I am excited to talk 3D printing in fashion today. I really actually enjoy whenever we research and look into fashion that is using 3D print technology because it offers so much opportunity. It’s usually very exciting and great stuff to look at. In this particular case, what I’m even more excited about is I thought when we’re first researching her, that this was just going to be like a real art couture stuff, which we’ve reviewed before. It’s always interesting to find out someone’s artistic approach or somehow how they’re taking their artistic approach and technically executing it. It’s always interesting to find that out.
Stephania Stefanakou, who we’re going to talk to today, she’s out of Toronto. She not only has an artistic approach mindset. She really wants to take emerging technology like 3D printing in fashion and help the fashion industry move forward and really make wearables wearable. Wearables differently than you might think. Wearable is going to be an overused term in the industry. You say wearables, people naturally think of the Fitbit, SCOTTeVEST or maybe smart shoes that have a chip in them and this is not that. This is what she calls passive wearable technology. It’s not super high tech with chips. They’re not trying to put electronics into clothing, but make clothing that works better because of the technology and that’s where the wearable comes in. Because of the technology and because of how it was made as well through the use of 3D printing in fashion and other smart materials.
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3D Printing in Fashion with Stephania Stefanakou
I’m so excited to talk to you today, Stephania, about your design work and your approach. I’m just excited to talk to an artist today, especially when it treads between garment and textile, because my area of expertise, is in textiles.
Thank you very much for having me today here.
Let’s start by just giving a little bit of background on you personally and your design approach and then how you got started 3D printing in fashion.
I started 3D printing in fashion about two years ago, September of 2015. I was always interested in wearable technology. But in my last year of Fashion Communication in the School of Fashion here in Toronto, I decided for my thesis project to focus how emerging technologies can help the fashion industry. I wanted to do more research on that for my thesis. For my creative project, I wanted to 3D print clothes. I 3D printed a flexible shirt. I also made a shape-shifting skirt with shape memory alloy that changed the way it look every time the temperature of the room changed as well.
You said that your thesis was really about how emerging technology can help the fashion industry? Not just the particularly the designer but the industry as a whole, so manufacturing as well?
Yes. I just wanted to improve how wearable technology market is. Specifically for the female consumer, because I had to be a bit more specific for my thesis. I was looking into technologies like 3D printing, augmented reality, virtual reality, smart materials from any point of the wearable tech field, but I decided for the creative part to focus specifically on 3D printing and shape memory alloys. When everything was done in April 2016, people were more interested in the 3D printing in fashion and that opened up more doors for me.
Why do you think they were interested more in the 3D printing? Is it just because it felt more tangible than an AR, VR world?
I think when they were seeing the shirt compared to the skirt, I had to push a lot of wires in it in order for it to change shapes. It wasn’t something very natural and organic. People could still see the tech. From all the research that I did, in order for wearable technology to go where we want it to be in a few years, technology cannot be seen in a garment. People don’t want to see the tech. They want to know it’s been made with something really cool, but they don’t want to feel the wires and the tech on their body. I feel 3D printing in fashion was something better for them to think and grasp. It’s already something known to the world, so me introducing 3D printing garments, although it wowed them, it scared them because I was selling them to wear plastic but they weren’t too scared as like, ”I won’t try it.”
The reality is we wear a lot of plastic today.
I feel the more they get educated on 3D printing and how it works and they’re not scared of it, they’ll be more open to it.
My background in textile design, I know that the majority of materials that are made out of there are a form of plastic of some kind. While we love our natural materials too, there’s a heck of a lot of plastic in the materials that we choose. But it’s how they’re processed and how they’re made. They’ve come so far from what we think of is 1970s polyester and that was very plastic looking, feeling, and it didn’t have quite the same way. But today, sometimes, you can’t even tell if a product has polyester in it unless you were to burned it. What is this material made of? Let me burn it because that’s how you can tell. We know that it’s plastic. But the way I would always talk about it with people, because when you say plastic in terms of fabric, it had a very negative connotation that is to say it’s synthetic. That’s the common term.
I think you’re right. I think consumers don’t want to be obvious about the tech. We just want the benefit of the tech. I think it’s the same way for 3D printing and for AR and VR all over the place. When it becomes second nature, when it doesn’t feel like you’re wearing a Google Glass or whatever it might be, when it becomes just part of your everyday wear, your everyday environment and it’s not intrusive, then you’re really getting to a place at which the wearable becomes a more important part of who we are, what we’re doing, what we’re wearing, and the style that we have. What are some of the challenges that you found in using 3D printing to create a garment?
