Arts & Design

How tech is rewriting the rules of couture

Designers and their most exclusive celebrity clients are turning to tech to make extraordinary one-of-a-kind pieces.

By Ariel Foxman — September 30, 2019

Couture. It’s one of those French words Americans love to use often, even if incorrectly. Yes, couture refers to fancy clothes that are made-to-measure — the word is thrown around a lot during red-carpet season — but the French use it much more stringently. In fact, in order to even be able to use the term, a design house must meet rigorous and unyielding criteria by a centuries-old federation (FHCM) that is bien passionate about a French tradition of custom, innovative, and super-refined “dressmaking.”

Each January and July during Haute Couture Week, a newly-confirmed class of couture houses show their high-fashion pieces in runway presentations for editors and clientele at some of the most Instagram-worthy locations across Paris. Familiar names including Chanel, Dior, and Jean Paul Gaultier present along with lesser known houses such as Maurizio Galante and Alexis Mabille

There is even a foreign contingent, non-French houses who get the French approval to show. Giorgio Armani, Fendi, Valentino, and Versace have long managed to maintain their spots alongside their Parisian counterparts, as well as more obscure guest members such as Aganovich and Xuan

Each of these houses must demonstrate that they make made-to-order designs for actual clients, employ at least 15 full-time staff and have at least 20 full-time technical people in a Paris atelier, and show a minimum of 50 pieces every season. Pieces must show an incorporation and mastery of handiwork, or “métier," the crafts of artisans who specialize in things like embroidery, lacework, feathers, and button-making.

Courtesy of Iris van Herpen

Left, Iris van Herpen's "Harmonia" micro dress made from translucent gradient-dyed organza. Center, Celine Dion in van Herpen's "Shift Souls" glitch dress with Anthony Howe’s "Omniverse" sculpture at the "Hypnosis" Couture show, July 2019. Right, van Herpen's "Symbiotic" kimono dress of white silk panels and 3D lasercut lace of white mylar and cotton.

Although couture translates into dressmaking, it might as well mean “high-touch.” The opposite of “fast fashion,” couture is painstakingly deliberate, decidedly belabored, and very much uncommon, and therefore affordable to a select type of client. In this way, couture has also always felt somewhat antique, a holdover from the days of Louis-Napoléon.

So when a handful of couture designers began to incorporate twenty-first century technology into their designs and creations many wondered if this was the beginning of the end of what had been held so dear. Would the handcrafted tradition be diluted by designers using additive manufacturing techniques — known to lay people as 3D printing — to create new forms and shapes that were previously unattainable?

Iris van Herpen, a 35-year-old Dutch designer known for ethereal and multi-sensory designs and a guest member of the couture federation, has consistently employed 3D technology in her work. Her most recent couture collections showcased what have become hallmarks of her look: kinetic sculptural dresses that marry hardness and softness, and are evocative of origami, Rorschach ink blots, and the skeletal systems of imagined marine life. Elements of her designs, including headpieces, jewelry, and other accessories, are both prototyped and created using 3D printing technology from Materialise. “We don’t have a CTO in the atelier,” explains van Herpen. “The research and the material development is spread over various people and we also collaborate with institutes, architects, and scientists to learn and share interdisciplinary knowledge. We intertwine the traditional craftsmanship together with today’s tools and innovation.” Van Herpen sees 3D technology as a looking glass through which a new world is calling. “Ninety-five percent of fashion is still undiscovered,” she says. “The possibilities of a new, curious, and intelligent fashion network that is in deep dialogue with new technologies, sustainability, and science are endless.”

“The possibilities of a new, curious, and intelligent fashion network that is in deep dialogue with new technologies, sustainability, and science are endless.”

—Iris van Herpen, couture designer

3D printing is essentially industry-agnostic, meaning its technologists have been working to improve its application across the board, to everything from automotive parts to medical supplies to sporting equipment and even food. Given the high quality required of a finished fashion garment — it has to be flexible, be able to be cleaned, and then presumably, be reworn — where does couture sit in the hierarchy of potential partnerships? Alireza Parandian, who heads up global strategy for wearables at Materialise, explains their philosophy, “We are the piano, our customers [the designers] are the composers and their customers, the audience. We aim to offer as many octaves as possible so that they can create their own sound in their own harmony, as they see it … It’s not a digital revolution; it’s a digital transformation, and we take things step by step. Change comes slowly.”

