The Unstoppable CGI Model Rebellion
It may dominate modern day lives but technology still has divisive power—especially in industries like fashion which have been notoriously slow to adopt innovation. But one movie technique is slowly weeding its way in and throwing up a lot of questions in the process.
In April 2016, a young woman affectionately nicknamed Lil Miquela sprang to life on Instagram. With a trendy hairstyle and youthful freckles, her streetwear wardrobe immediately picked up a fanbase. Now, she has 1.4 million followers and has worked with the likes of Prada and make-up artist Pat McGrath. I forgot to mention that Miquela’s not real—she’s a CGI creation. So is Shudu, a gorgeous dark-skinned model who looks so real that it took a while for her non-human identity to be confirmed. The same goes for Margot and Zhi; two faces (one white, one Asian) who starred alongside Shudu in Balmain’s latest campaign. Photographer Cameron-James Wilson created all three.
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Replacing human models with virtual ones was inevitably going to end up in some kind of uproar. But is the backlash against these CGI women warranted? They have their perks: Creators like Wilson argue that his roster of faces—which now includes plus-size black model Brenn—is encouraging big name brands to embrace inclusivity. You could also claim that substituting young and vulnerable teenage girls for non-human models is a way of stopping industry abuse and harassment.
An episode of a WBUR podcast details how CGI influencers are a safety net for brands both big and small. Lil Miquela may have expressed support for Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ movements but her fellow fakes steer clear. A person, however, can easily have a problematic past that turns lucrative contracts into embarrassing ones. And here lies the major complication: These women aren’t real. They don’t have real bodies, they don’t have real skin, they don’t have real emotions. They can be used and abused by anyone willing to part with enough cash. (Wilson told The Washington Post a single use of one of his models can cost thousands of dollars.)
Describing its unorthodox new campaign, Balmain wrote: “The new virtual troops reflect the same beautiful diverse mix, strong confidence and eagerness to explore new worlds. Anyone and everyone is always welcome to join the #BALMAINARMY.” A large proportion of society would say anyone and everyone is not welcome to join. Most of the current CGI models boast the same features: rake-thin appendages, sunken cheeks and perfectly symmetrical faces. No human can compete with that level of perfection. If they become the norm, is that the look young women will strive for? A computer-generated version of themselves?
This dangerous ideal is the antithesis of the body positivity movement rumbling at fashion’s core. The technology’s fetishization of women is not only reducing an entire person down to the sum of their body parts but is also taking jobs away from women of color who have fought to find acceptance in the barred-off fashion world. Indeed, Wilson listed Duckie Thot—an Australian model who has faced negativity for her skin color—as one of the inspirations for Shudu. It’s ironic that her CGI counterpart didn’t have to do much to land a spot in a high-end campaign.
Statistics also signify the struggle. The Fashion Spot’s most recent diversity report found that only 32.5 percent of models walking during the Fall 2018 season were non-white. It was a similar story for campaigns with the figure slightly improving at 34.5 percent. Models aren’t the only ones facing unemployment. Stylists, make-up artists and photographers (sectors that could also do with a little diversity shove) could too be out of work if virtual campaigns become standard practice.
Of course, Wilson’s identity as a white male hasn’t helped matters. He previously told Vogue he had no plans to monetize Shudu, instead seeking a career creating models specifically for luxury brands. The introduction of his digital modeling agency, The Diigitals, states the opposite. Featuring Shudu, the aforementioned Brenn and an extraterrestrial-looking model named Galaxia, the agency appears to be profiting off of CGI women, resulting in a male-dominated sector once again. (Lil Miquela’s origin has been linked to LA-based company Brud but little is known about the creation’s profits.)
A similar company has popped up in the UK. Irmaz Models pegs itself as an imagined reality modeling agency and reels off all the reasons fantasy is more advantageous than reality. CGI models don’t get sick, they don’t complain, they don’t get tired, they’re willing to do whatever you want them to. And, best of all, they never ask for more money.
Modelling is so competitive that adding a dose of virtual into the mix could spell the end of promising careers. Wilson believes that the two don’t have to cancel each other out, telling the BBC: “Both can coexist and also work together.” He thinks human models could use a virtual avatar to take on jobs that they don’t have the time or desire for. But real-life models understandably view this invention as a threat to their livelihood. “To have to compete with literally unreal girls is just really scary,” model Louise Stone told the BBC. “It’s just so easy to be replaceable.”
Removing humanity from fashion is not an enticing prospect, it’s a frightening one. In an industry that already undervalues human lives, CGI models will do nothing but eliminate the competition. Young girls who have worked for little to no pay for the chance to see their face up in lights will be swapped for creations that look and behave exactly the way a brand wants. And what’s more alluring to the people in charge than pure control?