In 2015 Paris Fashion week, Karl Lagarfeld surprised the fashion industry and revealed a partially printed version of the iconic Chanel tweed suit. The idea was to remove any sewing from the vest.
While 3D printing has been widely used in the aerospace and the automotive industry, the first 3D-printed dress appeared in 2013 on New York Fashion Week runways. Most observers saw it as a bold innovation that wouldn’t take over the luxury fashion industry anytime soon because technology was far from answering the high standards of Haute Couture.
Ever since, Chanel has been using 3D printing to bring innovation to several of its product categories (clothing, watches and make-up). Nevertheless, under French law, the Haute Couture designation is attributed to Houses who made clothes entirely by hand . Can this use of innovation constitute a threat to Chanel’s core business model where luxury and craftmanship has been tightly linked together for decades? Can it be an opportunity and source of future competitive advantage in the luxury industry?
Chanel’s Additive Manufacturing Strategy
Additive Manufacturing as a communication tool
Chanel’s use of 3D printing was initially a statement of “avant-gardism”, a demonstration that the iconic brand was evolving with its customer base while remaining authentic to its values.
“The idea is to take the most iconic jacket of the 20th century and make a 21st century version, which technically was unimaginable in the period when it was born. The vest is one piece, there is no sewing, it is molded. What keeps couture alive, is to move with the times. If it stays like sleeping beauty in the woods in an ivory tower, you can forget it. The women who buy couture today are not the bourgeoises of the past, they are young, modern women” (Lagarfeld, 2018)
Additive Manufacturing for product innovation
While the vast majority of Chanel’s products are still made “traditionally”, additive manufacturing has been essentially used for rapid prototyping and to bring product innovation either in terms of design or in terms of performance:
- Product design innovation: recently, Chanel applied additive manufacturing to the boy-friend skeleton watch (that sells at $43,255). 3D printing technology allowed to create a floating movement where the wheels do not need screws to be fixed to the glass .
- Product performance innovation: Le Volume Revolution is a 3D printed mascara brush launched in 2018 by Chanel make-up division. The innovation relies on the fact that micro cavities can be printed into the brush allowing for even and smooth application .
It appears that Chanel’s strategy in product innovation is to use 3D printing to complement “traditional” production in order to gain design and performance attributes in new product innovations.
Additive Manufacturing for on-demand production
One additional major 3D printing benefit is on-demand production. On-demand production is essentially due to the fact that additive manufacturing allows to shorten time to market and to customize products.
- Shorter lead-time is essentially due to a shorter production cycle (faster prototyping) and to the fact that production can move closer to its customer base, allowing for a quick response against competition. This new technology washes away any supply chain competitive advantage that was created in the past by some players (e.g. Zara and its instant fashion supply chain can now be threatened by players adopting 3D printing) .
- Product customization is due to the fact that additive manufacturing allows for the production of a small number of units (which was not possible in traditional manufacturing where the economics were essentially relying on higher batch sizes to offset setup times and generate economies of scale). Product customization is key for high value items where customers are looking to get a unique and personalized item.
On the long term, additive manufacturing will likely reshape the fashion industry and will force luxury companies to think of its implications on new in-store experience and new consumption habits.
New in-store experience
With shorter lead-time and high room for customization, 3D printing adoption in the fashion industry will likely reshape the retail in-store experience. Customer will no longer go in-store to choose a preexisting item, but rather to customize a product and receive it at the point of sale .
Some even imagine the role of the store as being a place where customers are digitally scanned upon arrival to get exact body measurement .
New consumption habits: print it yourself tool
One vision of the future could be that every household will hold a clothes printing machine. Joshua Harris even designed a machine where old clothes are fed to the machine and then used to print new items .
This approach to the future drastically questions the business models of fashion brands where their role would become the role of a designer offering design specifications that could be bought online and printed at home .
Going forward, will 3D printing disrupt our consumption habits in terms of how we approach fashion? Will fashion brands such as Chanel become design companies offering design specifications that will be printed by customers at home? Will our wardrobes be found in our computers?
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