Los Angeles

Beyond 3-D Fashion and the Ace Hotel: The Future Couture of Michael Schmidt


Perched on Barcelona chairs off to the side of the stage of LACMA's Bing Theatre, Michael Schmidt and Rose Apodaca, both clad in all-black -- his rock and roll leather, hers chic crepe, both accessorized in his silver chain maille -- chat like old friends about, as Apodaca put it, "the shot heard around the world." Designer Michael Schmidt's March debut of the world's first fully articulated 3D printed dress, based on the spiral proportions of the golden ratio and made for the burlesque icon Dita Von Teese.

The theater went black to view a short film directed by Schmidt, detailing the inspiration and production of said 3-D printed dress. Made in collaboration with architect Francis Bitonti, Schmidt designed the dress for Von Teese on his iPad and draped it via Skype with Bitonti (who wrote the source code). The dress, printed by Shapeways, was then shipped to Schmidt's Los Angeles studio in 17 pieces, which were dyed, lacquered, hand linked together, and adorned with thousands of Swarovsky Elements. The process of building was out of Schmidt's hands, unusual for a guy who admittedly likes to get his hands dirty. (He literally dug into his jacket pocket to show the audience the ice pick tool he uses to link mesh and chain maille.) The innovation of this dress is in the thousands of little joints, each one different to create a molded movable shape, that allow the "fabric" to drape and cascade over a sculptural form. "It's couture clothing that is structurally stressed," Schmidt says, "my challenge is to build in durability."

Dita Von Teese in 3D-printed Michael Schmidt gown. | Photo: Albert Sanchez.

After the film, Apodaca asked of Schmidt, "How did you get from point A to point 3-D?" and attention turned to a slide show punctuating the highs of Schmidt's career as a clothing and jewelry designer and sculptor. Humbly, he said, "I made Cher custom stuff, and tattered mesh was my signature. Cher liked it and gifted my stuff to her friends." As the slides continued, the crowd cheered on celebrities, projects, and process narrated by designer and conspirator Apodaca, who admitted: "I love to share people and items I find, and I am gob smacked at the things he comes up with." Apodaca is the co-curator of A+R, former Bureau Chief at WWD and has penned books for fashion greats Fred Hayman and Rachel Zoe.

Perhaps Schmidt's career began when he made his date's dress for prom, or maybe when a handmade chain maille dress he crafted made the cover of (the original) Details Magazine, the then quintessential chronicle of 1980s NYC nightlife. Cher inquired about said dress in a store window in New York -- luckily, a friend at the shop put them in touch -- and Schmidt's popularity burgeoned from there. Now, with an Emmy nomination for costume design (for "Cher... At the Mirage"), a dress on exhibit in "Rock Style" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a career retrospective in 2010 at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Schmidt is well known for his artisanal metal work.

Schmidt's calling to New York City from Kansas City in 1983 to see Diana Ross perform in Central Park turned out to be a good move. He quickly found a band of young creatives to club and squat with (even sleeping in a bathtub for a time). He made clothing and accessories from inexpensive materials and found objects for his chic nightclub friends interested early on "in adapting strange materials to the body."

And strange they are. Plastic bubbles for Lady Gaga, razor blades for Blondie's Deborah Harry, silkscreened metal mesh laser printed "Daisy Dukes" for Rhianna, a Lego dress for Fergie, and countless spectacular tour and editorial pieces for Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Katy Perry, to name just some of his clientele. The most common link throughout Schmidt's tour costumes is the use of metal mesh, chain maille (the more opened-up version), and a lot of crystals. These materials provide Schmidt a hands-on, one-off ability utilizing more tools than needle and thread. Tech and drape make his pieces (and the bodies they adorn) more like sculpture than clothing, and less like fashion than art. The function and the form compliment the stage because the metals and crystal catch light in 3-D. "It's couture clothing that is structurally stressed. My challenge is to build in durability," Schmidt adds.

Michael Schmidt razor blade embellished gown, designed for Debbie Harry.

Michael Schmidt 3D-printed gown, designed for Dita Von Teese.

The company Schmidt keeps reinforces his modern post punk, rock and roll style. The current Madonna MDNA tour is an alliance with superstar costumer and stylist Arianne Phillips, for whom Schmidt created more than 300 pieces. Schmidt's relationship with Madonna began in the 1980s in New York, and he's the one behind many incarnations of the icon. He's collaborated with designer and fellow Kansas City native Jeremy Scott (known as a fashion rebel) for his last five collections, creating the designer's cheeky, outrageous items like metal mesh silkscreened "burlap sack" dresses.

Schmidt confessed that while making some tour pieces out of leather for Aerosmith's Joe Perry 15 years ago, Perry showed Schmidt some Chrome Hearts leather as inspiration. He said the leather was so exquisite and the details so refined that Perry should instead get the getup from them. "I gave up using leather entirely," he laughed, and subsequently teamed up with Chrome Hearts in creating couture one-off's and special items in sterling, diamonds and metal mesh.