Definitely the amount of space that I had, the 3D printing bed area. When I first 3D printed my first shirt, the printer that I was using had only a 9×7 inches bed area for me to print. I had to make sure that my entire shirt was made out of 11 pieces, and then glue and sew all the pieces together instead of 3D printing the entire thing on one go. That was very challenging, making sure that I had enough space to 3D print all the stuff on. But then now, when I’m doing my 3D printing, I bought a bigger printer ,I bought the LulzBot, so now I have 10×10 inches. It’s still not a lot of space but I think after a lot of experimentation, I have figured out what exactly I can print in 10×10 inches and keep working from there.
I recall an interview we did with Brandon Davis. He talked about the new printer that they’ve been developing, the Blue Dragon, having a bed that was designed with 3D printing fabric and garments in mind and in some way made it easier to do so. I remember that the bed move. You could shift the bed and keep printing which would allow you to do a bigger area, or it was something that they hacked it to extend the area which it could print and that was a combination of software and hardware that allowed that.
We have had a friend who did hack a bed as well just because, “There’s actually 12 inches here instead of 10. You should be able to use it all.” So he figured out a way to do that. I can totally understand it. That’s a huge limitation for you in a production sense, it’s a limitation. Even in a design sense, because you have to start thinking about how I’m going to assemble this and how I’m going to put this together.
I have talked with a few people that build 3D printers. I asked them to make me a 3D printer specifically for my startup with a bigger bed. It’s just it goes down to money, how much you’re able to spend for a printer like that, issues about temperatures from what they told me, making sure the entire bed is heated properly. I was asking them to make me a 3D printer that was 1 meter x 1 meter bed area.
Definitely it can be done. There are companies doing large format printers like that. They’re not inexpensive. There’s the guy in Colorado with Titan Robotics. They make custom 3D printers of any size. They’re more for commercial applications. They’re definitely not desktop price. We should introduce you to them because I think that would be a really interesting thing, because they’re always looking at ways in which they could test this. This is very logical, the way that their system works. They worked with Autodesk. They called it Project Escher. It’s self replicating. In the case of a textile or a garment in the way that you make those, it had a repeating function. There were multiple heads and they would repeat. Not only could repeat, they actually extended the build printable area beyond what one nozzle could really do quickly.
The printer they showed at CES was large enough that you could print a whole garment in one print, but they had five different nozzles printing simultaneously each a different area of the build plate so it made it much faster. There’s lot of things that could be done. I know you’re an artist and you’re doing very unique pieces. But eventually, when you would want to print many of a garment, I think there are production applications of machines that could actually do it in one piece instead of nine or ten pieces in order to make a garment.
The garments that I’m making now, they’re not a bunch of pieces. I started 3D printing on fabric directly. All the clothes that I make, they’re not just 3D printed entirely. They’re not just plastic. I fuse them with fabric so it’s a bit easier to sell it to people and for them to get used to the whole 3D printing in fashion concept.
What do you do, mount fabric to your build plate and then print directly on top of it?
Yes. It took me about eight to nine months of research to figure out the best fabrics to use, what is the best content of the fabric, fixing the printer in such a way to make sure that anything it prints, it stays in between the fibers and it doesn’t peel off right away.
That is big, big challenges that you’ve set for yourself. Not just from an artistic standpoint, but also from a production standpoint. Because someone’s going to wear this, someone might get sweaty and you might need to clean it. It’s a one-time wearable otherwise. You set up a lot of challenges for yourself artistically and technically.
I just wanted to make sure that whatever I make, it’s not just a one-time thing. I know a lot of designers out there, with their wearable art garments, they want them to be used just for one time. But I feel that if I choose that path, I’m going against the whole getting 3D printing in fashion. The whole purpose is to make it more commercial and get the fashion industry to go faster towards future. I just wanted to make sure the clothes that I make, I spend extra time researching and extra time testing them. I don’t care going to the market superfast. As long as when I do go, the garments are at the best point, and people will be able to wear them more than just one time. Not just because it’s 3D printed it’s only a one-time thing, they can keep wearing them and keep wearing them over and over like any other shirt.
That will be awesome. I really think there’s an interest for that. Let’s talk a little bit about why do you think it’s so important for the fashion industry to adapt these technologies and wearable tech in general?
I feel that we’re in era that customers want customization. They want everything to be personal to them and I feel that 3D printing in fashion allows that into a mass scale as well. For my startup, I want to offer people customization to the clothes that they want. I feel the fashion industry already started doing this. I feel technologies like 3D printing in fashion can really help the consumer get exactly what they want. Have more unique clothes, experiment more with fibers and fabrics, the way they look, basically all the movies that we were watching when we were young, how the future of the fashion will be.
