Looking ahead – the possible effects of 3D printing on the fashion industry

The fashion industry experienced a sudden jolt when 3D printed pieces first appeared on the runway. This article addresses the likely impact of 3D printing technology on the fashion industry and considers what counsel can do now to prepare

What began about 30 years ago as a new industrial technique for making prototypes of solid objects has undergone such revolutionary advances that 3D printing in heavy manufacturing industries is no longer producing mere prototypes, but finished goods such as jet engines, automobiles and even entire buildings. However, heavy manufacturing industries, having long used 3D printing, had a lead time of decades to prepare for the revolutionary advances in 3D printing. By contrast, the fashion industry has had little time to prepare for these upheavals.

The fashion industry was, at most, peripherally aware of 3D printing as a method of manufacturing prototypes. So it experienced a sudden shock over the last few years with the publication of finished fashion pieces manufactured using 3D printing. Although only a relative handful of such garments have been made so far, this has been enough to prove that 3D printing is now taking its place alongside traditional garment manufacturing techniques such as weaving. It is thus an opportune time to consider the impact that advances in 3D printing may have on the fashion industry in the near term, mid-term and long term.

For the purposes of this article – which presents and predicts advances in 3D printing fashion, as well as reasonable conjectures on how these advances might affect the fashion industry – the reader may be assured that any conjectures are reasonable extrapolations into the near future, based on the author’s knowledge and experience in the topics covered herein.

After reading this analysis and the accompanying table, it will become apparent that advances in 3D printing fashion will not only provide a new means of production, but ultimately change the entire nature of the fashion industry by moving it more from subtractive manufacturing to additive manufacturing – making manufacturing easier, but also making copying easier. This will have a significant effect on the fashion industry and on the work of legal practitioners, whose own present and future practices need to change in order for the fashion industry to continue to enjoy the many benefits that trademark law provides. One way in which the fashion industry may change is by exploiting the innate properties of a 3D garment to integrate a trademark or logo which is made from a material which is unique and hard to duplicate, as described near the end of this article. Trademark practitioners may change by also filing for protection on this new type of logo.

A good place to start is outlined in the practice tips accompanying this article, given in the form of suggestions for legal practitioners serving the fashion industry (with an emphasis on how trademark practitioners might change or prepare to change their practices to deal with continuing advances in 3D printing).


Working in collaboration with Victoria’s Secret, Swarovski and Shapeways, Bradley Rothenberg utilised 3D printing to create the musical note wings worn by Cara Delevingne in Victoria’s Secret’s 2013 Annual Fashion Show

Obstacles to the 3D fashion revolution

While there have been some instances of everyday garments being manufactured using 3D printing (eg, Continuum Fashion’s N12 nylon bikini), so far the technique has mainly been used for exotic one-offs, such as Bradley Rothenberg’s 3D-printed wings, which adorned a Victoria’s Secret model.

What the public has so far seen of 3D printed fashion, then, is just the beginning. However, there is one key problem: most people do not wish to wear garments made of hard plastic that resembles medieval chain mail – yet so far, most 3D printing is carried out using plastic that feels more like hard nylon plastic than cloth. Thus, the single greatest roadblock to 3D printing of fashion has been – and is – the availability of materials.

There is a notable exception to this. Wearable technology – even when made of rigid materials – is more acceptable to consumers, who have long since become accustomed to hard materials being used in accessories such as watches, eyeglasses and wrist braces. Therefore, expect to see more 3D printed wearable technology in the near future whether it is apart from a garment or it is located on the garment in a place where some rigidity is tolerated, such as where an embroidered logo is placed

The true breakthrough in this field will occur when someone invents a raw material that a 3D printer can transform into cloth or finished garments, allowing the creation of products that feel and perform like clothing.


As 3D printing is still relatively new, so too is the terminology used to write about it. This is an introductory article and not a treatise, so certain liberties are taken with language. The following terminology is used in the article:

• ‘3D printing’ – this colloquial term is used throughout as shorthand to describe any form of ‘additive manufacturing’ (defined below). This does not detract from the purpose of the article, which is agnostic with regard to specific technology when it comes to describing the effects of 3D printing on the fashion industry.

• ‘Additive manufacturing’ – strictly speaking, this denotes the broad class of manufacturing in which 3D printing is but one of many techniques used to form something (eg, a garment) by adding together its constituent particulates of raw material. The additive manufacturing process is distinguished from more familiar conventional techniques (eg, cutting patterns from a bolt of cloth, then sewing these together, leaving the uncut unused clothing behind as waste)

• ‘Subtractive manufacturing’ – this is defined, by exclusion, as all that is not additive manufacturing. Though ‘subtractive manufacturing’ is, even today, a little-used phrase, it denotes most conventional manufacturing techniques, as they involve subtracting a part (eg, the pattern-sized piece) from a raw material whole (eg, a bolt of cloth). Most notably, Additive manufacturing will ultimately become the dominant form of manufacturing because of its efficiency – additive manufacturing is virtually 100% efficient in its use of raw materials, while subtractive manufacturing is far less efficient, as it unavoidably leaves the uncut, unused clothing behind as waste.

