (and, by the same token, greatest blindspots) are necessarily invisible to her. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, the critic can’t see her biases for the same reason that a tourist stood in Trafalgar Square can’t see England.

And so much for rambling pseudophilosophical cultural discourse. (Hey, it was a fun paragraph to write. I may even have meant most of it.) But back to the point: culture, fashion, trends, memes. Cyclic shifts. The mainstream’s need to reappropriate marginal culture (because, based as it is on a pattern of consumerism, it cannot create, only refine and reiterate); marginal culture’s parasitic defiance, goading and mockery/pastiche/satire of the mainstream’s current obsessions (because the urge to create is almost indistinguishable from the urge to destroy).

What am I going on about?

Like, hipsters, y’know? Right. Wired UK piece, academics and psychology types talking about the pivot point where a self-identified outsider culture reaches a critical mass and becomes a self-parody, attacks its own body-politic like cancer or some sort of immune system failure; Pop Will Eat Itself (dos dedos, mis amigos). Swarms of Johnny-come-latelys displace the boys and girls from back-in-the-day to the sound of chorused mutterings of “sell-outs and cash-ins”,  “we-were-here-first”, “the-early-albums-were-waaaaay-better”. In-group identifiers become terms of disparagement outside the group; inside the group, further divisions of nomenclature attempt to reposition the speaker in relation to the recent immigrant influx invading their cultural space (“he’s no hipster, he’s a scenester; sooooo bogus”). Meanwhile, businesses spring up and rot away in parallel with the swells and breakers of cultures rising and falling, happy remoras (remorae?) on the big dumb whale-shark of Youth. (RIP, American Apparel; couldn’t happen to a more horrifying homogeniser of urban try-hards.)

Whoa, check myself – still waffling b*llocks! Cut to the chase with academic concision:

In order to distance themselves from the hipster caricature, true indie consumers** use a number of techniques.

The first is “aesthetic discrimination”, whereby you tell those who accuse you of being hipsters as uninformed outsiders who don’t have sophisticated enough tastes to be able to discriminate between the hipster caricature and the authentic indie consumer.

The second technique is “symbolic demarcation”. Those indie consumers who engage in aesthetic discrimination tend to have an intellectual command of indie culture and are socially recognised as people who are in the know. Because of this status, they can afford to dismiss any resemblances to the hipster icon as irrelevant.

They might also rename the hipster caricature as something else, eg “scenester”, thus placing the worst traits associated with a “hipster” into a new, distinct definition. Creating a new category helps solidify the contrast between legitimate indie consumers and those who simply want to be part of a fashionable scene.

The third technique is “proclaiming (mythologised) consumer sovereignty”. This sees the person consciously reframe their interests in the indie field to show their autonomy from the dictates of fashion.

“Our findings suggest how backlash against identity categories such as hipster or metrosexual could generate complex and nuanced identity strategies that enable consumers to retain their tastes and interests while protecting these tastes from trivializing mythologies,” the authors conclude.

(Before you feel too smug, we all do this. Granted, most of us reading this site don’t do it while wearing ironic Rayban knockoffs or penny loafers under rolled-up drainpipe jeans, but we all do it. Genre fandom especially is full of this stuff, though it moves more slowly. Hell, even the transhumanists do it, though they use even bigger words than anyone else in the process. Othering is a hard-wired human thing, goes way back to pre-speech phases of socialisation. Them-and-us; hard habit to quit.)

But so what? Well, say you’re a marketer for fashion brands (or for a new author, or an advocate for a new school of transcendent philosophy). Making your own brand/author/philosophy look good is incredibly hard to achieve reliably… even more so nowadays, with the memetic flux swirling so fast. Yesterday’s viral sensation is today’s lingering and sniffly common cold. So what to do? Instead of giving your brand to cultural icons that reflect the aspirations of your target subculture, you give your rival brands to cultural icons who embody the opposite of those aspirations [via BoingBoing]. Couture-marketing psy-ops. Sounds ridiculous, a possible indicator of the end of civilisation (wring hands, mutter about the Romans, miss point entirely). But with clarity born of hindsight, this morning’s revelation, triggered by the two articles linked above and prompting the rapid-fire unedited writing of this little screed:

William Gibson’s been writing this stuff for years.

How does he keep doing that?

Related: Slate “interviews” Kanye West by slicing up his Twitter output. The Village Voice claims this as the chiselled headstone of the music magazine: who needs the middleman to broadcast their personal brand, if all they’ll do is distort it? The Village Voice fails to recognise that pop culture consumers are like fuzz-rock guitarists: distortion always sounds better than clean signal. Boutique stomp-boxes all round!