We’re falling a little short, aren’t we?
I think 3D printing and more technologies but specifically 3D printing in fashion can help us achieve that faster.
You mentioned a couple of times, you call it your startup. Tell us a little bit about that.
It’s called STEFANAKOU, it’s after my last name. It started off from my thesis. Some people from my university, they found my research and they offered me space in an Incubator here in Toronto, The Design Fabrication Zone. They bought me all the machinery and everything to continue doing my research and hopefully starting a business. I did my research for about eight to nine months, how to 3D print on fabric, doing my market research, how to 3D print and deform the fabric. That was my big thing, that I can 3D print and basically change the texture of the fabric with different geometric shapes that I make. Now my whole startup is I 3D print clothing and hopefully start selling them soon.
You have also done some things, creating adaptable bras. Is that accurate?
I am also the co-founder and CEO of House of Anesi. It’s a startup again. We’re creating a bra that’s able to adapt to breast size changes. We’re using smart materials, smart fabrics, some components of it is 3D printing is used, as well as smart gels.
This is something that I think we failed to recognize in many, many product industries. We failed to really understand adaptability overtime and this is the perfect case for it. I don’t think most men would understand that, and that may be the problem. Our size changes all the time. That’s just not through stages of life, it’s actually through the month. It changes over the course of the month. Being able to have an application to that, that’s huge. We’re talking about a lot of bras sold out there and everyone has the same problem. I love it, that’s a great market.
That’s how it started. It’s really hard explaining it to guys sometimes because as soon as I start mentioning what the startup is, they start laughing. I don’t know how many of them will take it seriously. But as soon as I say it to women of any age, they all love it and that’s what kept us going. We’ve been doing this for two years, the research and everything. Because breasts, they’re very complicated.
Bras are very complicated.
Yes, it is. Trying to create a perfect bra in a sense that it’s able to adapt to the user’s body, it took us a really long time to figure out every single point and I think we have managed to get a very good product so far. We will start selling it hopefully by this fall and keep doing more and more iterations as we get bigger, and making it better and better every time.
There’s been a lot of startups in the bra area. We’ve seen a few of them that are using algorithms to determine your optimum size and I found a lot of failure there. I think there’s really an interesting case study here for you guys to really see how the traction will take from a market adaption rate. There’s True&Co.
True&Co, ThirdLove, Knixwear. There are many other companies that use technology to help them in the bra and lingerie industry. We decided to just use passive tech, 3D printing and 3D scanning. We are not putting any monitors on the bra. We’re not going to tell you how much your heart rate is. We’re not doing any of those things.
That’s good. I don’t need all of that.
We’re not going to use gear motors so the fabric can change. Everything is passive tech. I know about the other competitors, but I don’t see them as, “I have to beat those companies,” and they always have to use the Anesi bra, but I see them more as an opportunity to show investors that there’s a market and there is a need for this product. Our customer can have a bra from each of those companies because each of them is for a different problem. Some of them are for nights, some of them are during your day, some of them are when you want to go exercise and do your yoga, and everything.
What I found is a lot of those companies though, they still have a fit problem at the end of the day. Their goal for many of them, especially like True&Co, is to narrow down and get into the bra that will perfectly fit you. The reality is there’s a whole lot of women who fall outside of their algorithm and they actually have no options for you. I’m personally one of them. I tried their system and they don’t have one to fit me.
Unfortunately they try and change a lot of the software and the experience for the person but nobody ever goes to change the actual product. Nobody has thought about actually spending some extra time to see how the bra has been made for decades now and actually think, “How am I going to change the actual main problem?” That’s what we did. We focused for two years on the bra and made sure that we redesign every single component of it, try it on a bunch of ladies and women of all ages and make sure that it fits and it works perfectly for them.
This is why I was really excited to talk to you today because I think you also have this viewpoint of that at the end of the day, you wanted to also be beautiful. I want to feel sexy in it. I don’t want to feel like I’m wearing technology. That’s why I like the term that you use where it’s a passive technology. You’re not like well aware of the fact that you have got something technological on you, but it’s doing its job and you still feel great. That’s wonderful, good for you guys.
