Black Panther hit the big screen earlier this year, immediately breaking records and grabbing attention for its storyline, diverse cast, remarkable visual effects — and dazzling overall aesthetic. That aesthetic shined through in the movie’s costume design, marrying the traditional and the futuristic into a unique Wakandan vibe made possible in part through 3D printing.
Fashion designer and architect Julia Koerner brought her experience with 3D printing to bear, working with costume designer Ruth E. Carter on the Marvel production. A number of 3D printing technologies and materials came into play as Koerner worked to create a unique vision for Queen Ramonda, portrayed by Angela Bassett, who needed to present a regal image of technological superiority. Invaluable to the ultimate effort in showcasing the queen mother’s image was Materialise. I appreciated the recent opportunity to speak with Valérie Vriamont, Business Developer at Materialise, to learn more about the project from the Belgian company’s perspective.
Materialise has great expertise in the end-to-end process of 3D printing and has been involved in a variety of projects for a variety of industries and applications; collaboration is a critical element for the company as they incorporate the specific expertise of partners in each endeavor.
“Basically what we try to do always with our customers is rely on their industry expertise, and we want to be, from our side, a reliable partner,” Vriamont told me.
“We are not the experts, for example, in the creation of 3D garments; bringing their know-how in their industry with our know-how allows us to create a bridge for this project. Julia is a partner we’ve been working with for a long time, and has experience with 3D garments. This is the way that we collaborate together.”
Getting together for this particular project, intially details were relatively scarce as Marvel held its cards close to the vest. Materialise knew the proposal covered a project for Marvel Studios, but Koerner “couldn’t tell us everything from the beginning.”
“The theme was about an innovative product. We needed to make something forward-thinking to resemble this original clothing of an African culture, in a mix that was interesting. We learned about the theme of the movie, getting an idea of who was the character who would be wearing this. She was a very strong woman character, very empowered,” Vriamont explained.
“It was very important that this costume reflected both innovation and tradition and give an empowering feeling to the actress wearing this costume.”
And it was here that the collaboration really started.
Vriamont laid out several levels to the approach to creating the look for Queen Ramonda. From Materialise’s perspective, the first level is turning a file into a part and the second level is making that part into a product. The process began in determining the right material to be the basis for the ultimate costume pieces. Materialise looked into more than 40 different materials, Vriamont noted.
“We needed a high-end product, empowering and strong, and so we needed to find what was the best material and what was the best technology,” she told me.
“In the first phase, we started looking at TPU. This was an interesting choice because TPU gives flexibility; the actress would be able to wear this dress all the time. After several iterations, though, we realized that TPU gave too much flexibility. It was not empowering enough for that final desire to achieve this look. We iterated again, exploring which other material, which technology would work to create this high-end finish. We thought, okay, why not do it in polyamide. We explained to Julia that by iterating, we could create characters with flexibility; by iterating together, we found this was indeed a good solution.”
Queen Ramonda’s showstopping 3D printed fashion includes a shoulder piece and a head piece. The key word for both was always “empowering.” As the queen mother of Wakanda, Ramonda represented the manifestation of a proud traditional culture with an incredibly advanced technological base. Working with different technologies and materials to create these imposing pieces allowed for a thorough examination and iterative process exploring the best ways to capture and crown the leadership spirit of the fictional Wakanda.
Once the material was chosen and Materialise had successfully created the part, they next needed to turn it into the final product.
“Julia and Marvel wanted to create a very real product with a strong look,” Vriamont said.
“Fifteen different post-processing steps transformed this white part into a high-end fashionable costume. By working together, we were at the end able to achieve the costume you now see in the movie.”
Iterations were critical to the success of the film-ready pieces, and Vriamont credits the collaboration with Koerner and a coming together of ideas to its ultimate success.
I asked whether Vriamont could share any comments regarding potential upcoming film projects, but while “We see films popping up everywhere,” there is currently no information to be shared about any future collaborations with Marvel.
This project highlights several strengths of both Materialise itself and additive manufacturing more broadly. For Vriamont, the key takeaways are Materialise’s core strengths in how to make a file into a part and how to make a part become a product. When it comes to wearable designs such as costume pieces or other fashion, Materialise has been building up expertise in “how to finish something and make a high-end product the consumer wants to wear.”
“We see that it is something appealing not only to Julia, but to the entire fashionable industry for wearables. Also creating something actually wearable, that a costumer could work with, is very interesting. For a lot of designers, Julia and other designers with whom we have been working, there is a need to differentiate, to make their brand different from the others, to create something unique for their products. And so we make the end product all through finish,” Vriamont continued, pointing to making and finishing eyewear as an example.
We have seen Materialise work with Safilo to create fully wearable glasses. At the company’s Leuven headquarters, I had the opportunity to try on a pair of frames made in collaboration with Hoet, as well, to (literally) see first-hand finished products.
Materialise has a long-term collaboration with Koerner and other designers to continue working on projects. As CEO Fried Vancraen has underscored, meaningful applications for 3D printing will only continue to grow.
“There are always new [projects] in the pipeline,” Vriamont said. “In fashion in general, we are working on several. As an example, in eyewear we are already quite far ahead. We have several applications where we are analyzing how there can be a fit between industry requirements and what we can do in 3D printing.”
The fashion industry is highly interested in the capabilities afforded by 3D printing, as Vriamont and her team at Materialise can attest. She noted in the course of our conversation having attended a recent fashion conference and the theme there of a “need to bring something new that looks high-end.” Fashion is a fast-moving industry, with seasonal collections and constant new introductions — a solid fit for the agility allowed for in production via additive manufacturing.
“Besides this for the designer, for the consumer you will feel this trend — the end consumer is more trend-aware than ever before. They wear a T-shirt for six months, and after six months want a new T-shirt. Digital lets us help bring designs to the market without the long product development,” Vriamont said.
Several brands, fashion and eyewear, will “every two to three months change their product catalog based on what sells and what does not sell. 3D printing technology will bring new trends to the fashion industry, and this is something we see growing toward the future.”
Materialise will continue to push forward in fashion design, both everday wearable and costume, as the iterative and low-volume production benefits of 3D printing allow for an agile approach to both design and creation.
Black Panther brings even more silver screen attention to the capabilities of 3D printing as the film industry continues to embrace the technology, and we look forward to seeing where else additive manufacturing will appear in Hollywood and Wakanda.
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[All images copyright Marvel, provided by Materialise]