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Hi-tech couture: How the fashion world is making use of 3-D printing

Launched this summer, the Specsy line of eyewear harnesses 3-D printing technology to up both the fit and fashion factor of frames.

For the world of fashion, 3-D printing is not a new concept. New York-based fashion label Threeasfour had one of its 3-D printed dresses in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 2016 exhibition Manus x Machina. But designs to date have, for the most part, been art pieces – more suitable for a museum show than for wearing out on a night on the town.

Technological advancements in 3-D printing, however, mean that designers may soon be able to create intricate custom clothing and accessories meant for daily wear.

In November 2016, Milan Madhavji, a former oral radiologist who used 3-D printing to create dental appliances, began transferring his design skills to eyewear when his wife was searching for a new pair of glasses. "We printed some glasses out of dental material, clear plastic, and sent it to an optical lab to put my prescription into it," he says. "I got them back and started wearing them. It worked totally right." After using himself as a test case, he purchased a high-performance multi-colour printer, and founded Specsy, an eyeglasses company that creates bespoke frames.

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The company launched its first line of frames in early July at $350 per pair. The process involves using a infrared sensor to capture a 3-D scan of a customer's head, the customer designing his or her personalized frames, and the glasses being printed.

"People can put anything they want on the frame – a photo, an abstract oil painting, or a pattern on clothes, and we can turn that into a glasses frame," Madhavji says. "We have that level of customization that's just not possible to get anywhere else." That customization goes beyond colour and shape to accommodate asymmetrical faces, which most humans have – one ear higher than the other or a wide bridge, for instance.

Sid Neigum, one of the Canada's top fashion designers, is hoping to incorporate the technology into his work process to design custom pieces with new-found precision. In late June, he was awarded a grant from the Be3Dimensional Innovation Fund from Ryerson University and Think2Thing, a 3-D printing studio co-founded by photographer Edward Burtynsky.

Neigum hopes to create "one or two epic pieces" that he'll include in his next collection, which he's putting together for a September debut. "When people hear '3-D printed clothing,' they think of Iris Van Herpen or something that's basically bolted on to a model that's only for a runway, but what would be exciting for me is having the first commercially available 3-D printed piece," he says.

During a recent visit to the printing studio, Neigum learned that the machines there can print yardage of a very detailed mesh fabric. "Making something simple like a slip dress out of it would be amazing. It would be washable and we could do things like scan a person's body and make it fit them perfectly and not have any seams in it," he says. "There are a lot of possibilities there."

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