• ‘Fashion industry’ – the term embraces all aspects of the design, production, sale and disposition of fashion garments, accessories, jewellery and wearable technology. Descriptions of the operation of the fashion industry may be simplified herein.

• ‘Textile industry’ – the term embraces all those who make conventional raw materials (eg, cloth) for the fashion industry.

• ‘Fashion’ – encompasses garments of all levels, plain or stylish, including ready to wear, mid-range, luxury and haute couture.

Innovation will follow

When such a leap does occur, what will it mean for the fashion industry? 3D printing is an entirely different method of manufacture which enables the creation of garments that could not have been made by any other means. However, it will also enable the creation of simple garments that are indistinguishable from those made by more traditional means. Perhaps most significantly, those garments will come not only from a commercial clothing purveyor, but from a common home appliance – the home 3D fashion printer – which will be as ubiquitous as the laser printer or microwave oven and which, according to experts, will be capable of printing out garments on demand.


Continuum Fashion’s N12 nylon bikini is the world’s first ready-to-wear, completely 3D-printed article of clothing (Picture: www.continuumfashion.com)

While some are sceptical about the possibility of home 3D printed clothing becoming commonplace, others have no doubt. “I can definitely see this happening,” said Despina Papadopoulos in a recent interview. Papadopoulos, who is both the founder of the interactive design group Studio 50/50 and a New York University professor who regularly teaches courses on wearable technology, noted: “We have just seen the beginning of 3D printing. Right now we do it with mostly polymers; in a few years we hope to be doing it with biodynamic materials (which will move with a wearer’s body).”

Referring to the likelihood of a home 3D fashion printer, she added: “I think we are not that far from that but I don’t think it will completely change the way we engage with clothes today.”

“Will this replace the factories and the whole supply chain we have now?” she asked rhetorically, answering that she did not think so. Her reasoning was based not on technological limitations, but rather on broader ideas of how people prefer to shop, pick out and purchase clothing. After all, the home television set did not result in the demise of cinemas.

Only time will tell the full impact of 3D printing on the fashion industry. While the author is confident in the insights provided in these pages, it is useful to remember the words of the famous US baseball player and pundit Yogi Berra, who said: “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”

While the predictions explored in this article are believed to be valid, we must all remember that there is a significant possibility of a wildcard development which no one has yet foreseen, let alone predicted, and which could transform 3D printing even more than anyone can yet imagine.

There are already machines that can video standard cloth garments and produce computer code that will enable the automated production of 3D printed copies which apppear identical to the original

Practice tips

  • Stay in touch with your clients and ask whether they are investigating this new technology. Advise them that the grassroots emergence of 3D printing has given rise to modern fables and popular misconceptions – ensure that they know what 3D printing is and is not.
  • Advise your clients to ask not merely whether they intend to make products by 3D printing, but whether their competitors could. If so, consider design patents in the United States and Community design protection in the European Union.
  • If and when the time comes that you have clients opting to digitally design and distribute their products as files to be physically realised at the homes of consumers with 3D printing machines, you must ensure that inferior techniques are not used to manufacture the end product so that it is worthy of the client’s trademark that appears on it.
  • Have your clients register their marks in the appropriate classes now – apparel makers would do well to keep a portfolio of trademarks.
  • If your client decides to go down the file-sharing route (eg, to make available a set of files that enable a garment to be constructed from a 3D printer), you will need to make the client aware that if those files get loose, the game is over – once something is posted on the Internet, it can never be taken off. As a compromise, you might advise the client to offer at no cost the files to make a jacket for free, but to sell the files for manufacturing various matching skirts and accessories which coordinate with the jacket.
  • Make sure your clients know that there are already machines that can video standard cloth garments and, based on that recording only, produce computer code that will enable the automated production of 3D printed copies which will appear identical to the original. While that practice may well bear the stench of piracy, it is almost certainly legal in the United States, unless the original garment is protected by a US design patent. However, in the European Union, an original fashion design enjoys Community design protection.

Table 1: The table below presents a simplified description of how the fashion industry operates today and speculates on the impact of probable advances in 3D printing. In each row, the left column presents a likely advance in 3D; the middle column presents the likely result/consequence; and the right column outlines the legal preparation needed to prepare for that advance.


(in 3D printed fashion – for example, to make it less like hard plastic and more like traditional clothing, perhaps with new properties)


(likely or possible consequences/problems of the advance in 3D printed fashion)

Legal preparation

(necessary to prepare clients for the changed environment)

As advances are made in 3D printing, less clothing is made from traditional textiles and textile makers begin to experience a fall in demand. Instead, 3D printing machines are fed with incremental amounts of the raw material, aggregating it together into the finished garment or the pieces that are assembled into the finished garment. This results in no waste.

Initial effects are small, since publicly known raw materials, once aggregated, resemble plastic much more than cloth, thus limiting the range of fashion garments produced. However, eventually material developers, such as Materialise, a Belgian 3D printer innovator, will develop and produce improved raw materials which are aggregated to form a finished fashion item which is indistinguishable from – and perhaps even superior to – cloth. The textile industry makers of present-day raw (cloth) textiles would initially likely experience a decline in demand.

The textile industry experiences a fall in demand for its traditional fabric textiles.

Ensure that the novel raw materials for 3D printing meet EU and other chemical safety standards; ensure that existing trademarks on finished garments may still be used (ie, that the 3D printed garments are of at least equal quality to the pre-existing traditionally made fashion item). If not, file new trademark variants.

3D fashion printing techniques enable the production of new types of textiles with properties never seen before, according to Gabi Asfour, one member of threeASFOUR, a trio of artists who run an avant-garde fashion collective. However, in an offsetting trend, Asfour noted that he used 3D printing to create new textiles: “Through 3D printing the weave could actually create the silhouette [a weave, but with a built in contour to better fit body curves], for the first time we were able to use textiles (normally flat/planar) to create a silhouette.” Asfour made his remarks at the 16th Annual Fashion Symposium, Visionary: Inspiration, Incubation and Realisation, held recently in New York by Initiatives in Art and Culture, a think tank founded and run by Dr Lisa Koenigsberg. She noted that the “rapid technological advances in these areas, interesting and important in themselves, have critical implications from the perspective of intellectual property.” Indeed, issues and questions related to intellectual property were raised spontaneously by many of the programme participants.

In a trend countering that previously mentioned, the textile industry will experience increased demand for these new types of traditional textile, possessed of new properties that were only made possible by 3D printing the textile.

Practitioners must prepare to protect these new types of textile.

Original fashion procedure, before advances in 3D printing

A fashion designer conceives of a new design and develops it using a paper sketchpad and pencil (and relatively simple computer software). He or she makes paper patterns of the pieces and refines the design; makes muslin (thin cloth) patterns, puts it all on a dress form (adjustable mannequin) and fine tunes the design. This process results in prototypes for exhibition at a seasonal fashion runway show, which takes place before fashion buyers and the press. Orders are taken, but take months to fill using quality techniques on traditional fashion machinery. Meanwhile, in the United States and other jurisdictions which offer only low IP protection for clothing, photographs from the shows are used to reverse-engineer the piece. Nearly identical pieces begin mass production the day after the show, so that they can be rushed into fast fashion stores before the real thing hits the market.


New fashion procedure, after advances in 3D printing

A fashion designer conceives of a new design. First he or she uses relatively simple computer software before moving on to much more advanced software to generate the code that will drive a 3D fashion printer to print either pattern pieces or the entire garment. The designer can then exhibit the fashion garment immediately, without regard to traditional seasonal fashion runway shows. Orders are taken and filled immediately, and perfectly fitted using mass customisation. This is necessary as pending patents show that there are already imaging devices which can reverse engineer a 3D printed fashion article almost instantly.

Anything that can be automatically duplicated will be, in the absence of meaningful IP protection for clothing.

With technical barriers to immediate copying eliminated, clients will need all the legal barriers they can get.

As if the certainty of immediate copying were not frightening enough, now that a set of computer design files is sufficient to allow a machine to make perfect copies, one must consider the new risk of having one’s computer design files cyber-stolen and the fashion revealed or manufactured by the cybercriminal before the planned unveiling.

IP practitioners in low IP protection jurisdictions (eg, the United States) may wish to rally behind those advocating greater IP protection for clothing, while making better use of existing protections (eg, design patents).

Trademark and IP practitioners in all jurisdictions should educate their clients as to the advantages of the Community design procedure. US clients can have their first filings in the European Union receive protection virtually immediately and possibly a priority date for their US patent.

With regard to computer design files, clients will need tight cybersecurity, good trade secret protection and copyright registrations for their computer design files.

In the near future, 3D printing advances will force the fashion industry to face the danger of instant copies, which to date has only been imagined in science fiction. This advance has two different effects – one at mid-level and another at high-end couture.



