We are living in a material world, and I am a digital girl: CGI models and the future of fashion

Amy Elder 30 October 2020
Image credit: Lil Miquela/ YouTube

We are all aware that technology is taking over our lives. From the unrelenting presence of Zoom to the growing market of blue-light-filtering screen glasses, our day-to-day is rapidly becoming more and more virtual. We shop, socialise, teach, learn, communicate, study and network digitally. Two decades ago, whole professions that exist now as a result of our reliance on social networks, such as YouTuber and Influencer, were inconceivable concepts. And now we aren’t just being influenced through our screens by other people, but also by computer generated images. There’s a growing population of CGI models and influencers. Noonoouri, a bobble-headed digital model who ‘lives’ in Paris, took over Dior’s Instagram account for their Cruise Collection in May 2018, and promotes her favourite brands on her own account. She has a tiny nose and a tiny mouth, with giant eyes and a frame like a Bratz doll. She’s adorable, and you can see the appeal of the novelty this brings to brands that work with her. No one could mistake her for a real person, so her unique selling point is different to real models and it would be harder to be offended by her unrealistic bodily proportions.

Then there’s Lil Miquela, an AI influencer who started out as a YouTuber, posting ‘me oversharing’ videos about her dating life, vlogs, music videos (she’s released music on Spotify and her track ‘Money’ has over 2.2 million plays), and interviews with celebrities (I enjoy her caption for her video with JPEGMAFIA: ‘I got to interview JPEGMAFIA for the Coachella 2019 livestream and now you get to learn all about his favorite anime. xx’) Nowadays her main platform is Instagram. She promotes sponsored products and posts selfies with real life influencers to her 2.8 million followers. In contrast to Noonoouri, what’s unsettling about Miquela is how realistically human she looks. While her video-game-character-esque hair and facial features give away her AI identity, if you saw a picture of her from the shoulders down you would assume she was a real girl. And apparently the beauty world loves the virtual too: Pat McGrath has named Miquela as one of her muses, putting Miquela in the company of Naomi Campbell and Hailey Bieber.

If that’s not baffling enough, there’s also The Diigitals, an agency of virtual models who look so realistic (with one exception), you wouldn’t notice they aren’t real people without being told. The agency currently has seven models; of these, two are male, four are female, two are white, four are black, one is plus-size, and one is a femme alien called Galaxia. The first to be created and most famous of them is Shudu, the ‘world’s first digital supermodel’ (as her Instagram bio states), whose credits include modelling Tiffany jewellery for Vogue Australia and fronting Ellesse’s SS19 campaign.

What does it say about a brand if they choose to hire these airbrushed manifestations of people over embracing real models with natural ‘imperfections’?

Shudu in particular has been the subject of controversy due to the fact that brands are choosing to work with her (a black digital model created by Cameron-James Wilson, a white male fashion photographer) over hiring real black women, which seems fundamentally racist and sexist. Furthermore, the perfection of this symmetrical and effortlessly slim woman with an unblemished complexion (Wilson drew his inspiration for Shudu from a Barbie doll, the original paragon of unattainable and unrealistic beauty standards) does not seem to fit in with the necessary rise of the body positivity or body neutrality movements. What does it say about a brand if they choose to hire these airbrushed manifestations of people over embracing real models with natural ‘imperfections’? It seems detrimental to the mental health of consumers which is all too fragile at the moment, especially if they do not realise that Shudu et al are in fact digital. Indeed, Shudu made fans out of Alicia Keys, Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell and Rihanna, before she was exposed as being the product of Wilson’s apparent need to break free from working with real models. Shudu is a specific case which raises concerns that some of the other ‘Diigitals’ do not. She is arguably a fetishisation of black women. Wilson’s creation stemmed from his fascination with Barbie dolls, in particular a rare doll model called the Princess of South Africa, with a frame and plastic ‘bone structure’ different to the classic white girl dolls. Issues with Barbie beauty standards aside, the racial connotations of Shudu’s inspiration add a much deeper, more horrifying layer. It is not outrageous to assume that Wilson, being a white man, was more interested in the Princess of South Africa than other dolls because of her uniqueness and difference to him. His ability to play around with her form and stare at her all he likes from the comfort of his own computer screen is problematic to say at the least. It’s a practice akin to blackface, which originated from the minstrels of the antebellum period, which is now so universally frowned upon that the BBC removed Little Britain and Come Fly With Me from iPlayer because of their use of it. In the US, ‘HBO Max’ fully removed Gone With the Wind, before restoring it with the warning that it ‘denies the horrors of slavery.’ Both allow white people to indulge in their fascination of viewing black people without having to actually interact with them in real life.