My team, we’re two girls and one guy, the founder. We’re three co-founders. It honestly really helps to have a guy also in this. In the beginning, Jacob could not understand why this was an issue. But it’s very good I feel for startups and whenever you design a product to have different perspectives. I have a fashion background but also in tech and 3D printing. Jacob, he has a background in engineering. Our other female co-founder, Leen, she has a background in engineering as well and fashion too. We are coming from so many different experiences that it helps us in the end. The way that Jacob sees the bra and the way he thinks about solving problems, I feel like it’s very unique and it’s really good for our startup. Because me and Leen are girls and we can think of a certain way because we wear bras all the time, but Jacob, he sees it totally differently. He will suggest different ideas and different methods which in the end workout. I feel that’s what the industry needs, bringing people from various different backgrounds to solve this problem.
From that perspective, I see that the biggest startup killer is not having a diverse enough team to begin with. That’s good for you from the get go, having that. I think you’re going to find some challenges with advanced funding and other things. I’m going to go on record in saying, anyone who doesn’t invest in this particular thing just because they’re guy and they can’t go over the laughing part of it, is missing the boat. They are going to be sorely sorry that they’ve overlooked this.
It has been hard but we just won about a month ago $36,000 and we had to pitch to 15 guys. I think that was a really good start.
That’s a good sign. I think you should have gotten a lot more.
It was through the University so I think we had a limit.
When we really think about the fact that not much has changed in the production and the manufacturing of bras. In the 80s we had water bras, some of those things happened, but this is not really changing the fundamental structure of the way bras are made. To be having that happen at this stage is way overdue. I think it’s a really good place for you guys to be there.
Tell us a little bit more about what’s next. You kept talking about maybe some bras being available this fall, what else is coming up, you think?
From the one startup, House of Anesi, we’re aiming to start selling the bras at some point in the fall. Before that, we are also making a small loungewear collection, get us a customer base and understand our market a bit better, and then start selling the bra hopefully between November or December. As for the other startup, STEFANAKOU, we have a small collection as well, a 3D printed bag, two 3D printed bodysuits, a 3D printed shirt, and a 3D printed pair of shorts. We’re aiming to start selling that by end of August or September, when the online shop opens up.
That’s coming really soon. I’d like to see the 3D printed bag myself. That intrigues me. What is the price point that you guys are working towards? These are custom products. What are you looking at from that perspective?
Because we are using 3D printing for the bra, it has lowered a lot of our cost. That was really good in the beginning. Because we were redesigning every single component, it was turning out to be a very expensive bra, like over $300. But because we’re using 3D printing we have managed to bring it down to between $180 to $200 now.
That’s really interesting. The typical bras in the market, if you spend less than 50 bucks on a bra, you’re really going to be sorry. That’s my personal viewpoint here in the US. I think when you’re really talking about something that is going to wear better, feel better, all of those things, there’s no reason. This is something you wear every day. It’s an investment in that. I don’t think that’s outside the realm of possibility. I think that’s a fine price point as an entry.
We are focusing on bigger sizes are well. We are going to carry up to a size F. A lot of ladies that have bigger breasts than a triple or double D, they have to get their bras custom made and they usually spend between $150 to $200 and that’s for one size. We’re basically telling them, “You can spend between $180 to $200 and you basically get two to three sizes because it’s able to adapt every time to your body.”
What about the clothing? What is your goal there, to be mid-range or high?
I’m not going to go too high because it goes against the whole point of making 3D printing accessible to everyone. The cost that I’m seeing right now, they might be between $120 to $180. But I think some shirts that have a bit more customization, more embroidery on it, 3D printed embroidery, the price may go a bit higher for that.
Good for you to stay in what is the mass market anyway. It’s not Costco, Target, Walmart or anything like that but you’re certainly talking Nordstrom prices and that’s great. That is a really great place and we really look forward to seeing how the market acceptance is to it. Come back in our show again please and give us an update, maybe late fall.
Yes, of course.
3D Printing in Fashion – Final Thoughts
You could tell that I don’t have a lot to contribute to the latter half of that interview, didn’t you? It’s not that bras scare me. I think bras are great. No issues there. I’ve never worn one so I don’t have a lot of personal experience to bear on. I can definitely appreciate though, they have a three-person team with a man on the team. She said more of an engineer helping them solve. There are very real problems that need to be solved, especially when you’re talking about combining different materials or connections between different materials, certainly how they function and how you make things. I think anybody can certainly bring a good perspective to that effort.
Not thinking about fashion, this is where a lot of fashion does go wrong nowadays, especially when that’s meant to do something so functional like a bra. It is a high functioning opportunity for engineered design. What you have to really approach from that perspective, let’s reengineer, let’s relook at every single part on here. Is it necessary anymore? This is the case since especially bra manufacturing, but textile manufacturing and clothing construction general is archaic because it is all set up in an old processing, very old machines. Look at how old some of those sewing machines are. It’s all set up to do it in that old method. Today, we laser cut materials and things are more accurate.