New technology makes possible an abundance of seemingly perfect copies with which to flood the market. Among other dangers, the makers of the genuine article will be concerned that the fakes are likely made from cheaper material and will thus damage their brand. Moreover, the makers of the original products will have to worry about the emergence of false channels – even false retail stores. The cost of making a copy is insignificant compared to the expenditures that must be made by the original designer/maker.

Fashion originators could be obliterated before selling a single genuine item.

Immediately begin brainstorming about what concrete steps to take.

Embed nanoscale markers – including registered trademarks and perhaps serial numbers – inside originals, to prevent them from being easily copied by external imaging – which will not ‘see’ the embedded markers – and to enable authorities to distinguish between the original and the copies.

High-end couture

Luxury consumers would rather buy fashion garments made by the original designer as they are extremely driven by name brands and consciously choose quality over cost savings. The emergence of perfect copies will thus have far less of an impact on the high-end market. According to New York University assistant professor Despina Papadopoulos, this is because the people who wear those luxury goods are not just wearing them so that others can see them; they also wear them so that they themselves, psychologically, know that they wearing a luxury item.

Indeed, this class of consumer may well become even more brand aware, to avoid being duped; they want the garment item to come from Nieman Marcus, they want it delivered from Nieman Marcus – or picked up directly from there – so that there is no doubt, even in their own minds, that they have the genuine fashion piece.


Immediately begin brainstorming about what concrete steps to take.

Embed nanoscale markers – including registered trademarks and perhaps serial numbers – inside originals, to prevent them from being easily copied by imaging (which will not ‘see’ the embedded markers and will enable authorities to distinguish between the original and the copies)

Today’s fashion industry must confront the reality that 3D printers can make any fashion item more quickly and more cheaply than existing methods.

The medium to long-term advance – and an eventual certainty – is that 3D fashion printing machines with high-capacity output will be commercially available and capable of making untraceable copies

Fashion industry experience ranges from disruption to destruction – there is no way to trace copies.

Counsel may advise clients to alter copies to make them traceable. For example, they might adopt the practice of computer colour paper printer makers and have every 3D fashion machine print a virtually invisible unique serial number on every fashion item it prints. Embedding trademarks at the nanoscale level would help to make copied goods look even more illicit.

Mass customisation of sizes (including personally fit) means that no inventory is needed. The traditional method uses mass production of all standard sizes and requires that a shop maintain a large inventory so as to have every size available for sale.

Ever-better human body scanners will be developed, so as to enable clothing to fit perfectly

New scanning techniques will require new trademark registrations.

The files used to control 3D printers are already appearing on file-sharing sites, according to a recent report from the UK IP Office (UKIPO) entitled “A Legal and Empirical Study into the Intellectual Property Implications of 3D Printing”. The report notes specifically that “files that carry the label ‘fashion’ attract a higher number of views and downloads while labels such as ‘art’ and ‘robot’ are marketed at higher prices.” This would seem to suggest that the fashion industry has not yet begun to see the full effect of 3D file sharing.

Problems will emerge similar to those raised some years ago with audio files by file-sharing services such as Napster. However, this time around, trademark issues will also be involved.

Trademark practitioners will have to police file-sharing sites such as those mentioned in the recent UK IPO report, “namely: 123D, 3DLT, CGTrader, Cubehero, Cubify, Cuboyo, GrabCad, i.Materialise, Kraftwurx, Leopoly, Ponoko, Sculpteo, Shapeways, Sketchup, the Pirate Bay, Thingiverse and Youimagine”.

According to Papadopoulos, in the long (but foreseeable) term, more sophisticated 3D printers will be developed which will enable the integration of wearable technology such as flexible organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) into the desired parts of the garment. In fact, she envisions entire garments being made with sheets of OLEDs. (Flexible OLEDs are ubiquitous, used in most smartphones – but the required flat glass overlay prevents the OLEDs from demonstrating their flexibility.)


Trademark practitioners may counsel their clients to make a hard-to-counterfeit product by exploiting the ease with which difficult-to-duplicate, state-of-the-art wearable technology, such as an OLED section or panel, may be integrated into the garment. Ideally, a trademark (with static or video images) could be placed, say, over the breast pocket of a jacket or T-shirt, where a wearer is accustomed to more rigidity due to the embroidery traditionally employed in the past. Dr Mike Hack, vice president of Universal Display Corporation (NASDAQ: OLED), says that his company has developed OLEDs that “are thin, lightweight, and flexible”, including a phosphorescent OLED well suited for garment integration because the heat it emits is negligible and it can thus be worn close to the skin.

Joseph F Murphy is principal of the Law Office of Joseph F Murphy (www.legallyfashionable.com[email protected]

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