Decoding Design

Q&A: Mary Huang and Jenna Fizel, Continuum Fashion

Q&A: Mary Huang and Jenna Fizel, Continuum Fashion

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Continuum Fashion's Mary Huang and Jenna Fizel discuss how their printed bikinis are the product of combining architecture and media arts training with clothing fabrication.

Continuum Fashion's Mary Huang and Jenna Fizel are a New York-based duo that have brought their architecture and media arts training to the task of fabricating clothes—sans needle and thread. Their inaugural offering is a printed bikini.

Fizel wrote the code behind the pattern, and the material used is a solid plastic called Nylon 12, which can be printed to a thinness of 0.7 mm. The material is creating through a process called selective laser sintering (SLS) and is comprised of many small dots, interlocked using springs, which gives it added flexibility.

SP: The N12, your printable bikini design, is such an interesting concept. You use a series of connected dots and I can see how the dot pattern really works well to form all the necessary curves. I’m curious about the evolution of that design. Did you experiment with different shapes and materials before settling on the current design?

CF: When we began designing the N12, we started by thinking about more global patterns, based around ideas of weaving and biomimicry. Our early renderings looked quite different from our end product. Eventually we tried to distill the basic ideas we were trying to achieve in our first systems—adaptability, growth, variable strength and flexibility—and create the simplest system we could that incorporated them all. Nylon 12 (from which the bikini is printed), on the other hand, was always going to be our material. It was (and still is) the only material that has the properties we needed (minimum print thinness, flexibility, wear and feel) that can also be printed inexpensively enough to create a commercial product.

SP: Can you tell me a bit about your experiences with your printing partner, Shapeways? Seems like everywhere I turn these days I'm hearing about another product made available through rapid prototyping--specifically through Shapeways. Does it have any competitors? In other words, did you have other options for manufacturing partners?

CF: Shapeways was a great partner to us during the development of N12. Not only did they help us with technical things like test printing and formatting files for their system, but they were also very supportive of our goal to push the limits of expectations and encouraged us greatly to complete the project. Mary, in fact, likes them so much she works there now!

There are some alternatives to Shapeways for people looking to get their own designs 3d printed (iMaterialise , Ponoko) but Shapeways is our favorite not just because of our relationship with them but also for their material selection, ease of use and community.

SP: You offer “stock” designs for the bikini, in black or white. But your website also contains the D.dress, which is a software program that lets shoppers design a fully original design, based on triangular shapes. Are you getting any orders for that dress?

CF: We had a good number of requests for the dress, since that was the point of the design. In fact, it is great to see what designs people make from D.dress. But it is a prototype right now and we are not prepared yet for full production.

SP: The dress—or, at least, prototype—is really unique. It's based on the triangle form. Your site says: "The triangulation … insures that almost any drawing will produce an interesting form, and in fact [it] produces good meshes from mere scribbles." In traditional fashion design, can one take such a geometric approach? Does the triangle hold any position of prominence in fashion design?

CF: In the last year or so, there has been a stylistic trend of triangulated designs that has emerged. United Nude's Lo Res shoe is a good example from fashion. Everyone has slightly different reasons for exploring the triangulated aesthetic, and usually it relates to the theme of digitization. For us, the inspiration comes from triangular meshes in computer graphics, and the direct technical constraints in turning flat drawings to 3D models.

When playing a video game or watching a Pixar movie, what you're actually looking at are triangulated meshes (usually consisting of millions and millions of triangles). Of course, they're so small you generally can't tell this. In older computer games, and in the modern work of some animators such as David OReilly, this triangulation is much more apparent. So, part of the motivation behind the design of the D.dress is to express the way digital 3d forms are created in the physical world.

SP: Where are the parallels between traditional fashion design and designing for 3D printing? What practices translate into printing and which don't?

CF: For us, we strive to make wearable designs even with 3D printing. With 3D printing, you can make crazy things easily, so we feel much challenge lies in tying in a more approachable and understandable perspective. Otherwise, traditional fashion design in practice differs greatly from 3D design. Neither of us studied fashion design specifically, so our method of working with fashion comes from our own individual backgrounds in interaction and computational design.

SP: What's next for Continuum? What are you working on these days?

CF: We're working on a few new projects to do with jewelry, footwear, textiles and clothing modification. Of course, we always say we're great at coming up with ideas! The next couple months will tell which ideas actually become products.

SP: What's next for, as you call it, computational couture? Where are you seeing this subset of design headed? Seems like one area where there would be obvious overlap is with electric/sensor-embedded fabrics.

CF: Certainly wearable electronics and computational couture (that is, clothing and personal accessories that are designed and manufactured for and with modern technology) can be found in the same garment or product, but we don't think that either requires the other. Many people are developing wearables using extremely traditional methods (see some of the work in MIT's High/Low Tech group at the Media Lab). We see "computational couture" as a relationship between bespoke design and software, and software doesn't necessarily evolve into hardware. That said, Mary loves putting LEDs in everything, and has done previous work with LED fashion designs. We'd both love to try incorporating live data into our designs, and most dynamic systems require electronics.

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure