Additive goes to the ball: 3D printing at the Met Gala

Whether it’s Levi’s ‘engineered’ jeans of 1999 or smart wearables, manufacturing, technology and fashion have always found new ways of coming together. 

Though not quite as ubiquitous as a smart watch, it’s now not uncommon to find elements of 3D printing woven into the fashion world, from the famous Dita Gown that started it all to Chanel’s 3D printed suits and optimised mascara brushes. At the annual Met Gala, where the dress code and exclusive guest list invite the most extravagant outfits to the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the technology enabled some of the most talked about looks at this year’s event.

The theme was ‘Camp: Notes On Fashion’ and U.S. designer Zac Posen leveraged 3D printing to create a number of garments and accessories inspired by the concept of freezing natural objects in motion. The pieces were developed over a six-month period in collaboration with GE Additive and Protolabs, expanding on Posen’s vision of incorporating cutting-edge technology with sophisticated style to produce pieces that were “unachievable using fabric,” according to Posen.

The designer commented: “For me, science, engineering and art all work together. That’s why standing at the forefront of 3D printing is so important.”

The collaboration began right after last year’s Gala, where Posen met with GE’s chief marketing officer, Linda Boff, who introduced the designer to the GE AddWorks team. Having previously experimented with fibre optic technology in another Gala design and following a visit to GE’s Customer Experience Center in Pittsburgh, the two began exploring how additive manufacturing (AM) could be applied to the fashion industry. What followed was a rapid iteration process combining traditional mood boards, sketches and draped mannequins with new digital models (not forgetting the less cutting-edge wire-frame mock ups constructed from pipe cleaners) and many hours racked up on FaceTime.

“From the beginning the AddWorks team had to provide some education on additive manufacturing and its capabilities today,” Stephanie DePalma, AddWorks Lead Engineer at GE Additive, told TCT. “One of the most rewarding parts of this collaboration was working with a fashion designer who clearly has a passion for technology and helping him live out his dream of intersecting technology with fashion, while in turn our team was able to live out beauty in a completely different way.”

The main pieces – four gowns, a headdress and a number of structural elements – were worn by A-lister guests Jourdan Dunn, Nina Dobrev, Katie Holmes, Julia Garner and Deepika Padukone, and took over 1,500 hours to manufacture using a range of AM processes.

The show stopper piece was a custom rose gown featuring 21 unique 20-inch plastic petals printed with stereolithography (SLA) to deliver a high surface resolution. You may think the bodywork looks similar to that of a new sports car, and you wouldn’t be far off. Each piece was finished with primer and a layer of colour shifting “Twilight Fire” automotive paint from DuPont to give it a glossy sheen. The petals, each weighing 1 lb. and valued at 3,000 USD, were attached to a titanium cage printed on a GE Additive Arcam EBM machine to support the weight and movement of the gown while adding minimal weight. The garment took over 1,100 hours to complete.

Though the piece, the most ambitious of the collection, wasn’t without it’s challenges. Due to printing and finishing schedules, the first fitting took place just one week before the Gala, leaving the team with very little time to make changes to the design. This was put to the test when Posen suggested the gown, which was originally intended to be a floor length piece, would work better with a knee length cut. Having pre-built some modularity into the design for adjustments, the team was able to completely deconstruct the gown and rearrange the petal placement in a much shorter configuration, almost like a 3D jigsaw puzzle.

Commenting on turning the design around in such a short time frame, DePalma added: “We did have to use a Dremel to cut parts of the under- structure away that would have been visible the day before the Met Gala, but ultimately Zac and his team were very pleased with the short design configuration.”

Another highlight was a clear 3D printed bustier worn by actress Dobrev, printed in four pieces and finished by wet sanding and sprayed to give a water-like glass appearance. The static nature of the garment meant there was very little margin for error, so the team used photogrammetry to make a 3D model of Dobrev to ensure the bustier would be a perfect fit.

“When creating the vision of this piece with Zac, he draped fabric on a mannequin in the way he wanted the dress the flow,” Sarah Watson, Design Engineer at GE Additive, explained. “We used photogrammetry and blue light scanning to capture some of the complex folds in the fabric and free hand to replicate as much movement in the gown as possible. Zac quickly learned that we were able offer more design complexity than he could traditionally make with folds in a fabric, which allowed him to add even more detail to capture his ideas of movement against the body.”

Actresses Holmes and Garner each wore exaggerated accessories including a palm leaf collar attached to a custom gown produced with SLA and finished in pearlescent purple paint, and a vine headpiece with berry embellishments, printed in nylon in a single piece using HP Multi Jet Fusion and finished with brass plating. Unlike the bustier, the team didn’t have a lot of measurement information to go off to create the collar so opted to print a number of variants and test how they would lay on different body types. The leaves themselves, each long, flowing structures growing from the collar, also posed a significant challenge.

“We used a handheld laser scanner to create a 3D replica, which we then were able to move and manipulate in 3D space to create the flowing movement of the leaves,” Watson added. “To do this though, there was significant time spent cleaning up the 3D model and light-weighting to make a manageable file to use.”

The technology was also used to produce 408 intricate embroidery pieces for a metallic pink gown worn by Bollywood star Padukone. The embroidery was printed in plastic, vacuum metalised, and painted. Posen also created a number of printed accessories including brooches and cuffinks, some of which were on display at this year’s RAPID + TCT event.

The majority of the garments were manufactured at Protolabs’ AM facilities in the U.S. and Germany, while the titanium cage for the rose gown was printed at the GE Additive Technology Center in Cincinnati. In addition to the 3D printing techniques on-hand, Posen’s team was particularly interested in the range of post- processing options available via Protolabs including colour- changing paint and metal plating which gave each piece its luxurious finished quality. Plastic parts look like metal, while even the most acute additive eye would likely not be able to distinguish which technology was used where.

Speaking about the project, Daniel Cohn, General Manager of Protolabs, commented in a press release: “Designers are no longer limited by traditional manufacturing processes, where a project would be curtailed by questions like ‘can a part be cut to this shape’ or ‘can it suspend itself under its own weight’. What we have here is a very pure design process, from concept to physical part.”

The project is the perfect example of what happens when engineering knowledge and creativity come together. Posen joins a growing list of leaders in wearables and fashion who continue to play with emerging technologies, whether it’s Adidas using Carbon’s technology to print midsoles, or Dolce & Gabanna sending handbag-carrying drones down the runway at Milan Fashion Week. While technology may be the enabler in each of these examples, the project is further proof that collaboration is the way forward in leveraging the most successful outcomes from both fields.

DePalma added: “While Zac isn’t the first to use 3D printing in fashion, he waited for the right partner to come along that could help him incorporate the technology into his gowns in an elegant and authentic way with a different and more luxurious feel than previous additive fashions.”

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