Imagine a world in which a few of your daily interactions are with computer-generated characters? You might disregard the idea thinking it resembles just another episode on the show Black Mirror. But those attuned to the fashion industry will agree that virtual models are authentic, and yield almost equal attention when compared to real models.
The world’s first digital model, Shudu, created by visual artist Cameron-James Wilson was part of Balmain’s virtual army. Another famous creation by Joerg Zuber named Noonoouri, is represented by IMG Models and has partnered with Dior as well as been on many fashion magazine covers. Lil Miquela — a character by Trevor McFedries and Sara DeCou of the company Brud — has 2.5 million Instagram followers, and has also collaborated with Calvin Klein and other brands. These digital models have shown us that 3-D imaging and computer-generated imagery (CGI) technology has made it possible for such characters to co-exist in a real world.
INDIAN FASHION’S DIGITAL FACES
When fashion brand LOTA’s co-founders Adhiraj Singh and Shradha Kochhar started their brand created Rajiv — a digital avatar for their brand — the idea stemmed from a sustainability point of view. Adhiraj, an art director and digital designer, says, “Digital avatars have been in existence ever since video games. There was a sustainability thought to it [creating Rajiv in 2018]. We replaced our communication and work flow not only with digital models but also digital sets. We started with Rajiv, and created his world called LOTA Land [with four other avatars], and it was an imagination of what life would be in a tongue-and-cheek sustainable world, where we achieved these ideals of utopia and sustainability. We wanted someone to tell that story, and that is how Rajiv was born.”
Adhiraj has also partnered with artisanal jewellery designer Roma Narsinghani, to create Priya and Shyamli (co-created with Harsh Nambiar) for her upcoming virtual showcase at Helsinki Fashion Week 2020 on July 29. In fact, Adhiraj informs that Rajiv, who will also be showcasing Narsinghani’s pieces, will be walking the ramp for her show.
Talking about how this collaboration came to be, Narsinghani says, “Helsinki Fashion Week was already converting real models into digital avatars with the use of 3-D scanning. I thought it would be amazing to have Indian models on an international runway and I was already collaborating with Adhiraj. He is the one responsible for placing our pieces on the models, so essentially fitting them on the digital avatars. We thought it fit in and made sense to bring in Indian models for an Indian brand for a platform like Helsinki Fashion Week.”
Another Indian digital model, Nila, created and represented by artist and talent management agency Inega, has been making headlines ever since her launch last month. Nila, meaning moon in Tamil, is perennially 20 years of age. In a written communication during her launch, she had (through her spokesperson) said, “I can’t wait to begin my interactions with the vast and multi-faceted world of brands, fashion, art, music, you name it!”
Talking about her, Inega’s CEO, Ankit Mehta, says, “We’ve been exposed to the idea and our teams are following virtual models around the world. India is tricky as a market, and unlike the Japanese market we don’t take to virtual content very easily. When I heard the idea of representing a virtual model, it triggered the fact that we could because we have the expertise to create something and give it the longevity that it requires.” The company’s post-production vertical Inega Prograde is responsible for creating Nila. Mehta adds, “I realised we have access to the ecosystem; we have the technical capacity to curate the character and the management skills to see her through to the space that she would need to be in to be a successful digital character in India. Certain established players in the business took to her right at the beginning. The reception has been excellent. People are welcoming.” Giving us a broader idea of the process of her creation, Mehta explains, “We first wrote the character when the idea was conceptualised. Once we did that, we sketched her. After she was sketched, she was sculpted. That’s how we approached it. Tomorrow, there may be an instance where she represents India internationally or otherwise, and so, having these denominators set out well in the beginning was very important.”
Virtual models can also be instrumental in achieving sustainability goals — which the fashion industry has been rooting for over the years — to a large extent. Adhiraj believes that digital avatars help in reducing waste, “You can use 3-D iterations to create digital iterations without creating waste. It would accelerate the productivity. You would still need the artisans, but instead of making multiple iterations, they could learn this digital software to create their own iteration and then focus on the right iteration with craftsmanship.” He also highlights that “fashion is a very unsustainable art form with too many systems. A lot of these systems are broken”. Giving us the example of outdoor shoots, which fashion brand’s work on for their campaigns, he explains that the process includes flying the models and crew to different locations for a final output of just a few images. These (images) are later retouched using technology. With digital models, such broken systems could be altered to maintain fashion’s current sustainable stance.
