Met Gala 2016: is 3D printing the future of fashion?

Every year all the biggest celebrities from the fashion, music, and film worlds come together dressed to the nines for the Met Gala, a high-profile fundraising event that raises money for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City. The event is no ordinary fundraiser, however, as it draws attention from media outlets and people everywhere who are eager to see how celebs and fashion designers have interpreted the annual Met Gala theme. Last year’s theme “China: Through the Looking Glass”, was inspired by the Met’s exhibition by the same name and celebrities came adorned in the finest Chinese fabrics, and Chinese inspired designs. This year, in line with the Met’s recently launched exhibition Manus x Machina, the theme revolved around Fashion in the Age of Technology, and what became apparent during the evening, both through what celebs were adorned in and through the exhibit itself, was that technologies such as 3D printing are really the future of fashion.

On the red carpet—which was painted with a double-helix motif—as celebrity after celebrity posed in their stunning gowns and suits, it was interesting to see what interpretations of fashion and technology were brought forth. While many people chose to dress in metallic, or robotic styles, some celebrities went above and beyond in their embodiments of fashion in an age of technology by highlighting the recent advances in smart wearables. Model Karolina Kurkova, for instance, wore a stunning gown embedded with LED lights which flashed on when people tweeted #MetGala or #CognitiveDress. Claire Danes wore an equally dreamy number, a Cinderella inspired organza gown designed by Zac Posen that had ultrathin fiber-optics woven into it, which lit up in an eerie and stunning way.

Forward thinking fashion icon Emma Watson also impressed in a subtle black and white outfit which was made entirely from recycled plastics, showing the potential of sustainable fashion.  Lady Gaga, of course, wowed everyone with a Versace ensemble that included a micro-chip esque jacket which was made with laser cutting technology. Girls actress Allison Williams was one of our personal favorites, as she came down the runway in an ethereal one-shouldered gown designed by Peter Pilotto, which was embellished with a number of 3D printed flowers.

Other guests opted for more traditional gowns and suits, which nonetheless played into the theme of Manus x Machina, as they demonstrated the continued relevance of couture and handmade clothing into the age of technology. As we will elaborate on later, the two are practically inextricable. On an anecdotal level, 3D printing made another fun appearance at the Met Gala, as young internet personality Cameron Dallas was gifted with a personalized cupcake which featured his face 3D printed on it. The cupcake was a gift from TopShop, who dressed the young celebrity.

Of course, the entire Met Gala soirée was based around the Costume Institute’s exhibition, Manus x Machina, which itself should be mentioned for its innovative approach to fashion. The exhibition, which was organized in association with Apple—whose own wearable tech is beginning to catch on—officially opened on May 5th, and is showcasing “how designers are reconciling the handmade and the machine-made in the creation of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear.”

The topic, which is admittedly very broad, as even sewing machines could be considered technology, explores how technologies and machines have been utilized by fashion designers not necessarily as a way to streamline the designing process, but as a creative tool, as a sort of hand in itself. For those familiar with Dutch designer Iris van Herpen’s work, this philosophy may sounds familiar, as she is known for essentially understanding 3D printing technologies as an extension of her own creative hand.

Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute explains, “Traditionally, the distinction between the haute couture and prêt-à-porter was based on the handmade and the machine-made, but recently this distinction has become increasingly blurred as both disciplines have embraced the practices and techniques of the other. Manus x Machina challenges the conventions of the hand/machine dichotomy and proposes a new paradigm germane to our age of technology.”

The exhibition itself showcases more than 170 pieces dating from the early 1900s up until the present. With an equal focus on traditional handcrafting techniques like embroidery, featherwork, lacework, and leatherwork, and on more technological techniques like 3D printing the exhibition effectively explores the relationship between the two. Among the designers featured in the exhibit are icons such as Coco Chanel, Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, Christian Dior, Viktor & Rolf, Comme des Garçons, Karl Lagerfeld, Hussein Chalayan, and two of our favorites, 3D printed fashion pioneers threeASFOUR and Iris van Herpen.

What the exhibit demonstrates is how technologies like 3D printing are effectively reinvigorating and revolutionizing the fashion industry, offering new and novel ways of creating both new materials and previously unthinkable designs. Of course, one of the arguments against the technology is that it takes away some of the personal touches and handcrafted care that go into the making of haute couture clothing, but as we can see from our current fast-fashion system, in which poorly paid laborers are essentially slaving away to make our clothing, the idea of the hand being pure is somewhat complicated.

So, is 3D printing the future of fashion? Considering how the technology is continually opening the doors for designers to explore new materials, new structures, and new designs, it is possible to imagine that additive manufacturing could actually be as revolutionary as even the sewing machine once was for the fashion industry. Perhaps one day, the technology will even go beyond its current haute-couture fashions and 3D printed fashions will be worn by everyone.

Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology will be running at the Robert Lehman Wing of the Costume Institute until August 14th, 2016.