There are maybe a lot of things that we’re doing. You hear this entrepreneur story all the time about, “Why do we cut the ends off of a ham?” and they’re like, “I don’t know. We’ve always done it. My grandmother did it.” They called the grandmother and the grandmother says, “That’s because I had a pan that was too small, and so I will usually just cut the ends of the ham to make it fit.” We don’t have to do that anymore. We have a bigger oven and a bigger pan. You’re still following under the realm of we’re doing this because that’s the way it’s been done.
It’s interesting because I think at times as park developers and engineers, we become very cognizant of not trying to reinvent the wheel conceptually. A lot of times the reality is, the way things have been done for decades or maybe even hundreds of years, there’s a very good reason why it’s been done that way. In Stephania’s case, there’s absolutely a time at which you need to look at with fresh eyes, with a fresh evaluation, with the new technology that’s here and say, “How can this disrupt the manufacturing, the artistic, the fit and function of something and really do a service?” This is the key here, to really do a service to the consumer, really do something that they want to buy, that they want to use, that they want to wear. When you look at it from that perspective and now you can achieve it? Go ahead.
It’s a bold project, I’ll tell you. This is not an easy problem to solve. She’s butting up against a very indoctrinated community. Fashion is old world. It’s old school. There’s a lot of that there. Fashion is old school but fashion has also been very forward looking. Maybe most of the time it’s from a stylistic perspective, but I do think especially high fashion is taking a lead and stepping forward even in material application, construction, and application. In some respects, you get a lot of that written off as art, you get a lot of that high end stuff that goes on as unsalable. What she’s trying to head into this point in which you can make it salable, you’re making it at price points that are viable. These are not mass market target bras. This is not entry level go ahead and don’t do that, stay where she is, and that’s really good. That’s valid and of interest. There’s market there at that price point at that level of somebody who needs something customized and is willing to pay for that because their requirements are so high, that’s a perfect market.
When you look at that, I think that’s really challenging but admirable. I applaud her for being passionate about it and taking it on. We learned recently the definition of passion is when you’re willing to sacrifice something for it, and really I’m sure that their effort is quite a sacrifice. I wanted to just go back to something that she said. Stephania was commenting on about the funding and how it’s not the easiest thing to get funding in a woman’s product, which is really ridiculous. Because in this day and age, any VC firm that hasn’t recognized that or really gone after and looked at this broader look at the marketplace is really missing the point.
That’s what I have seen. I’ve seen a lot of VCs who’ve reached out to me on my Inc. column and other places to put out a point that they’re looking for diverse teams. They’re looking for application. They want market proof. They understand women, buying influence more than 85% of all product categories across the US. It’s important to do something that women want to buy. There was a Kickstarter for eyelash curler that was 3D printed, which I absolutely love the idea of and I don’t even curl my eyelashes, but I could see the potential of it. It failed miserably on Kickstarter because it was in the wrong place. If you want to develop and try to crowdfund specifically a product for a woman, Kickstarter is the wrong place to do it because majority of people who back projects, they are men. Even though they’re maybe changing a little bit I’m sure as Kickstarter becomes more well-known and maybe when more women are joining it, but still it is not a market that matches the American-consuming market in general.
That’s what I want to say to Stephania and to anyone else out there who’s looking at this challenge from a capital standpoint, from a funding standpoint, from capital raising, is go where there are people that understand you. Because there are communities here who get it. They’re out there. You want to be in the place where they understand, where they want the next Spanx, and this could be it.
That was a ton of fun. I hope you all enjoyed our talk on 3D printing in fashion. You absolutely have to go and see this stuff. Check out the House of Anesi and STEFANAKOU and her designs. I think some of it has almost like a crochet quality in a couple of the details that she has on her shirts. I think it is really beautiful. I think it has great application so you want to come and see the detail of that.
- Blue Dragon
- Titan Robotics
- Project Escher
- House of Anesi
- The Design Fabrication Zone
About Stephania Stefanakou
Stephania is originally from Greece, she moved to Canada when she was seventeen to attend Ryerson University, School of Fashion in Toronto, to study and to learn about the fashion industry. After four years in the Fashion Communication program she realized that her interest was in the field of wearable technology. She worked at Ryerson in two Digital Fabrication Labs teaching 3D Printing, AR and Wearable tech.
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