Shaping the Future of Fashion, One Print at a Time

Apr 18, 2017

Hannah Chessman Bw By Hannah Chessman

Have you ever thought about how your clothes are made?

Do you remember back in 2010 when a big name brand was exposed for just destroying their unsold clothes? They were certainly not the only ones handling excess merchandise that way, and even if they’ve changed their practices since then, it’s a pretty good bet that not everyone has.

As a consumer who tries not to actively contribute to the degradation of our environment, news stories like that one are hard to hear. It’s no secret that there are issues with mass production and consumption, but what can we as individuals really do about it? NYC-based fashion designer, Sylvia Heisel, has a few ideas.

From her cosy, light-filled studio space in Lower Manhattan, Sylvia has been developing a methodology and fabrication system for the design and manufacturing of 3D printed garments alongside her partner and husband, Scott Taylor.

HEISEL’s vision is to create “zero waste clothes that are printed to order in compostable materials”. To Sylvia this environmentally responsible and technology-driven approach is the future of fashion design.

Experimenting with countless fabrics and methods, the team at HEISEL are constantly on the lookout for new ways to make things and new materials to make them in. Sylvia describes herself as “obsessed with technology and sustainability” and is interested in exploring how technology can augment fashion design to allow for pieces that are not only sustainable and unique but also actually wearable.

I visited Sylvia and Scott at their studio last week to see what they’re up to right now.

They’ve been in their current space on the edge of Chinatown and the Lower East Side for around six years. Even in this small space, you can see that geometry and texture are important design elements in their work.

The white bathroom features a graphic wall treatment of bold, black lines placed at random angles to create different shapes and voids that begin on the walls and continue across the ceiling and vanity. Even the fluorescent tube lights in the main office are arranged in a thoughtful way, creating polygonal forms that relate back to the bathroom installation.

As I looked around, I noticed a large pile of gray felt scraps. I thought maybe it was material for a new piece of clothing, but, as it turns out, it was a dog bed. Most days they watch a very cute poodle mix that belongs to a neighbor in the building. The dog wasn’t there that day, which I feel was a pretty big missed opportunity for me.

They’ve got three printers in the space right now. Two small FDM desktop machines and one larger one that is a bit of a homemade solution, based off a successful hack of a CNC machine that was done in San Francisco. It works well for fashion because printing fabric doesn’t require a very high range of motion on the Z-axis.

And, of course, there is a rack displaying the garments they’ve made utilizing 3d printing technology. They are tactile yet sleek, minimal yet futuristic. The collection is relatively monochromatic so far - blacks, greys, and some newer, lighter neutrals - but is diverse in its construction method and appearance.

There are pieces made with all kinds of filaments from NinjaFlex, a durable and truly flexible filament that has been on the market for a few years now, to composite PLA filaments infused with carbon fiber or polishable stainless steel to 100% biodegradable filaments, the most recent addition to their growing list of material options.

One benefit of having their own studio and printers is being able to take on other types of projects from time to time.

Currently, they are working on a hanging lamp shade design for an interior decorator, whose client wanted to replace a glass shade that broke. The criteria was that 1) it needed to be made out of a material that would not shatter, if it fell and 2) it needed to be a certain size - they were given very specific dimensions in order to match the original product.

Because of those restraints, 3D printing became a perfect solution due to its resilient materials and customization abilities. They printed a test shade with four different patterns and let the client choose which one they preferred. After the final pattern was chosen, they were able to quickly alter the design in the computer and print the final product.

Right now, Sylvia and Scott are focusing their efforts on two different projects: designing and producing custom 3D printed unique and eco-friendly promotional products for brands and researching and testing new materials for 3D printing fabrics in partnership with manufacturers.

In order to better translate their design ideas into functional garments, they have been spending a lot of time learning about different filaments recently, and the chemistry behind them. They have been working with filament manufacturers to test new products, provide feedback on what does and doesn’t work, and offer suggestions about what new types of filament they might like to try. This type of collaboration is driving the industry forward, diversifying the types of materials available on the market and encouraging innovation from filament manufacturers.

One of the first materials they printed with was NinjaFlex. NinjaFlex has been around for a few years now and has been very useful in industrial settings, but it is not very sustainable and can create toxic fumes when heated. It was originally created solely for function, not appearance, so the palette can be limiting when designing for fashion.

HEISEL has mostly moved on from NinjaFlex now thanks to innovations in the filament industry that are not only more sustainable but also more aesthetically pleasing. One example are bioplastics, which are 100% biodegradable and have a better feel to them but are not quite as strong as NinjaFlex.

They’ve also been experimenting with composite filaments that are infused with things like hemp and reflective beads. Sylvia contends that not all filaments need to print perfectly: lumps and bumps are perfectly fine, depending on the application.

Take ceramics, for example. Embracing imperfections in the printing process adds a handmade quality to the finished product. No two pieces are the same, just like if you’d made them the old-fashioned way. Balancing new technologies with hand-crafting techniques is important to Sylvia, since the handmade side of the process is still pretty intensive when it comes to constructing items of clothing.

HEISEL is also working on developing software to bridge the connection between the 2D and the 3D, specifically as it relates to fashion.

Even more so than with furniture, there is a disparity between how your design appears on the computer screen and how it will actually look, feel, and behave once printed. Sylvia believes that, eventually, we will get to the point where people will design garments themselves on the computer and then send their file somewhere to have it printed, but we're not quite there yet. 

Although the learning curves are steep now, Sylvia and Scott are forging ahead, exploring as many new materials, processes, and tools as possible. As technology continues to advance and our understanding of it grows, the opportunity for widely available 3D printed fashion becomes much more real.

With design studios like HEISEL leading the way, 3D printing will challenge the way we make and use clothes. The future of fashion will be defined by a societal desire to create beautiful, thoughtful garments that leave no impact on the environment, one print at a time.

Sylvia is a fashion designer and creative director at HEISEL, working with new materials, manufacturing, and physical computing for fashion and wearables. She is an expert on 3D printing, functional fashion, design for smart wearables, and new materials manufacturing applications for fashion. Currently developing a workflow and manufacturing system for 3D printed apparel, Sylvia was named one of the "12 Amazing People You Need To Know In New York Fashion Tech".

Scott Taylor is a visual artist, who creates welded steel sculptures that utilize universal symbols to transcend language, race, age, gender and geography. In partnership with his wife Sylvia, Scott creates and consults on temporary interiors, environments, displays and events that combine contemporary design, art, fashion, culture, technology, and lifestyle.