Shudu Gram is a striking South African model. She’s what fashion likes to call “one to watch,” with a Balmain campaign in 2018, a feature in Vogue Australia on changing the face of fashion, and a red carpet appearance at the 2019 BAFTAs in a custom Swarovski gown. I’m also a model. I’m from Canada, although I live in New York City now. Unlike Shudu, who’s considered a “new face,” I’ve been in the business for almost five years. I am also a futurist; I spend a lot of time researching emerging technologies and educating young people about the future of work through my startup WAYE. Also unlike Shudu, I’m a real model, and by that I mean I’m a real person. Shudu’s not. She’s a 3D digital construction. Digital models and influencers are successfully breaking into the fashion industry from every angle. Some have even been signed to traditional modeling agencies. Take Miquela Sousa, a 19-year-old Brazilian American model, influencer, and now musician, who has amassed a loyal following of more than 2 million people on Instagram. She’s collaborated with Prada and Givenchy, has been featured in a Calvin Klein video with Bella Hadid, and she just released a song with singer-songwriter Teyana Taylor this past spring.
Impressive stuff, but there’s one thing that’s keeping real-life me at ease: Miquela, like Shudu, is a computer-generated image (CGI), not artificial intelligence (A.I.). That means that Miquela and Shudu can’t actually do anything on their own. They can’t think or learn or offer posing variations independently. But that won’t be the case for much longer. DataGrid is a Japanese tech outfit whose A.I. algorithms directly threaten my job. The company uses generative adversarial networks (GANs), which is a type of machine learning, a subset of A.I. I’ll spare you the specifics of the algorithmic details, but in summary, these digital models can offer a vast array of posing options that mimic exactly what we do in e-commerce and commercial modeling. For models like myself, that’s how we make most of our money. The German e-commerce giant, Zalando (for which I have modeled almost a dozen times), has published research papers on this technology. It would seem to be only a matter of time until fashion giants jump on board.
A point of tension that is emerging with CGI models is that their creators aren’t just designing them as avatars, but also giving them entire backstories, personalities, and causes to champion. Take Blawko, a digital male model and self-proclaimed “sex symbol” with tattoos and a sarcastic sense of humor. He referenced being “hungover” in an interview with Dazed Digital. Or consider right-wing, pro-Trump Bermuda, whose bio describes her as “unapologetic” and representing a breakthrough in “modern political thought.” Then there is Shudu Gram, who “hopes to champion diversity in the fashion world, collaborate with creators from emerging economies and under-represented communities, and get together with up-and-coming designers.” There are major issues of transparency and authenticity here because the beliefs and opinions don’t actually belong to the digital models, they belong to the models’ creators. And if the creators can’t actually identify with the experiences and groups that these models claim to belong to (i.e., person of color, LGBTQ, etc.), then do they have the right to actually speak on those issues? Or is this a new form of robot cultural appropriation, one in which digital creators are dressing up in experiences that aren’t theirs?
I connected with Cameron-James Wilson, the creator behind Shudu Gram, to talk more about this and ask whether he sees the ethical implications of it all. Wilson is white and male. Shudu is Black and identifies as female. “I absolutely do [see the ethical implications], which is why I work alongside writer Ama Badu, who is a woman of color. It’s important to have that voice.” He went on to say that being a former fashion photographer allows him to create beautiful imagery, but when it comes to developing her story and her background, authenticity was needed. “I want Shudu’s story and her background to be just as authentic as the way she looks.” But we human models have worked really hard to have our stories heard and our authentic experiences considered, and we’ve fought to change the perception that we are just a sample size or a prop for clothes. We’ve mobilized in groups, such as the Model Mafia network that I am a part of, to advocate for social issues and push back on exclusivity in the fashion industry. In some cases our activism has even cost us jobs. But now that we are finally starting to see changes in the industry, digital models can just land the jobs that we took risks for. Or worse, brands can just create CGIs that champion causes instead of actually having to invest in those causes themselves.
Those issues aside, digital models do have their advantages, some of which are hard to argue against. For one thing, digital models drastically reduce the environmental footprint associated with photo shoots and bringing clothes to market. It’s not uncommon for a model to shoot more than 50 outfits in a single day for an e-commerce shoot, and many of those samples end up in the landfills. Using 3D models would eliminate all of that. I spoke to Anastasia Edwards-Morel, a 3D fashion design expert at the design company CLO, who explained that by using 3D avatars and her company’s design software, a significant portion of the supply chain can now happen in a computer. An argument can also be made for efficiency and cost effectiveness. Digital models can work on multiple “shoots” at the same time, and they require a significantly smaller team to bring a shoot to life—only the digital creator needs to be “present.” Perhaps the most compelling reason that digital models may become the standard is that they are the ultimate symbol of individuality and inclusivity. What if every time you shopped online you could see yourself in the clothes? Literally. If the algorithms were fed enough data about us as individuals they could generate content featuring us, each one of us, as models. Or less radically, what if the algorithms started to learn which models we tended to click on the most and digitally customized campaigns to always include those characters?
The COVID-19 pandemic has directly highlighted the need for these types of digital solutions. Anifa Mvuemba, a fashion designer and creative director for Hanifa, a contemporary ready-to-wear apparel line for women, recently made headlines when she launched her collection on Instagram Live using 3D models on a virtual catwalk. She posed the question to her Twitter followers: “Could this be the future of fashion?” Wilson, the creator behind Shudu, told me that his agency of digital models has experienced “a massive increase in inquiries since the lockdown.” He explained that the role of digital models and the 3D fashion industry “has become something that is necessary and needed.” So what does all of this mean for living and breathing models? It’s safe to say that we will have to prepare for a changing workforce just like everyone else. We will have to exercise skills such as adaptability and creative intelligence to ensure that we too can sustain the shift to digital. Edwards-Morel, the 3D fashion design expert, advised me to look into creating a digital avatar of myself. “It’s just creating more assets that you can use and it’s where the industry is going.” It’s certainly something to consider. In the meantime, I am going to continue to build and share my uniquely human story, something a robot could never do, and take comfort in knowing that we could be on a path to a more inclusive fashion world. Which is not only better for everyone, but also something that I have advocated for. I’m sure my avatar, if she does exist one day, will as well.