INNOVATION OR A THREAT?
Digital models are not bound by physical limitations; they don’t age, will not fall sick, and will never sustain an injury. In addition, they don’t need to be physically present and thus possess a unique value proposition in a post-Covid world. In this context, a number of people might look at digital models as a threat to their real-life counterparts.
Mehta believes, just like any other model they represent, Nila will have her limitations. He says, “There are limitations for every model and it applies to her as well. When it comes to collaborating with projects and brands, it is also for the brand to determine [whether Nila fits in to convey their message] as well and the premise will rely on the brand too. She is a virtual girl, just like any other girl we represent. She can’t do everything, and that makes her unique like every other model we have [on board].”
Fashion designer Urvashi Kaur, who is currently in London planning a shoot remotely for the first time, says it is an innovative step, “With the world going almost completely digital in the era that we live in, it is natural that the fashion industry is embracing more innovative ways of working. I think it is great to have virtual models and especially with platforms such as Instagram, it becomes an interesting visual take on things.”
There is no denying that virtual faces might pose a threat to real models and their careers. Freelance model Aishwarya Sushmita thinks that this concept might affect the modelling industry over time. She says, “The creation of virtual models will directly affect our profession.” That said, she highlights that people are used to seeing models walk the ramp, and unlearning or even breaking this pattern will be difficult for the industry. “Breaking the pattern and remaking it by getting used to virtual models, just like we are now used to real models, will be difficult.”
Ninja Jagan Singh, founder of Mayur Vihar-based Ninjas Model Management, says this is not a technology equipped for the Indian fashion space. Ninja adds, “Fashion is not just about selling clothes. It is an emotion, and an emotion can only be curated by a human being. When you put an outfit on a CGI component, there is no fall to the garment and no movement to the fabric. It is impossible for someone to buy clothes off a robot and put it on a person because there is no human value to it. The whole idea of marketing is to evoke emotions in the people buying it. This idea [of virtual models] is a facade and it is impossible for people in India [to accept]. We, as a developing country, can’t copy what a developed country does.”
Indian supermodel Nayanika Chatterjee, on the other hand, thinks that the two worlds can co-exist. “There is going to be a mix and match. I don’t think one will be pre-dominant in the scene, as each has its own charm. It is just like Zoom calls; people are doing it now but meeting friends is a different experience and you can’t take away from it,” she adds.
Both Narsinghani and Adhiraj are of the opinion that one cannot replace the other. Narsinghani says, “I don’t think they [digital models] will replace physical models; I think there will be a place for both. It depends on how companies start using these avatars. They will be used a lot more in visual communication but I also see physical models being used in editorials and collection campaigns as fashion is still quite tangible. Personally, I feel it is about creating a balancing and not one taking over the other.” Adhiraj adds, “We [with digital avatars Rajiv & Co] are trying to find an effective way that balances our values of sustainability of our communication to create something exciting in fashion that is also interesting.”
Kaur, who thinks that these virtual models may be a viable alternative, opines that nothing matches their real-life counterparts. She adds, “In a deeper sense, I feel that the human aspect is something that resonates with me much more. I do feel that while digital versions are great alternatives, there is nothing that compares to the thrill of seeing a real-life supermodel take to the ramp, breathing life into the designers vision.”
Fashion designer Rina Dhaka recalls how the models were once the designer’s muse, “Back in the 90s, everything was planned with the model as a real muse. As designers, catwalks and models as well as the customer… that was the whole journey for us. Later, everything became huge, models turned to Bollywood, showstoppers became the next big thing. While all these girls [models] were doing a marvellous job of bringing these designer garments to life on a runway, in the end all that the media and people wanted was that one showstopper who walked right at the end with the designer. And he/she took all the credit for the entire body of work.” Dhaka, who is a huge fan of digital model Noonouri, is of the idea that this virtual world is exciting but it will not overshadow the real world of modelling. She adds, “I think the modelling industry won’t die right now because of the cataloguing industry and the reason that fashion is also being sold online right now. Also, creating virtual models will have to be a much cheaper process. Will it be? I don’t think so. Technology is very expensive, so what is the point… you might as well take a real model [for campaigns and shoots].”
With innovations using advanced technology, virtual models may seem like the answer in a post-Covid world, which will rely heavily on social distancing. But will it replace human models over time? We’ll just have to wait to find out.