3-D PRINTING, LIKE THE INTRODUCTION OF FILE-SHARING, HAS RAISED A MILD PANIC ABOUT, AMONG OTHER CONCERNS, AUTHENTICITY—SOMETHING DESIGNER MICHAEL SCHMIDT AND HIS MUSE DITA VON TEESE ARE HARDLY WORRIED ABOUT
“It’s about fantasy, over the top, exaggerated reality, nothing to do with reality. Creating something that doesn’t exist in real life,” Dita Von Teese tells me after taking a sip of champagne. I’ve just seen her in the first ever first fully articulated 3-D printed gown, and now I’m asking her, as so many others have before me, about her on-stage image vs. her down-to-earth self. With memorized confidence, she talks about the artifice of performance and the winning strategy of showing one’s flaws, even if the theme, tonight, is absolutely one of flawlessness.
Looking at her hands, Von Teese explains. “No one wants to watch someone who’s out there being perfect. No one wants to see that. I’d like to imagine that everything that has built up to that moment, down to me putting crystals on the outfits, down to me sitting in the studio working on the music, down to me sitting in Paris smoking opium to know what it feels like, all of those things come together onstage, and you see that…It’s like, there’s something that comes from when you put your heart and soul into it.” She looks at longtime friend and collaborator Michael Schmidt. “Which is something I think you can relate to. It’s like, there’s a reason why you have all these superstars chasing after your beautiful things. I believe people see authenticity.”
“And charisma,” I say.
“I don’t feel like I was born with charisma,” she counters. “I don’t know what it is. I guess we’ll never know.”
Originally scheduled during New York Fashion Week, the March 4th unveiling of Schmidt’s latest creation was so heavily anticipated, it felt past due. It wasn’t really the first garment to utilize a 3-D printer, as the flyer seemed to suggest, and it wasn’t even futuristic in its aesthetic—we knew that the model was to be Schmidt’s muse, Von Teese, the retro-expert burlesque performer, and that the location, the Ace Hotel’s Liberty Hall would be old-timey in appearance, too. But as I waited for the dress to arrive, taking in the done-up Dita superfans and reading about 3-D printing service Shapeways, I connected the disparate eras. Although the look of the party was 1940s-inspired, no one in pre-war days could have pulled off what these attendees, including Debbie Harry, were wearing. Like caricatures of the past, today’s burlesque revivalists are higher resolution and higher contrast, and they’re in full color. The fantasy I’m seeing here isn’t one of human ideals; it’s more otherworldly than that, but the attitude of near-perfect showmanship pervades.
I ask Von Teese if she feels she leads a double life. “I’m not like, how Beyoncé has Sasha Fierce.” She goes on, obviously used to having to defend herself, even when no one is arguing. “I’m trying to create something as far from reality as possible. My shows are about creating a dream world where all of my obsessions come to life onstage. It’s not politically correct, because it’s a sexual fantasy, and they’re exempt from that—so, it’s that, and people get what they want from it. Most of the fans are female, which says something about what’s happening there, and the difference in burlesque in this decade, this revival as opposed to what it was in the 1940s. It used to be eighty percent male in the audience and now its eighty percent female. So it really says something about what people are gathering from it. And then the other twenty are gay, or they’re with their wives or girlfriends.”
“I think it’s more than twenty percent gay,” interrupts Schmidt.
“You know what I’m saying, though. You can’t find any straight guys there,” Von Teese says, looking down at her hands again.
The dress itself, revealed in classic showgirl pomp and circumstance, and now propped on a mannequin in the corner of the boardroom where we sit, is a comingling of an antiquated ideal of femininity and a brand new video game heroine. “It’s a nod to old Hollywood glamour, but created by very futuristic means, and it couldn’t have been created any other way,” says Schmidt after the presentation, which started with a projected video reminiscent of a 1970s filmstrip from Science class that likens the process to Fibonacci’s Golden Ratio. In other words, it’s finally achieving a kind of articulated hourglass that only animated icons (Jessica Rabbit comes to mind) could once ever hope for.
“There’s something really surreal about when you’re working on something like this on the computer and you see it manifest itself physically,” says architect Francis Bitonti, who worked with Schmidt and Shapeways on the gown. “You’re creating something that’s so alien, and the technology that lets you create something that’s so foreign to the physical world, I mean, a human hand couldn’t have created that kind of differentiation.”
“It’s fantastical by nature,” says Schmidt. “We tried to exploit that by not creating just a normal piece of clothing, but a piece of fantasy. As Francis was saying, this couldn’t be created by human hands, and,” Schmidt nods towards Von Teese, “she’s no mere mortal, so, when you mix the two, when you have the ability to create a constructed fantasy like this, you really want to go for it. It’s kind of like a prototype for a new manufacturing revolution. This was the first of our many escapades in 3-D printing. Where it will take us next: attempts to develop fabrics that are...more practical, something that can be possibly even downloaded by an individual at home. You can send your file to Shapeways and they’ll print you a dress in a malleable rendered fabric."
The dress is a grid of jointed nylon, printed layer by layer using “select laser sintering” or SLS, Schmidt explains. It’s a fabric built onto the 3-D print itself, allowing for over 3,000 joints to give the garment fluidity. That’s the part that’s never been done before. During the presentation, the way Von Teese moves in the dress reminds me of early-stage rendering of CGI characters. The cap sleeves are as cartoonish as Minnie Mouse’s; although the fabric is made up of just as much negative space as it is positive, it doesn’t feel obscenely revealing. She is welcomed onstage, a crowd of lipsticked and ivory-powdered faces closing in to get a better look at what years of software engineering, overtop years of self-image realizing, can achieve.
The combination is a marble statue with one crooked tooth—the most charming part of Von Teese’s pretty face—in an optical illusion. Focusing on the slinky movements of this seemingly solid dress becomes dizzying. It may be the shakiness of era-accuracy (am I looking at a retro version of the future? Is it the future transparently stealing from the past?), or it may be that I’m looking at something I’ve truly never witnessed before. Something alien. An even more dramatic cover version of David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” plays, and flashbulbs sparkle.
PHOTOGRAPHY BEN RAYNER