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Stephania Stefanakou [Image courtesy of Stefanakou]

The 3D printing lab at Ryerson University is part of their Design Fabrication Zone, a dedicated workspace that not only engages students but serves as an incubator for ideas and for startups. Among the startups launching out of the DFZ is STEFANAKOU, a fashion design endeavor led by Stephania Stefanakou, a recent Ryerson graduate. I had the opportunity to meet with Stefanakou in her workspace at the DFZ the day after Ryerson co-hosted the Be3D Think Forward conference alongside Think2Thing.

STEFANAKOU is fashion- and technology-focused; as Stefanakou told me, she researches the form of fabrics using 3D printing to see how different materials will react to 3D printed geometries and shapes, using the tech to embroider and embellish fabric to make garments. While STEFANAKOU as a startup can trace its roots to about 2015, for Stefanakou the woman, the tale began much earlier.

“When I was young, in elementary school I used to draw wedding dresses for my friends, I guess that’s where I started in fashion,” she told me. “I lived in Greece, and it was hard for me to grasp that design was something I could do. I studied math and physics and thought that was what I would do. When I got here [to Ryerson], I saw the other side, the very creative, the advertising industry, marketing, all those things, but in my second year I realized I missed the tech. When I was 19, I made a dress that had gear motors where everything was spinning on it, that was a first experiment. Third year all my projects were on wearable tech, doing research, and by fourth year I knew this was the road I wanted to follow.”

The STEFANAKOU story got its start in 2015, when in her final year at Ryerson studying fashion and communications, for her thesis Stefanakou studied wearable technology and 3D printing, and how these affect the fashion industry. She 3D printed a flexible shirt in the Digital Media Experience (DME) Lab at Ryerson, as well as a shape-shifting skirt to go with it.

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Stefanakou with her flexible 3D printed shirt [Image courtesy of Stephania Stefanakou]

“October of 2015 I found the DME Lab at Ryerson,” she continued, “it’s through the library, a lab for students to go there and find out about emerging technologies like 3D printing, AR, VR. There I met Husain Nizami, I told him my idea for my project. He sat down with me for three months and taught me everything about 3D printing, how to use the printers, how to work gcode and 3D model. He helped me with my research and how to work with materials; no one had worked with flexible materials at Ryerson before. April of 2016 the shirt was ready. Since then we’ve been showcasing it to different events here in Toronto, now it’s hanging here in the DFZ. Husain helped me with teaching me everything, from there on I just went my own way, continuing. Then I ended up getting a job at the DME too, teaching 3D printing.”

dfzDFZ Managing Director Tom Bessai saw her research last summer and suggested she work toward starting her own startup based at the DFZ, where she would be supplied with her own 3D printers and document her research: “They’ve helped a lot,” she said.

Given her choice of 3D printers to bring into the lab, Stefanakou selected the LulzBot TAZ 6, which she values for the use of dual and flexible extruders. She noted with a laugh that the dual Flexystruder is “a pain to calibrate, but once it does, it’s all good.” The ability to work with flexibile materials is critical to using 3D printing in fashion, where garments are ultimately intended to be worn, moving as the body moves, and the LulzBot line is well known for its ability to handle these often tricky materials.

“I’ve been playing around with FilaFlex, NinjaFlex, and I just bought two days ago WillowFlex, the biodegradable one. The flowers I’m printing, I’m pushing the 3D modeling part, I don’t want simple plain flowers, I want them as organic as possible. I’m getting good prints, but not perfect, with the NinjaFlex and FilaFlex, so I want to see how I do with WillowFlex. It’s sturdier than the others. I want to see how it reacts to the forms I’m giving it,” she explained.

Stefanakou started her design work using Cura, but switched over to Simplify3D: “Now I can do anything,” she mused. She employs water-soluble support structures in her designs. In addition to her trusty TAZ 6, other hardware available at the DFZ include a Formlabs Form 2 and an Ultimaker 2. (The DME, meanwhile, has a Hyrel 30M; the Printrbot Play, Simple, and Plus; and the LulzBot TAZ 5.)

Support from Ryerson has come not only in the form of hardware and lab space for STEFANAKOU, but also access to and encouragement in award programs.

“Since last September that I’ve been here, I won the Kimmel Fund Accelerator award, which helped a lot, buying more materials I needed. I have two interns, we 3D model a bunch of shapes and flowers and 3D print with flexible filament. We see how we can adhere in the best ways to fabrics and test which are the best fabrics out there. It’s been a lot of work, a lot of research the last few months. Downloading software we need, making changes to the models. We’re printing with flexible materials so it’s not very user-friendly sometimes,” Stefanakou told me.

“The DFZ keeps helping, sending me award applications. Finding me advisors I need, whether legal, business stuff or design thinking. I won the FCAD Kaleidoscope Award, from faculty at school I graduated from. I submitted my 3D printed shirt, that one won, so I’m pretty happy with that. The money always helps with research.”

stShe credits DFZ coordinator Cira Nickel in particular for consistently sending her award applications and finding her mentors and advisors, as well as providing emotional support.

“Even when I get stressed when things don’t work out during my experiments she is always so optimistic and makes me feel better,” Stefanakou said.

st1For a young entrepreneur fairly new to technology and design, but with big ideas for both, such support is an invaluable resource. As Toronto continues on its path toward becoming a hub of technology, programs like the Digital Fabrication Zone at Ryerson University will serve an increasingly important role in fostering the next generations of creativity. For her part, Stefanakou has big hopes for completing some garments in the next few months, “to show the possibilities of how 3D printing can work and can help fashion, from a sense of sustainability and with new manufacturing techniques. Then I will keep going from there and see what happens. Hopefully we start selling soon!” she says.

3D printing can breathe new life into fabrics, creating fashions unlike any seen before. Remember the name Stephania Stefanakou: I have the feeling we’ll be hearing from her again. Discuss in the STEFANAKOU forum at 3DPB.com.

[All photos taken by Sarah Goehrke for 3DPrint.com unless otherwise credited]
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