PARIS — Elegance is the watch word here, as a young model walks down the aisle, wearing a pair of astonishingly shaped stilettos, its complex patterns reminiscent of certain architectural constructions. The graceful shoes, created by French designer Pierre Renaux, were made entirely with a machine that is on the verge of changing the world, a 3D printer.

“Artists are constantly thinking about how they can use technology,” explains Kerry Hogarth, founder and president of 3DPrintshow, an exhibition hosted late last year in Paris. “And with 3D printers, the possibilities are infinite.”

In the cavernous room of Carrousel du Louvre, dozens of artists and fashion designers exhibited their creations. The show may be the best example of this advanced, but still widely unknown, technology. The Economist has characterized 3D printing as “the third industrial revolution.” 

Manuel Vogel's 3D-printed shoes — Photo: 3D Printshow Facebook page

The way it works it pretty straightforward. First, you design a product on a computer. Then you click “Print.” The machine wakes up and starts creating the object, layer upon layer. It’s thus possible to create from scratch or reproduce bionic ears, jewelry, cinema costumes or even cars.

This revolutionary tool is well established in the industry, and it’s changing the way some artists approach their creations. “Many of them are starting to master it,” explains Cosmo Wenman, an adventurer and creator. “Some of the exhibitors used to be traditional sculptors who have now migrated to this technology. It's fascinating and very exciting, even though the cost is still rather prohibitive.”

Wenman’s collection, for example, includes Pericles’ helmet, a portrait of Alexander The Great, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo and even the Colossal bust of Ramesses II, and all sat imposingly in the middle of the exhibition. “With 3D printing, everything’s about the design. The raw material is not as important. What matters is what you create. Designing Pericles' helmet is a good way of showing the visitors what you can do.”

Photo: 3D Printshow Paris

Applied to fashion

Fashion designers are stretching the limits of imagination. A pioneer in the field, Iris van Herpen set the bar very high. For her creations, the Dutch designer prints in 3D the details of a shoulder, a bolero modeled in the shape of a shell or an armor-like corset, before adding one to the other to obtain a unique piece. The precision and the lightness of her dresses/sculptures are mind-blowing.

“I’ve always been fascinated and inspired by new technologies,” says Pierre Renaux, who studied in the Netherlands. “I quickly understood that the bold ‘architectony’ of the ultimate design was only possible with 3D printing. The printer can go deep into details smaller than a cubic millimeter, which allows us to create richer and more complex drawings. This ever-growing precision increases the field of possibilities exponentially.

The material is no longer a constraint, says Renaux. Soon it will be possible to create organic components and fabrics that will be worn like a second skin, elastic and transparent leathers that will protect from both the cold and heat. The possibilities for haute couture and ready-to-wear industries are attractive. The machine will enable young stylists to produce in small quantities, so as to avoid having unsold products and to personalize their creations ad infinitum.

For these designers, the goal today is to simplify the creation of 3D files. The software is still difficult to master, but smartphones and tablets could provide developers with good opportunities to offer simpler solutions. The objective is create apps that will one day enable a consumer to create her own made-to-measure dresses or shoes. Before that, all she’ll need to do is scan her body for exact measurements.

But with this small revolution also come some dangers: The files are very easy to copy. You would only need to scan a dress, a piece of art, or indeed any object to be able to reproduce it at home with your own 3D printer. And even though doing that is still costly, there will need to be a good way to protect artists’ creations. For now, the best way to do that is to make objects public.

“We absolutely must tell and show the world that we’re the first to have created a specific object,” says Merav Griguer, a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property. “And the more models designers create, the more difficult they will be to copy.”

Photo: 3D Printshow Paris