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Computer-Generated Avatars, But Make It Fashion

Digital models, also known as virtual influencers, are revolutionizing advertising approaches within the fashion industry.



Balmain


Last year, a trio of models were introduced as new recruits of the #BalmainArmy — Margot, Shudu and Zhi. While these models — consisting of a white woman, a black woman and an Asian woman — were meant to promote diversity in fashion, most viewers considered the campaign offensive. The backlash, however, was not because of their unattainable beauty standards, but rather the artificial nature of these models overall. Margot, Shudu and Zhi are amongst the latest cadre of digitized fashion gurus, commonly referred to as the “virtual influencer.”


With ongoing developments in technology, the fashion industry is utilizing Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) as an innovative element for campaigns. Virtual influencers have made recent appearances alongside real-life models for multiple outlets, including social media platforms and high-fashion advertisements. Unlike their human counterparts, virtual models also require less maintenance to capture the ideal shot. 


“That’s why brands like working with avatars — they don’t have to do 100 takes,” Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian told the New York Times


Shudu Gram, seen in Balmain’s “virtual army” campaign, dubs herself the “world’s first digital supermodel.” The black CGI model has approximately 199,000 Instagram followers, and was previously featured in various campaigns and editorial shoots for Fenty Beauty and Cosmopolitan. With her luminous melanin skin and hyperrealistic complexion, many of Shudu’s followers mistook the virtual model as an actual human being. Cameron-James Wilson, digital artist and creator of Shudu, designed the lifelike avatar in 2017 and later shared Shudu’s first Instagram post in April of that year. 


“[Shudu] is not a real model unfortunately, but she represents a lot of the real models of today,” Wilson told Harper’s Bazaar. “There’s a big kind of movement with dark skin models, so she represents them and is inspired by them.”


Many individuals criticized the digital artist, though, claiming that Shudu could steal jobs from real dark-skinned models who are already underrepresented within the industry.

 

“A white photographer figured out a way to profit off of black women without ever having to pay one,” one Twitter user also remarked. 


Cameron-James Wilson especially endured backlash for the Balmain CGI model advertisements. Rather than depicting true women of color, Balmain commissioned Wilson to create a mélange of digital avatars, resulting in the exclusive designs of Margot and Zhi. Within the campaign’s mixed reviews, most observers noted how using computer-generated models was — in the end — a step backwards in promoting visible diversity in fashion. 

Shudu Gram and Wilson’s other digital creations are also not the only virtual influencers to stir controversy within the fashion industry. 


Miquela Sousa, professionally known as Lil Miquela, is one of the most revered virtual influencers on the Internet. Programmed as a singer and model by Brud, an LA-based Artificial Intelligence company, Lil Miquela currently has 2.1 million followers on Instagram and over 80,000 streams on Spotify. 


In 2019, Lil Miquela appeared in a Calvin Klein ad with model Bella Hadid, eventually sparking outrage within the online community. The two models embraced in an intimate kiss for the Calvin Klein video, causing viewers to classify the ad as “queerbaiting” since Hadid is heterosexual. The inclusion of Lil Miquela, someone who was not even physically present during the video, also emphasized the inappropriate approach for Calvin Klein’s “I Speak My Truth” campaign.



Calvin Klein


Despite their controversial, manufactured presence, virtual influencers still remain an emerging phenomenon within fashion. As technology becomes more advanced, humans are interacting with Artificial Intelligence and CGI in new, immersive ways through various simulations and designs — one now being mainstream models.


Note: This article was written in April 17, 2020. All information is relevant to that time, and may have changed throughout this year.

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