Nonetheless, having been called out in comments on Shudu’s Instagram posts, Wilson insists in every interview that he never expected her to blow up as she did or to be taken seriously as a real woman. He calls her an art piece, a creative project. He explains that he wants Shudu not to take attention or business away from real black models, but to bring more attention to them by showcasing black beauty in a new and different way. As he told Harper’s Bazaar, ‘it’s meant to be beautiful art which empowers people. It’s not trying to take away an opportunity from anyone or replace anyone. She’s trying to complement those people.’ But his arguments remain unconvincing to me, and I dislike his notion that Shudu is, ‘to [him] … what the most beautiful woman in the world would look like.’ I want to scream at him, just appreciate real women!

So with controversies such as these, it seems like an obvious answer to write off the concept and cancel all those involved. This is certainly what I expected my angle to be when I set out to write this. However, upon reading interviews with the likes of Wilson and other creatives, there’s more of a debate to be had, and the deeper you dive into the world of CGI models and influencers, the more you feel confused and uneasy. Testimonials from celebrities who have worked with Wilson can be found on The Diigitals website. Ajur Akoi, a black model and the first real life model to be digitised, says of her experience working with Wilson that it ‘finally convinced me and showed me that I’m a goddess and there ain’t nothing that can be compared to me.’ Her positive outlook adds a dimension to the debate that I didn’t see coming and am unsure where to place.

The unsettling nature of the whole thing means my mind is instantly looking for counter-arguments to notions both for and against it, even if I agree, at least to some extent, with the points raised. One of the most common endorsements is that digital influencers work because their whole personality can be advertisement, perfectly tailored to what brands want without any of the unpredictability of real people, but why should anyone listen to them if they have no personality – where’s the human interest and trust? Then when I read someone else pointing out that we are already able to feel connections to virtual characters, such as in TV shows and video games. But aren’t models supposed to be blank canvases for clothes to speak for themselves anyway? What’s the point in trying to ascribe personalities to these avatars? And it seems it is not just me who wants to allow the clothes to be the spotlight. After the brand Hanifa’s New York Fashion Week show was cancelled due to coronavirus, designer Anifa Mvuemba created her first virtual catwalk with CGI renderings of her garments strutting around. Not on virtual models, but as if being worn by invisible people to an invisible audience.

I am excited by the creative potential that digitising real models, musicians and celebrities will allow for wonders of stage and screen.

One positive aspect which Wilson raises is the potential environmental impact; he tells Glamour ‘we can digitise real models without having to fly them round the world, minimising carbon footprint and creating more affordable campaigns for instance.’ I am excited by the creative potential that digitising real models, musicians and celebrities will allow for wonders of stage and screen. In an industry that is still strongly characterised by its inaccessibility and exclusivity, the digital revolution offers the prospects of getting a wider range of creatives involved and making new job opportunities for those who may have found it much harder to get their break in the fashion world due to not fitting with the famously harsh beauty standards still deeply ingrained within it. Singers and actors have been hired to be the ‘voice’ of Shudu for interviews and her ‘body muse’ for brand campaigns.

I am simultaneously frustrated and fascinated by it all. It feels only a few small steps away from becoming something out of a Black Mirror episode, sexualising ever more realistic robots and simulacra. Alexandre de Betak, of fashion show creation firm Bureau Betak, speaks wisely on the potential of digital development to Vogue: ‘it’s really fun to experiment as far as you can with digital … if you create a virtual experience that uses video game techniques … but the digital should not be a copy of the live.’

While I still haven’t been able to clarify what my stance exactly is, I can say that it all presents a compelling social commentary, and I am intrigued as I examine the roots of the debate. The acceptance and criticism that virtual models have faced are both, at their core, reactions to society’s culture of airbrushing and photoshop. The concept shows how blurred the lines between real and digital are on social media and how accustomed we’ve become to it – facetune, photoshop and all. Looking back on my notes from a few days ago, I find, tucked in amongst swathes of copied and pasted quotes from magazine articles, a single line. I am now unsure whether it came from a place of dismay or perceived revelation: ‘maybe we’re all virtual influencers?’.