For real?

Virtual Supermodels Dig Their Heels Into The Fashion Industry

Digital models like Miquela Sousa and Shudu Gram are becoming increasingly popular on social media — at the expense of real influencers.

Virtual Supermodels Dig Their Heels Into The Fashion Industry
Image: Mugler

Miquela Sousa has worked alongside supermodel Bella Hadid, fronted campaigns for Prada and Burberry, released her hit single at Lollapalooza festival and gained an army of almost three million fans on Instagram.

But Sousa is no ordinary social media star. In fact, the freckled Brazilian-American model, who often poses alongside celebrities such as rapper Diplo and singer Samantha Urbani, is not even human. 

“The first time I saw Lil Miquela was when I came across a photo of her on the Explore page on Instagram,” says Sinead Bovell, a New York City-based model. “I remember saying to myself, is this person real or not? There’s something very strange here.”

Miquela, 19, is a “change-seeking robot” designed by Brud, an LA start-up co-founded by Sara DeCou and Trevor McFedries. She first appeared on Instagram in 2016, quickly gaining a following with her clever captions and curated posts. 

It wasn’t until her account was hacked in 2018 by Bermuda, another of Brud’s fictional characters, that she revealed she was a computer generated image (CGI). “I’m not a human, but am I still a person?” she wrote following the reveal. 

While Miquela may only exist in the virtual world, the social media star is bringing in real money. Each of her sponsored Instagram posts is thought to net Brud around US$8,500 ($11,250), with the model reported to be making around US$10 million each year. She isn’t the only one. A growing collective of CGI models are now making their mark on the US$300 billion fashion industry, and the pandemic has only helped their efforts. 

Fashion industry “scrambling”

South African CGI Shudu Gram has modelled for Rihanna’s beauty brand Fenty and fronted campaigns for Ellesse and Balmain. Last year, she walked the red carpet as a hologram for the Bafta awards wearing a digital Swarovski dress. 

Blawko, another digital avatar created by Brud, has modelled Yeezy trainers. It is estimated he makes around US$1,000 per post. Virtual model Imma, meanwhile, has collaborated with brands including Porsche and Ikea and posed in the Japanese edition of i-D magazine alongside human models to promote Kanebo Cosmetics. Rozy, South Korea’s first virtual influencer, may have only uploaded her first post in August during the pandemic, but she’s already shot a spread with Shudu for Vogue Korea.

“You can still kind of tell these models are slightly fake, but you have to look closely,” says Bovell. “Especially as a millennial, we’re so accustomed to photos being constantly edited. So there is this blurred line of like, is this fake? Or is this someone that’s overly edited?” 

Cameron-James Wilson, the British designer behind Shudu Gram, says fashion houses who previously dismissed virtual models are now approaching him for help with campaigns during lockdown: “The fashion industry has been scrambling, to be honest.”

“There’s a big uplift at the moment,” adds Michael Musandu, co-founder of Amsterdam-based virtual modelling agency Lalaland. “Brands have needed help with how to keep up with their current processes… the issues with traditional photography have really made them look for alternatives.”

Synthetic models are relatively cheap, easy to work with and simple to scale. They do away with the need for venues, photographers, makeup artists and stylists. 

“Their engagement is also through the roof,” claims Wilson. A report by Hype Auditor this year found virtual influencers had almost three times the engagement rate of real influencers.

Added to that are the environmental benefits. According to research agency Optoro, online returns contribute 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, and create around 2.2 million tons of waste. 

Virtual models can help cut that rate by giving designers models of different shapes, sizes and ethnicities to front their campaigns. Far from providing an unrealistic vision of beauty, Musandu believes synthetic humans offer a more accurate depiction of the real world than flesh-and-blood models. 

Virtual but diverse

“People want to see what reality looks like, and that reality is drawn from actually showing diversity,” he says. 

“As a black man, I’m very underrepresented… It makes no sense that this is the way our main shopping works today, it literally makes no sense at all, which is very frustrating.” 

There remains ethical concerns about creating virtual models with different ethnicities, particularly if they come with their own backstory and opinions. If a designer doesn’t have the same cultural background as their virtual model, should they be able to give their creation a voice? 

It’s a question Wilson has been forced to grapple with since creating Shudu Gram. In a tweet, writer Bolu Babalola called Shudu Gram an image “contrived by a white man who has noticed the ‘movement’ of dark-skinned women”. 

Wilson says he is aware that his background as a white male could be seen as problematic and has hired black writer Ama Badu to help make sure Shudu’s voice remains authentic.

“Having that viewpoint is so important when you are working with a 3D model that represents culture, that represents people,” he says. “There are so many things that I would never pick up on or never notice because of my upbringing and because of who I am.”

Putting models out of a job

Such moral issues of creating virtual humans have not stopped their rapid rise in fashion. Bovell says real-world models have not woken up to the reality of avatars taking over their jobs, something which she says could happen “in the next two years”. 

And it’s not just CGIs they should worry about. Artificial intelligence that allows virtual models to learn from experience could prove even more devastating to the industry. 

“E-commerce modelling involves a lot of micro movements, so you’re basically trying to find all of the different poses that would make the garment look the best, as fast and as efficiently as possible,” says Bovell, who, besides being a model, is the founder of Waye, an organisation that prepares the next generation for a future with advanced technologies. 

“Using a CGI for that would be a nightmare, because you have to physically create it and move each thing by yourself as the editor, but AI allows for the model to move and do different poses.” 

For now, Bovell is preparing for the robotic shift in fashion by creating her own digital avatar that can work as yet another asset in her portfolio. Other supermodels, like Bella Hadid, have also created realistic avatars of themselves capable of starring in campaigns anywhere in the world. 

But models, she says, shouldn’t lose sight of their human qualities. “What is your story? What is your human brand? Being human is something completely unique… that’s something a digital construction can never authentically achieve.”

Text The Telegraph/The Interview People

This story first appeared in the March 2021 issue of A Magazine.

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