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Biomorphic fashion can’t stop growing


Footwear and apparel mimicking organic patterns are flourishing for a reason. Want to know why your next pair of sneakers might look like an alien rib cage? Read on…

Limited by modelling software, constrained by manufacturing techniques, and hemmed in by consumer taste, 21st-century fashion design was stuck in a 20th-century rut. That is until 2011, when Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen dragged the industry into the future with 3-D printed gowns as intricate as the organic patterns that inspired them. In 2022, biomorphic fashion, which uses patterns and shapes reminiscent of nature and living organisms, is seemingly everywhere.

According to a study by Future Market Insights, 3-D printed wearables are already a $3.6bn market and are projected to grow to $7.2bn by 2029, with footwear being the largest segment. It can already be found in mass-produced Adidas mid-soles and boutique slip-ons, while the organic design aesthetic clearly influenced the Yeezy Foam Runner, one of the most highly sought-after shoes on resale markets – before Kanye West’s ignominious meltdown.

Footwear’s outsized claim to the 3-D printed wearable space can be attributed to a few factors. For one, biomorphic structures can have immediate,

practical benefits for shoe performance. These winding, weaving, and branching forms are more than aesthetic flourishes. Adidas’ 4DFWD trainer marked the first mass-market application of 3-D printing in footwear when it was introduced in 2017. The stunning lattice separating foot from tarmac flexes on impact, then uncoils to propel the runner into their next stride. It wasn’t shaped by accident, but by years of biomechanical data collected by the German sportswear company.


The second key factor has been the speed of prototyping afforded by the convergence of two technologies. 3-D printing, meet 3-D design software. “COVID was the biggest push to take us digital”, said Robbie Stinchcomb, a New York-based footwear designer with Adidas’ Innovations department. He could mock up a shoe concept in a matter of days, instead of weeks, using a VR program called Gravity Sketch that allows him to manipulate shapes and apply physics bending effects like parametric smoothing with the wave of his hand. The sustainability gains were just an added bonus.  

“You can fail faster with 3-D printing,” Stinchcomb said. “If we did this the classic way, you create all this shit; you’ve opened these molds, you’ve poured all this plastic, you’ve trashed the planet even more only to fail slower than you would have with Gravity Sketch.” 

With the fashion industry contributing nearly 5% of all global greenhouse emissions, embracing bleeding edge applications like Gravity Sketch and 3-D manufacturing has as much to do with achieving climate goals as it does with pushing the boundaries of sneaker design. 

Stinchcomb has his own theory for why consumers have taken to biomorphic fashion. The structures which may appear alien upon first encounter are understood as effective design on a gut level. “The ultimate technology, the most efficient technology, is nature,” he mused. Stinchcomb believes that appreciation comes intuitively to most people. But owing to Adidas’ 70-plus years at the forefront of sports science, the Innovations department isn’t content to superficially mimic natural forms. Stinchcomb and his colleagues want to harness their lessons to make better footwear.

“Is a shoe we create going to enhance us beyond the millions of years of research and development that’s gone into creating what we are?” - Robbie Stinchcomb, 3D footwear designer at Adidas Innovations. 

One of the Adidas projects borrowing from nature sounds like it's been cribbed from science-fiction. Still in its infancy, Stinchcomb described ongoing experiments with L-systems, or complex math that approximates organic structures like fungi and tree branching. “Seeds” are placed at key areas of the shoe’s foot bed corresponding to a detailed pressure map. They then spend up to two days “growing” in a modeling software that handles the intensive number crunching. From all this tech-wizardry comes a shoe that could distribute weight with exquisite efficiency and without any wasted material.

Purely ornamental versions of L-system patterns made by Nervous System design studio have already dazzled jewellery enthusiasts and at least one celebrity pop star. Grimes commissioned the studio for a membrane-y bodysuit to achieve just the right trans-human gloss on her ‘Shinigami Eyes’ music video.


‘The revolution will be personalized’ 

The sort of work that’s been catching Stinchcomb’s eye rarely seems to come from major brands. “More often than not, it’s independent designers, it’s free thinkers,” and hobbyists kitted out with their own 3D printer. He’s not the only one that’s taken notice. The Parametriks’ “Print 001,'' a single-piece slip-on that wraps the foot in what appears to be a bony white exo-skeleton, won the prestigious 2022 Red Dot design award. Its creator arrived at footwear by accident. 

Nathan Smith, 38, began his career in architecture, the field that first brought parametric design software into the public consciousness through the iconic works of Zaha Hadid. Applications like Grasshopper made it possible for architects to generate undulating curves or facades resembling cell walls by adjusting various algorithmic parameters. But unlike footwear, architecture continues to struggle with how to translate those complex forms into built reality. 3-D printed concert halls are still trapped in digital purgatory for the time being. 

The inability to realize an end product felt stifling. Smith needed an outlet for his wilder ideas and his burgeoning passion for Grasshopper; something that could realistically see the light of day. So in 2018, he founded a studio called Parametriks and refined potential shoe designs while working his day job for the electric car startup, Canoo. “I was driven to find a way where I could go from design to actual production,” said Smith, “but at the same time, I’m like, ‘I’ve never really done a shoe before; let’s just see what happens.’” By 2022, he unveiled his first physical prototype to a swell of positive feedback.

“There’s a ton of interest. People want to have them,” according to Smith, though producing and selling the shoe is not what gets him excited. He wants to explore 3-D printing’s democratic potential. “I’m hoping to supply the file of the shoe to people and they can print it on their own and go wild with it,” he said. The same aesthetic qualities that make biomorphic footwear eye-catching are precisely the qualities that make it easy to disseminate: no assembly is required. Except, of course, some 3-D printing know-how. 

Not only can those files be made by anybody, but the nature of parametric design means they could be made for anybody. Smith imagined his shoe appealing to techies, futurists, and sneaker-heads. What he didn’t expect were overtures from people with disabilities who saw an opportunity to ditch orthopedic clogs for something more stylish. 

“I had one lady reach out to me and said her son had some sort of disability and that it's been difficult to find cool looking shoes for him. I could actually scan his foot and create footwear that’s perfectly shaped for his needs.” – Nathan Smith, lead designer and founder of Parametriks 

The fact that these designs are uber customizable one-offs could be a threat to companies like Adidas that rely on mass production and standard product sizing. However, Smith imagines the transnational behemoths that have, up until now, dominated shoe and apparel sales, will find a way into the custom footwear market. “Maybe they release their own 3-D printer, or Adidas starts marketing a proprietary printing material and you pay for their designs,” he laughed. But Smith estimates that about 75% of the interest for his own shoe comes from people who would rather buy it like they would any other.

Biomorphic fashion’s bamboo-like ascent from avant-garde to main-stream appeal has been nothing short of spectacular, even if its most thrilling shoots – sprouting from garages and small studios – have yet to reach the canopy. 

Smith believes we are only witnessing the beginning: “This isn’t just a trend. This is part of something bigger.”

01 XPULENT | FASHION, JAN 16, 2023

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Edited by Ines Lefebvre du Prey
Written by Samuel Shaw 

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