[ * So, yes, science fiction fandom was a pretty inevitable landing-spot, I suppose. But which came first, the estrangement or my enjoyment of the literature thereof?*** Answers on the back of an Urban Outfitters till receipt… ]

[ ** Not entirely sure about these notional “true indie consumers”. Neophiliacs would probably be a fairer word, albeit an arguably less flattering one. ]

[ *** And so much for pathos. ]

Fabricating fabrics: 3D printing meets (sustainable?) fashion

Paul Raven @ 30-07-2010

Man, things are moving fast. I’ve been blogging about 3D printing on and off for a few years now, but I wasn’t aware that some designers are already using fabbing techniques to print off some very cyberpunkish custom-tailored clothes and accessories [via BoingBoing]. I expect the novelty of the technology and process means that bespoke fabbed fashion will be pretty pricey, and remain exclusively so for a few years… but then again, I wouldn’t want to bet on it.

And as commentators on the BoingBoing post point out, Ecouterre‘s greenwashing of a process that is neither energy efficient nor free of industrial solvents and chemicals makes the use of the word “sustainable” a bit of a stretch, at least at the moment.

Bonus: want to get into 3d printing yourself, but don’t have mad stacks of cash? Find and hack an old inkjet printer for bargain bootstrap access to a highly disruptive technology!

Attention economics, redux: why supermodels are like toxic assets

Paul Raven @ 19-07-2010

Remember me linking to that article that compared the inflationary bubble in the cult of celebrity to the sub-prime mortgage crisis? Well, here’s a similar (and slightly more serious) piece that explains how supermodels are similar to toxic assets [via MetaFilter]:

Coco [Rocha] is what economists would call a winner in a “winner-take all market,” prevalent in culture industries like art and music, where a handful of people reap very lucrative and visible rewards while the bulk of contestants barely scrape by meager livings before they fade into more stable and far less glamorous careers. The presence of such spectacular winners like Coco Rocha raises a great sociological question: how, among the thousands of wannabe models worldwide, is any one 14 year-old able to rise from the pack? What makes Coco Rocha more valuable than the thousands of similar contestants? How, in other words, do winners happen?

The secrets to Coco’s success, and the dozens of girls that have come before and will surely come after her, have much less to do with Coco the person (or the body) than with the social context of an unstable market. There is very little intrinsic value in Coco’s physique that would set her apart from any number of other similarly-built teens—when dealing with symbolic goods like “beauty” and “fashionability,” we would be hard pressed to identify objective measures of worth inherent in the good itself. Rather, social processes are at work in the fashion modeling market to bequeath cultural value onto Coco. The social world of fashion markets reveals how market actors think collectively to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. And this social side of markets, it turns out, is key to understanding how investors could trade securities backed with “toxic” subprime mortgage assets leading us into the 2009 financial crisis.

Well worth a read; it’s interesting to see someone looking at a market in terms of its social construction rather than as a bunch of mathematical abstractions and assumptions. One of the things that has frustrated my research into economics is the way it always seems to be portrayed as a coldly rational science, without any attempt to understand or deconstruct the emergent social consensus that drives it. This is almost ertainly due to me looking in the wrong places, so if anyone has any suggestions for good sources of social and/or behavioural economic literature that won’t baffle an inquisitive layman, please pipe up in the comments.

Bacterial biker jackets and after-market parts for people

Paul Raven @ 12-07-2010

This year seems like it’ll be the one where the mainstream starts talking about custom-made replacement organs as something more than science fiction. A few weeks back we heard about the rat who got a new set of lab-grown lungs; this week, Wired is running a photo-essay on bioprinting that’s a must-see for anyone who wants to be able to write a plausible description of the working environment of a contemporary Frankenstein.

Bioreactor - image credited to Dave Bullock/

Meanwhile [via BoingBoing] Ecouterre reports on UK-based designer Suzanne Lee, who’s been using bacteria to grow an entire range of clothing from a rather mundane starting point – sweetened green tea. The end results are made entirely of cellulose, though they look (to me at least) like the skin of something that still slinks through radiation-soaked cities long after the posthumans abandoned Earth for the new terrain at the top of the gravity well…

Bio-couture jacket by Suzanne Lee

Organic ain’t yer only option, though, no sir. 3D printing means one-off custom designs of mechanical prosthetic limb can be made for amputees or other folk with different levels of physical ability… and not just for us longpigs, either, as Oscar the cyborg cat ably demonstrates. 3D printing is still an unevenly distributed piece of the future, of course, but it’s spreading fast; Ponoko have just set up their first 3D print hub here in the UK, and if they can afford to do that in the current economic climate, the business model must have something going for it, right?

It’s interesting to see the organic and inorganic racing along in parallel like this; it doesn’t take a genius to see the possibilities of the two streams converging somewhere down the line, though I’d guess that’s a good few decades off from the present day. What’s interesting to me about these phenomena is the way they seem to be an end-game expression of the desire for individuality and customisation; at the moment, price will keep all but those with a serious need for these products out of the market, but as prices fall, everything will become bespoke, unique, a one-off. Which is kind of ironic if you think about it: through the total ubiquity of mechanised manufacture, we’re actually putting an end to mass production.

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