Known to stylists and costumers as a great collaborator, Schmidt's magic happens in his downtown Los Angeles studio, where he keeps a team of skilled artisans to carry out the fabrication of his collections and collaborations. On any given day, there could be metal smiths, welders, and various other craftsmen working to, say, link thousands of guitar picks into a dress, create an articulated penis ring for (Janet Jackson), or spicule pointy finger extensions (for Rhianna). Adept at improvising, meeting seemingly impossible deadlines and having the relaxed charm of a confidant but humble celebrity himself, it's no wonder about Schmidt's popularity. When asked about all the recent attention, he admitted that he hasn't been interested in getting "credit" in the past, and being around celebrity, he valued his privacy. "Now with the dress, attention was thrust on me, and I'm rolling with it," he says. Apodaca echoes Schimdt's low key nature, "he is so talented and such a great person and friend, but like many artists, promoting himself isn't one of his greatest skills." That is precisely why she is involved with him: to get him the credit.

Michael Schmidt jewelry.

Not coincidentally, a trunk show of Schmidt's new eponymous jewelry collection in LACMA's Museum shop was open for the evening. The haphazard presentation of metal mesh, chain maille, crystals, and spikes created a buzz after the presentation. The collection -- moderately priced from $350 to just under $2000 for larger pieces -- acted as a souvenir to the recompense of a fashion superstar. "I like to take luxury materials to the street, rendering them gritty," said Schmidt of his collection. Schmidt invented his own tools to internally link chain maille in order to create a seamless mesh, and the result is edgy: reminiscent of punk 1980s and tough rock chic, already featured in fashion editorials and on his celebrity clients and fans. "The stasis between rough and soft" is what interests Schmidt in the languid, liquid metals he crafts.

Never limited to one process or one material, Schmidt is open to new materials and the creative solution involved in using them. "The tactile experience is a pleasure to me," he says of his work. Commune Design and the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs commissioned a large scale rope installation for the lobby. "The scale outside of the body is large, large rooms rather than large personalities" he said. "They were thinking 1970s macramé" (he scoffs), but Schmidt delivered what he calls "a more nautical modern interpretation utilizing Japanese bondage ropes".

Michael Schmidt installation at Ace Hotel -- Palm Springs.

More recently, he used rope and hand tied "monkey fist" knots for a large installation of rope at Whole Foods Newport Beach, where he noted that the "location and the scale dictate the material and it had to be organic" to work with the store atmosphere and objective. Interiors excite Schmidt because they're more than just a "witness to a moment, a room's experience allows me to connect with an audience and really inhabit a moment."

Michael Schmidt installation at Whole Foods Newport Beach.

Large scale installations are an entirely different discipline for Schmidt. "I enjoy the challenge and the freedom of limitations that the human form constrains" in creating wardrobe. Plus, through these larger works, his art can reach more people. "Everyone can experience an installation in an environment," says Schmidt. "My challenge is that there are no limitations." His latest project is for the new downtown L.A. Ace Hotel, to open Fall 2013 in the old United Artists building. Schmidt is familiar with the building, as it is across the street from the Swarovsky showroom where he clearly passes his time (Schmidt virtually invented bedazzling). He's sworn to secrecy about what he's doing, but the material he's working in is metal and it has something to do with the already crazy "spire in the sky" on the roof.

Schmidt has always been interested in technology; he said, "[I] used to attend NASA Technology Transfer Seminars, where I'd go experience new technologies, and they tried to earn back development costs by selling stuff back to companies and artists interested." And the birth of the silkscreened metal mesh he developed for Rihanna's Daisy Dukes. The medium of 3-D printing has been on Schmidt's radar for 25 years -- and no, he hasn't gone to Staples to purchase the home use 3D printer. "It's a new work mode, a tool that helps to create what you can't do by hand," he says.

Rihanna in Michael Schmidt metal mesh shorts on the cover of Rolling Stone, 2011.

Michael Schmidt metal mesh shorts.

After the slideshow ended, the fashion cognoscenti filtered out to the LACMA courtyard where glam rock played and several of Schmidt's creations (including the 3-D printed dress, a metal mesh Madonna boxing robe and shorts, Debbie Harry's razor blade dress, and Cher's distressed mesh) were on display mannequins, champagne flowed and Schmidt was swarmed with people. Ideas, questions, and congratulations swirled around him as friends, family, and peers celebrated his success. Apodaca pointed out that he's crazy busy. "He is wrapping up Cher's wardrobe for a new album out in September, working with Bitonti on a capsule collection of 3-D printed jewelry in precious metals and diamonds that they hope to have available by the end of the year, and executing the large scale installation piece at the Ace Hotel," she said.

Schmidt will hold an encore showing of the 3-D Von Teese dress at Apodaca's A+R Store on LaBrea on June 27th from 6-9pm where he will showcase other 3-D printed possibilities. From there, the dress be whisked away to New York to be a last-minute addition to the MAD Museum exhibit "Out of Hand," where it will be on display until July 2014. He is looking forward to lecturing at FIT during the run of that exhibit.

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Top Image: Michael Schmidt with Dita Von Teese in her 3D-printed Michael Schmidt gown. | Photo: Albert Sanchez.

About the Author

Born in the Midwest to a world-class shopaholic and her barrister husband, my formative years illustrate a life destined to end up as a “fair yet critical” fashionista, artist & lover of life. Hours of sorting at Loehmann’s, unafr...
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