3D printing: The future of fashion?

2 May 2017 , 1:00pm

Technology has come a long way in the past decade. One big game changer is the 3D printer. 3D-printing works by deconstructing a 3D object into 2D slices and layering the cross-sectional slices of the design to print a 3D object. The process occurs by using 3D modelling software such as Computer Aided Design (CAD) which can create designs from scratch, or by scanning a physical object using a 3D scanner.

The rise of 3D-printers poses an increased risk for the fashion industry. While the benefits of 3D-printers include customised orders and a more efficient manufacturing process, 3D-printers also bring the risk of mass copy products being manufactured rapidly and cheaply. It is important to consider the impact of 3D-printers on the fashion industry and the legal implications.

Haute couture in 3D 

While 3D-printing is being used in haute couture at present, the availability of 3D-printed clothing and accessories in the mainstream retail market is not too far off. In 2015, Karl Lagerfeld presented a number of dresses for Chanel and a version of Chanel's iconic suit featuring 3D-printed detail at Paris Fashion Week. The 2016 "Fashion in the Age of Technology" themed Met Gala saw actress Allison Williams in a gown designed by Peter Pilotto, embellished with a number of 3D-printed flowers, while the Costume Institute's exhibition, Manus x Machina, showcased a number of garments featuring 3D-printed detail.

Disruptive potential 

Technology and innovation in the form of 3D-printing provide exciting possibilities and benefits for the fashion industry, however, it will also bring disruption to the sector. In 2015, a company called Electroloom launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a 3D-printer capable of printing seamless, ready-to-wear garments on fibrous, flexible fabric.

Given the potential for 3D-printers to mass reproduce fashion garments and accessories quickly and cheaply, businesses need to ensure they have appropriate intellectual property rights protection in place for their brand, products and designs to safeguard against the risks posed by rapid advancements in technology.

The same laws which currently apply to infringement of intellectual property rights of fashion labels will equally apply to infringements which occur by way of a 3D-printer. 

IP protection in the age of 3D printing 

In Australia, design registrations can protect against 3D-printed copies or reproductions of the overall appearance of a product. Registered designs can protect the shape and configuration of the product provided that the design is new and distinctive. Design applications must be filed before you publicly disclose your design to the world and your design must also be different enough to any other design released throughout the world in order to register a validly enforceable design.  A design registration provides a maximum period of protection of 10 years. If another person produces a 3D-printed product that is identical or similar to your design during the period of protection, you may have a claim for design infringement.

In the UK and in Europe design rights can protect the appearance of a product, so you can use these rights to protect items of clothing, shoes, handbags, or accessories or embellishments.  Both the UK and the EU have a registered and unregistered design rights which protect the appearance of the whole or part of a product resulting from features of, in particular, the lines, contours, colours, shape, texture, materials, of the product, or its ornamentation.

There are differences in the form of protection provided depending on whether you are relying on a registered or unregistered right.  However unregistered rights do not offer nearly as much protection as registered design rights and there is a much more extensive burden of proof to show that you possess an unregistered design right. For that reason, it is very important to register any and all design rights as soon as possible.

Shape trademarks are also useful for protecting jewellery and footwear or garment designs against being readily copied by 3D-printers. Unlike registered designs, you can use your 'shape' in the market prior to applying for trademark protection and in most cases, you will need to have used it widely and for a long period of time prior to applying for registration.  Shape trademarks are particularly valuable to protect accessories and footwear designs which have been extensively promoted as once registered, a trademark is renewable indefinitely every 10 years, thereby providing a very long period of protection.

From the catwalk to the high street 

3D-printed fashion is fast moving from the haute couture runways to the mainstream and it will not be long before it hits the high street. Fashion labels should start considering the technology's possible impact on the industry and consider design and trade mark protection to guard against the power of this new technology.