Wednesday 11 April 2012

Printing The Future Of Sustainable Fashion

Every so often, you get a frivolous thinkpiece in the fashion press about "the future of fashion". There's usually a tinfoil dress in there, or some LEDs strung onto a necklace. So-called "smart" clothing, with embedded microchips that tell you when it's time to sling them in the washing machine, are sort of missing the point. All you have to do is sniff a t-shirt to tell if it needs a wash.

However, there are meaningful discussions to be had about technology and fashion, especially when it comes to making the industry more sustainable. You could argue that the internet - the most significant technological advance in the last thirty years - helped the idea of eco-fashion to become an industry, allowing manufacturers, suppliers and customers to connect with each other cheaply and easily. The idea of not needing a bricks and mortar presence to sell your wares would have been unthinkable twenty years ago - now companies like Po-zu and Fair Corp are building a solid consumer base out of that very idea. And Etsy means that anyone can build a small, fast-moving, easily adaptable business out of their back room and connect to shoppers worldwide. The big players are taking this to the final logical conclusion, becoming virtual companies that outsource everything to external suppliers.

But this could just be the start. The idea of 3D printing - creating solid objects out of a a CAD design - is no longer science fiction, or even out of the range of the consumer. Machines that cost tens of thousands of pounds ten years ago can be had for a grand today. And they don't just have to be used to print out plastic geegaws and doohickeys. Pioneers like Freedom Of Creation are already experimenting with fabrics to create new types of apparel. FoC and other innovators are leading the way in printing shoes and jewellery with a beautiful organic look, as if they'd been grown from coral. Clothing is taking a little longer. At the moment, the closest we've seen are tops made out of fabric that looks like heavy-guage knitwear (although they look nothing like Aran jumpers), but there's no reason that the materials available to designers shouldn't expand rapidly. Five years ago you could only print using special kinds of plastics. Now you can use materials like wood, glass and rubber. The potential to use completely recycable and organic materials is getting closer. And there's virtually no waste in a 3D-printed garment or accessory.


Meanwhile, Manel Torres, a chemical engineer at Imperial College, London has taken a different approach and developed Fabrican - spray-on clothing. Formed out of fibres in a liquid suspension,  a cross-linking of these fibres stick together, creating an instant non-woven fabric which can be sprayed onto any surface. The potential for different colours and even fragrances are limitless. Admittedly, you'd need a certain type of body shape and personality to be enthused by the idea of a spray-on top, but the questions it sparks about how we interact with our clothes and the possibilities offered by a fabric that can be used in ways not previously imaginable are frankly mind-boggling. Fabrican has medical, automotive and design applications that could revolutionise the way we look at fabric as a creative material.

Of course, questions of ethics have to be rolled into the discussion as well. What happens to the tens of millions of workers in the fashion industry when everyone starts printing their clothes at home, or spritzes on a top as easily as applying the morning deodorant? One thing's for sure - the future of fashion will be stranger and more exciting than any of us can imagine.


Well, here's hoping, anyway.

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