And while companies like Materialise, which uses HP Jet Fusion 5200 3D printers, develop tech so that designers can freely experiment, many pride themselves in also being development partners. Materialise has been working with luxury textile manufacturers, including the Italian heritage companies such as Lineapiu and Maglificio Miles, and using new materials such as TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) to upgrade or expand the development of knitwear. “First, we focused on lace, which is a handmade product,” explains Parandian. “It needs high-skilled artisans. It’s super-expensive. And it needs a super-long lead time. If you want to make the process more efficient, you have to move into 3D technologies, where you would no longer be solely dependent on a small amount of skilled workers mainly in Belgium and Italy. Plus, with 3D you can go into more complex forms of printed lace that could never be done by hand right now.” He adds, “You’re actually shifting the craftsmanship from skilled manual work to equally scarce, highly skilled engineers who are able to precisely tune and operate advanced machines in order to melt millions of particles flawlessly into hundreds of layers.”

Robert Weinraub/Michel Zoeter

Left and right, 3D printed glasses designed by David Ring. Center, Iris van Herpen collaborated on this 2010 couture piece with Daniel Widrig and .MDX by Materialise.

“The point where technology is being used in couture is not to replace,” says Jordan Roth. “It’s being used to push the form farther, to expand the canvas broader.” Roth, a boldfaced Broadway businessman who owns five heavy-hitting theaters, is also a couture client. An enigmatic group of affluent customers who both appreciate fashion as high art and also revel in the impact of wearing a one-of-a-kind piece, couture clients are often in on the entire process, from vision to fittings to premiere. Roth recently collaborated with van Herpen on a show-stopping piece he debuted on the red carpet of this past spring’s Costume Institute Gala. The first project the designer has ever designed for a man, the multifaceted look at first appeared to be cape with a trompe l’oeil image of a theatre curtain. When Roth raised his arms, thousands of laser-cut slits expanded to reveal another image — an 11-foot view of the inside of a theatre from the perspective of a stage performer. “When you think about all the thousands and thousands of cuts in that piece that are all different lengths and different shapes, you need a supercomputer to figure out the geometry,” says Roth. “It only becomes possible because of the technology.” 

The use of computers does not necessarily render matters nonhuman or anonymous, and using machines like a 3D printer doesn’t make these creations any less labor intensive as they take many, many hours to create. “The process remains deeply personal,” says Roth. “Between me and the designer and their team. Once the piece exists, it is a personal exchange between me and the piece, to animate it in an emotionally invested way and to tell a story that is inside of me.”

Not surprisingly, commissioning a couture garment is prohibitively pricey. How does moving away from artisanal handiwork in pursuit of technology impact the overall value of the finished product? Eric Wilson, former fashion reporter for The New York Times and fashion news director at InStyle magazine, now editor at large at that publication, actually sees an upside. “The perception that handmade designs are any more luxurious than those made by machines has faded,” says Wilson. “Technology has become a luxury. People are willing to spend lavish amounts of money to upgrade their phones and laptops whenever a meaningful advancement arrives. If machine-made clothes offer more functionality, if they do something really cool, if they are well-made, then tech clothes can become status symbols as much as [traditional] couture.”

Courtesy of GE Additive / Getty Images

Left, Nina Dobrev in Zac Posen's custom-designed, 3D printed bustier at the Met Gala. Center, Julia Garner wearing a 3D-printed headpiece plated in brass. Right, model Jourdan Dunn in Posen's petal dress.

Perhaps even more so, given the additional intricacies involved. Zac Posen, the beloved American fashion designer who has made a name for himself designing architectural and feminine gowns for countless celebrities, has long been attracted to the added value of 3D technology, not only for scanning but also for creation. Still, he has a profound respect for the process. “Rendering fabric film as a plane is a very complex algorithm — because of the properties of movement and weight, gravity, points of distribution,” says Posen. “It’s not a simple kind of wire frame.” 

Nonetheless, the complexities did not deter Posen from dressing a quintet of celebrities, including Katie Holmes and Nina Dobrev, in 3D printed gowns for this year’s Costume Institute Gala. Working with Protolabs, the designer created looks with Multi Jet Fusion technology that often evoked blown glass or spun candy. One design turned model Jourdan Dunn into a walking flower, with 37 3D-printed, red lacquered plastic petals affixed to a titanium cage-like corset. The dress weighed over 30 pounds and was designed, printed, and finished in no less than 1,100 hours. 

When asked where he got the inspiration to tackle such an elaborate project, Posen said, “I looked into the design of an actual petal, what holds the structure of it, because our petals had to have buttresses designed into them. I thought, ‘Okay, we’re spinning here. Let’s go back to the original designer, to the craziest, most ingenious designer: Mother Nature.’”

Ariel Foxman, the former editor in chief of InStyle, is a brand consultant and contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Follow him on Instagram at @arielfoxman.