Where Digital Printing and Fashion Meet
As the fashion industry constantly innovates, designers welcome digital printing as a way to produce unique pieces. In recent years, the relationship between fashion and digital printing has blossomed. Designers have leaned into digital printing’s on-demand capabilities, while manufacturers recognize its need in fashion.
In this article, print experts weigh in on how digital printing has impacted fashion, its role in a more sustainable future, and how wide-format print service providers (PSPs) can get a piece of the fashion pie, plus an outlook on the future of digital printing and fashion.
Digital Printing Technology’s Impact on Fashion
The way fashion and textiles are produced and consumed has evolved over time, and with continued implementation of digital printing technology, fashion designers and PSPs can create in ways like never before, and at speeds that meet consumer needs.
“If we go back a number of years, everything was pretty much patterns that came from manufacturers,” says Kitt Jones, product manager, Roland DGA. He notes that people were very limited in what they could produce based on those pre-determined patterns, whereas today, designers can produce their own custom pieces, whether it’s dye-sublimation or direct-to-garment (DTG) printing. Because these processes have become less expensive and more accessible as they’ve evolved, it opens doors for all types of customizations.
“Digital textile printing provides the opportunity for designers to have a more hands-on approach with fabric design,” notes Tim Check, senior product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America “When compared to traditional textile creation, digital textile printing provides greater design flexibility with a nearly unlimited range of colors.”
When it comes to distribution, Check says retailers can keep up with customer demands and trends with the implementation of print-on-demand (POD). This model allows for product creation as soon as an order comes in, which makes it conducive to supporting smaller orders.
“With retail and department stores changing their displays more frequently than seasonally, it’s essential designers can meet those shortened lead times and provide items in a tighter turnaround,” Check continues. “Today, with millennials and Gen Z consumers driving the industry toward unique and inexpensive clothing, business strategies are changing, and retailers are offering solutions that focus on smaller runs and quicker turnaround times — a combination that’s ideal for digital textile printing.”
Further, digital printing technology allows production of only what’s needed, reducing overproduction, textile waste, and even supply challenges, according to Dafna Ratzon, segments marketing manager, Kornit Digital.
“As you can print on demand, it also removes supply chain complexity and opens up the door for nearshoring and onshoring, shortening time to market,” Ratzon says. “Collections that were produced nine months ahead can now be produced in days.”
Check echoes Ratzon’s points, saying long lead times and seasonal fashion trends are a thing of the past because fashion buyers can place smaller orders more frequently. He adds, “This advances trends that dye-sublimation can support, including bright, vivid designs, fluorescent and tie-dye apparel, and athleisure.”
POD allows purchasers to upload patterns to a designer and have that designer incorporate those graphics, Jones says, making them more involved in the process and offering them greater creative control. Additionally, eco-conscious and sustainable product lines continue to pop up in fashion, from swim and loungewear to athleticwear, and digital textile printing offers a solution in the face of environmental waste concerns.
The Sustainability Push
The fashion industry is known as one of the most wasteful and environmentally harmful industries around the globe. According to Green America’s 2019 Toxic Textiles Report:
♦ Approximately 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile manufacturing.
♦ Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally.
♦ The fashion industry alone emits 10% of global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping.
In addition to fashion production using large amounts of water, Ratzon says the high-volume fashion model uses large amounts of energy as well, and it’s “estimated that 20% to 30% of what’s produced is unsold.” As digital printing continues to become part of fashion, it addresses some of these concerning numbers.
“First, digital textile printing has managed to save a substantial amount of water worldwide,” Check says, adding that in 2018 alone, it’s estimated that digital textile printing saved more than 10 billion gallons of water globally. Additionally, by 2026, “Kornit’s technology will potentially save 4.3 trillion liters of water and 17.2 billion kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions — reducing overproduction in the industry by 1.1 billion items,” Ratzon says.
In addition to reduced waste and pollution, more eco-friendly inks and media continue to enter the market.
“With the different types of printers and the different types of technology, especially with direct-to-garment type printing, it’s water-based, it likes tri-blends, it likes cottons, and cottons are a little bit more sustainable than say a polyester [which isn't biodegradable],” Jones explains.
As mentioned earlier, digital printing is conducive to small orders, which mitigates overproduction and saves resources. “Designers are no longer required to order a minimum amount (that can be multiple bolts of fabric) as a first run sample,” Check explains. “With digital textile printing, a designer can make edits to a design based on one yard of fabric. Coupled with the print-on-demand process, digital textile printing has the capability of potentially eliminating an abundance of excess unused bolts of fabric, as well as excess stock and waste.”
The Future of Digital Printing and Fashion
As digital printing becomes more affordable and approachable, experts expect to see PSPs more involved in the fashion industry, especially as demand for sustainability grows.
Jones expects larger format DTG printing to see growth, where users can print on richer cotton, tri-blends, and rayons.
“I expect to see print service providers expanding to service the fashion industry,” Check shares. “Upcoming designers can work with local print providers to produce printed fabrics, and large fashion houses can leverage faster routes to market using a network of regional print service providers.” Further, due to the crossover of markets in digital printing, PSPs can be a one-stop-shop for a brand’s display graphics, signage, and marketing material needs.
And because the physical and digital worlds continue to meld, a new term has been floating around recently called “phygital,” which combines the virtual and physical worlds. The fashion space is no different. “On-demand production enables you to capture the immediacy of the moment and bring to life the endless creativity and customization allowed by the digital universe,” Ratzon argues. “Designers and producers will continue to adopt this hybrid model to capitalize on evolving consumer demands.”