"If I had to make something with a 3D printer, I think I'd make something about New York; maybe a model of the Chelsea Hotel?" said Debbie Harry of Blondie, standing in the basement of the Ace Hotel on Monday evening. Ms. Harry was there for the unveiling of a gown believed to be the first made entirely on a 3D printer, a machine that sculpts plastic, metal and ceramics from designs created on the computer. The gown, perhaps the fashion world's foremost technological innovation, was designed by Michael Schmidt, a friend of Ms. Harry's who famously outfitted her in a dress, now on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, made from 3,500 razor blades.
The dress that Mr. Schmidt unveiled on Monday was made of another unconventional material; 3,000 plastic joints so small that the gown could fall as if it were made of fabric. The gown, which wouldn't look out of place on an evil queen in a science-fiction movie, was modeled by Dita Von Teese- the model formerly married to Marilyn Manson- who's jet-black hair complimented the color of the plastic.
"I'm no expert in comfortable clothing," said Ms. Von Teese, who has spent years reducing the size of her waistline by wearing extremely restrictive corsets, a process known as tight-lacing. "In fact, I'm most comfortable in uncomfortable clothing. The corseted shape of this dress was actually comfortable to me."
To make the dress, Mr. Schmidt enlisted Francis Bitonti, an architect and designer based in Brooklyn who spent thousands of hours turning Mr. Schmidt's vision for the gown, which he drew on an iPad, into reality. Mr. Bitonti, who previously used 3D printing to design bike racks for the Department of Transportation, began with a 3-D model of Ms. Von Teese's body.
"We used a model of her body, as a network of curves, to generate the dress; her body actually became an input for the software," said Mr. Bitonti. "Michael and I would Skype to talk about the gown- we've been working very closely together for months, but we didn't actually meet in person until this weekend." A few minutes before the gown was unveiled, he mentioned, with a nervous laugh, "I've actually never seen the gown finished."
The event and the gown were sponsored by Shapeways, a 3-D printing startup that allows people to submit and buy their own designs. "You can use an iPhone app that will allow you to take 40 photos of an object, and the software will then stitch the photos together so you can recreate, modify and print the design," explained Duann Scott, a "designer evangelist" at Shapeways. Mr. Scott helps designers learn to use the company's software.
"A cardholder from Shapeways costs about $10 now," he said, flashing a custom made piece of plastic filled with business cards. "To make something like this five years ago, it would have cost about $150. Before that, you would have needed to hire an engineering firm" he said, cracking a smile.
Mr. Schmidt seemed relieved by the crowd's enthusiastic reception. "I want to start using the technology regularly. I had quite a number of the world's top girls trying to get their hands on that!" he said, gesturing toward the gown.
By David Shapiro
March 6, 2013