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This is How Much Digital Textile Printing Is Transforming Fashion

Digital textile printing is transforming the fashion industry, encouraging designers to rethink sustainability, aiding in product differentiation and fueling the local-for-local movement.

Those were among the insights offered up by a panel of apparel experts at Epson’s Digital Couture Fashion and Technology Forum Tuesday. The global technology company also presented a fashion show highlighting the garments produced by 14 designers from around the world using its digital textile printing technologies.

Given that fabric technology is among the key drivers in fashion today, designers must educate themselves on what fabric composition means, how it can limit their designs, and how it influences factors ranging from drape to comfort to function.

“Technology lives in the nanospaces of a fiber,” said Mark Sunderland, Thomas Jefferson University Robert J. Reichlin High-Performance Apparel Chair and textile engineer. “When a designer flips that technology and understands from 360 degrees what’s actually happening in their own fashion, they in turn flip the script on the supply chain.”

As someone who redesigned the suits for the 2016 U.S. Olympic rowing teams, Sunderland understands how to identify the flaws in a garment and iterate backward to create a workable and more effective product. Whereas the team’s suits previously featured 22 cut-and-sew pieces, Sunderland reimagined the garment, coming up with a solution with just two seams, and enough white space for the digitally printed stars and stripes and other team affiliations.

Though proponents of digital textile printing appreciate that it enables designers to truly manipulate fabrics in that landscape, the cost of the fabric being printed on—whether high or low—could be a detriment.

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“When it comes to cost effectiveness, there’s no substitute for being able to print on a fabric, see a design, see how it drapes and iterate on that all in an hour’s time,” Sunderland explained. As speed to market continues to dominate the industry, achieving that level of efficiency becomes an ever-more critical part of the design process. Going digital can help brands deliver on what many consumers ultimately demand these days: they want it now, and they want it customized to their particular tastes and needs.

Sustaining small brands

In countries like Mexico, where the fashion scene has been something of a late bloomer, digital textile printing could be—while not quite a panacea—a significant boon to emerging designers with limited resources. Despite its countless factories that produce “millions of meters” of basic fabrics, “Mexico is a very textile-poor country,” said Anna Fusoni, editor in chief of KS News, a digital publication devoted to the business side of the country’s fashion industry.

Digital textile printing opens up a “whole new world,” she said, enabling small designers to hone in on their unique point of view and create the kinds of individualized, differentiated garments that will foster success with their intimate group of devotees. Because, she pointed out, “they don’t need 100,000 followers [on social media]. All they need is 150 to get their business going.”

As Mexico’s fashion industry has matured, it’s attracting interest from apparel insiders and investment consortiums worldwide who previously wouldn’t have given these emerging designers the time of day. Digital technologies give up-and-coming designers a compelling means to present their products in a much more real, tangible way to potential investors, Fusoni added. Being able to quickly execute a garment through digital textile printing means bringing the product to life for prospective partners rather than dealing in the conceptual.

Selling the sustainability gospel

Despite the growing focus on organics and “natural” fibers like cotton, fashion could find a sustainable solution in digital textile printing. The highlights around digital printing leave little room for debate: its water consumption is 90 percent lower and electricity usage 30 percent lower than traditional textile dyeing production methods.

“Anything that doesn’t draw from what the Earth needs is good,” Fusoni said, “But it has to be sold that way. You have to put out the gospel that all this printing is sustainable and explain what it’s made of and how everything is much more efficient when you do digital printing.”

While it’s valuable to consider fabric composition and the textile’s afterlife during the design process, Sunderland encouraged designers to remain mindful of the wasteful ecosystem around each individual garment. For example, he said, if two out of five organic, responsibly produced garments ended up getting returned by the consumer, the carbon footprint the designer may have been trying to reduce is wrecked then and there due to the environmental costs of shipping, re-packaging and more upon re-entry into the supply chain.

To prevent that scenario, designers simply must make a better product. “Quality is really the number-one issue you can attack when it comes to sustainability,” Sunderland said.

Because apparel supply chains are so convoluted and complex, blockchain might be the answer to finally lifting the veil on exactly how clothing is produced and ushering in a new era of transparency, said Aliza Licht, EVP of brand marketing for Alice + Olivia, the print- and color-driven women’s apparel brand that now produces all of its prints digitally.

While digital textile printing ameliorates the harm that comes from traditional textile dyeing, it doesn’t address how that base fabric was created in the first place. With a market value expected to reach $1.2 billion by 2025, according to Grandview Research, the global textile industry is pressed to consider standardized methods of reducing its impact.

Going local

Part of digital textile printing’s success and wide-scale acceptance will come from changing the narrative that “digital” isn’t “local,” according to Sunderland.

Millennials in particular have a growing appreciation for all things artisan and made by hand, and Fusoni pointed to a combination of local plus handmade as one of the trends to watch in the future. Emilio Mata, among the designers showcased at the Epson Digital Couture Project fashion presentation, created garments that blended digitally printed fabrics with detailed embroidery done by hand by local women. That approach is much more efficient and thus much more profitable for those women, Fusoni noted. “Small entrepreneurs are going to be very important in the future,” she said.

Designers would be wise to promote the message that many digitally printed fabrics start with a human hand in the process during the graphic design stage. Licht, who recently visited a classroom of students, said many created watercolor paintings, scanned those into a computer, tweaked the designs digitally, and then printed them onto a fabric.

As consumers’ interest in their clothing and its creation grows, many brands are scrambling for answers. “I think digital printing is part of that solution,” Fusoni concluded.


[Correction: An earlier version of this article quoted Anna Fusoni stating that polyester breaks down in the environment at a pace faster than it actually does.]