Designer Francis Bitonti Uses 3D Printing to Bring Fashion to the 21st Century

We’re definitely fans of wearable tech, 3D printed jewelry and the still unreleased Apple Watch, but we had never heard of 3D printed fashion until now. Designer Francis Bitonti is picking up speed as one of the first designers to take technology and fashion to the next level by creating pieces using a 3D printer. Originally beginning with accessories, bags and jewelry, Bitonti has moved onto ready-to-wear and couture, even creating a red-carpet gown for performer Dita von Teese. We recently spoke with the designer to better understand the underlying technological aspects of the label while also gaining some insight on where Bitonti sees the industry moving in the future, on the inextricable link between technology and fashion and how 3D printing might be the path to a more sustainable and eco-friendly industry. 

Francis Bitonti Photo Courtesy of Francis Bitonti via Twitter

Beginning his career with an arts degree in computer graphics and animation, Bitoni originally dreamed of becoming an animator, a dream which he suddenly gave up against shortly after graduation. “After school I sort of made this decision that I wanted to work more with materials and physical things. Most of what I was doing was advertising, things that didn’t last very long, so I went back to school for architecture,” he begins. “When I finished architecture school, I think because of the unique hybrid background of computer graphics and architecture, I actually ended up getting a job at an engineering firm.” For a time he worked on visualization, analysis and optimization, blending his backgrounds into a career that, unfortunately, still didn’t offer the vision he was looking for. He soon left his position to take up a job at a design studio.

Francis Bitonti Photo Courtesy of Francis Bitonti via Facbook

He began working with Vito Acconci, an American landscape architect known for his installation art. “That was really transformative for me, I learned a lot from him. I think that’s where I first got interested in wearables and the body, and in his work there’s a long history of dealing with the body,” Bitonti explains. “He was originally a poet and I’ve always—maybe I’m one of the few people who sees this relationship—but I see a lot of relation between computation and poetry. There’s a similar way of thinking about structuring language that I find really resonates with computing for me.” Speaking passionately about his time there, it became clear that Acconci was a huge influence on the designer Bitonti would soon become.

Francis Bitonti Photo Courtesy of Francis Bitonti

His first break into design came when he won a contest that commissioned him to create bicycle racks for the Department of Transportation around New York. Looking for a new medium from which to create the installations, he found a company in Minnesota called Red Eye, a brand that was creating 3D-printed pieces for real-world applications. “I never saw myself as an artist so I didn’t want to make sculptures and have someone carve these by hand, I wanted to be engaging in some kind of scalable technology,” he explains. But letting go of traditional tooling and manufacturing was a step he admittedly had trouble understanding. “With 3D printing there’s no material, you’re building the material up so the less volume you have,” he paused. “It’s a totally inversion of how you think about form, and how you think about efficient form.”

Francis Bitonti Photo Courtesy of Francis Bitonti

But with his background he took to the process quickly, and it wasn’t long until he understood the potential that could be found within 3D printing. Flirting with the line between technology and art, he began working with designers to create custom pieces that pushed the boundaries of fashion. “Eventually I started working with fashion designers and that was largely just because it really fit the industry really well. They did things that were custom, they did things that were complex and ornamental, and 3D printing did all that stuff very well, so it was a natural fit. I always had an interest in fashion, but I never thought I’d be a fashion designer. But I’s great, I love it—it’s where I ended up,” he explained. But as he continued working with the material he discovered a way that it could change the way we work within fashion forever—by making it substantially greener.

Francis Bitonti Photo Courtesy of Francis Bitonti

“There needs to be a lot that has to happen with materials still, but I do believe everything about this can drastically reduce our carbon footprint. We can start manufacturing locally; we can start reducing shipping costs—not costs money wise but cost on the environment,” he speculates. “All of that can potentially go away because now we can ship materials like we ship data. The internet becomes that pipeline. And there’s a lot of waste there that can go away.” He offers up a valid argument: if 3D printing builds from the ground up and can be produced virtually anywhere, how could this reduce the waste and pollution of one of the biggest environmental offenders in the world? He acknowledges that this reform is a ways off, and it will take more than just making the information available. “I think the biggest hurdle is going to be educating designers and getting them to think about form differently and think about what an efficient form is in a different way,” he argues. “It’s counterintuitive, the stuff that I’m making is very—it looks complex, it looks intricate, it looks like a lot of energy goes into making it, but in reality things look that way because I’m trying to reduce the amount of energy going into them.”

Francis Bitonti Photo Courtesy of Francis Bitonti via Facebook

And his designs do look intricate. Honeycomb structures and coral-inspired accents seem to be handcrafted treasures rather than products of a series of algorithms and equations, but it’s not the creativity or even the mathematical calculations that inspire Bitonti. Putting it quite directly he explained he doesn’t use inspiration, as his work is really just a product he’s generating for distribution rather than self-expression. “I don’t think I’ve really had the luxury that a lot of designers have where I get to kind of play these self-generated narratives out through a product line or a collection,” he explained. “It’s there on some level, but it’s not why I get up in the morning. It’s more important how the thing is distributed and made than necessarily what it is. As a designer I'm not an artist, I’m not designing for myself; I'm designing for other people.”

Francis Bitonti Photo Courtesy of Francis Bitonti

For Bitonti, it seems like his true passion comes out when he talks about the manufacturing process—taking a series of numbers and turning them into something tangible and beautiful. “Fashion is human psychology, it’s how you structure materials, it’s how people understand themselves and how they want to project to people. It’s like the most personal thing you can design for anyone is clothing. The way you form that material has to do with not only how you see yourself but how others see you,” he explains. “[The designs] are really not up to me. I’m trying to find a better way to manufacture and that’s changing the way they look.” And it’s this 3D printing process that he believes will someday surpass the more traditional methods of designs, making improvements in everything from jewelry to couture.

Francis Bitonti Photo Courtesy of Francis Bitonti

So is fashion moving toward wearable tech? Well according to Bitonti it depends what your definition is. “They need to stop making gadgets and they need to start making lifestyle products. Honestly a lot of the things I see coming out of designers that are quote unquote supposedly wearable tech designers, I don’t really—I’m having a hard time seeing the arguments they’re making,” he explains. His designs, while a blend of art and technology, are far from the idea of a FitBit or Apple Watch—here he uses the technology to create fashion instead of the other way around. “A lot of the wearable tech work I'm seeing, it’s highly speculative and highly specific. A certain button does a certain thing,” he explains. “The problem is you wear a lot of the same clothes, so unless it becomes infrastructure in the sense that it’s a textile that’s able to tap into, let’s say a Google search engine, and we can apply that across all garments, it’s really not going to be very successful and it’s not going to be more than a novelty. That’s why I don’t take a lot of this very seriously.”

Francis BitontiPhoto Courtesy of Francis Bitonti via Instagram

Then what will 3D printing lead to in the future? Is it poised to take over the fashion industry and leave us printing out prom dresses and sharing designs via email? Bitonti argues that it could someday, but we’re nowhere near that point—yet. “Nothing’s on the table right now that I'm thinking is going to replace all textiles. It will surpass that. It will absolutely surpass what human beings can do, that’s why we make tools,” he surmises. “From when I started working with this stuff in 2007 to now I'm doing things that are like science fiction. I can’t believe what’s happened and it’s only getting better.”