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2018 was the year AI influencers and digital models took over fashion

Resistance is futile

The most memorable thing to pop up on my Instagram explore page recently was a meme that read: “2018’s nearly over y’all, and all I’ve got to say is what the fuck was that?” A sentiment shared by many after a year that was, to say the least, a political, social, emotional, technological, and environmental shitshow. One thing we could rely on through it all, though, was the fashion industry’s ability to tap into this whirling cultural maelstrom and deliver us some zeitgeisty material to wrap our brains around and put our bodies into. Only this year, it wasn’t human bodies that fashion was interested in, but rather those of a new generation of CGI models.

As the IRL world becomes ever more disturbing, fashion appears to be seeking solace in the realm of AI and tech, blurring the increasingly wobbly parameters of reality with a new generation of digitally rendered avatars. At the forefront of this bold new world was Miquela Sousa, better known by her social media handle @lilmiquela. Created back in 2016, Miquela is the frontrunner of a new pool of artificial influencers which includes characters such as PerlLil Wavi, Miquela’s sometime sidekick Blawko, and his girlfriend Bermuda

Now commanding a following of 1.5 million and counting, 2018 was arguably the year Miquela made the leap from novelty internet sensation to legitimate industry player. While the perpetual 19-year-old – who we first featured back in 2016 – has always been known for her keen fashion sense, routinely rendered wearing the latest labels and trends, 2018 saw brands tripping over themselves to court her. Back in February, Miuccia enlisted her to take over the Prada Instagram at its AW18 show, before Pat McGrath gave her a shout out on her own platform. The legendary make-up artist declared that she was: “SO SHOOK to DEBUT my LATEST MESMERISING #McGrathMuse @lilmiquela”.

Magazines couldn’t get enough of her, either, with the digital superstar appearing in editorials for V, Interview and Vogue (in the September issue, no less), and covering independent titles including 032c, Wonderland, Highsnobiety, and King Kong. She has also fronted campaigns for brands such as Outdoor Voices and UGG, and collaborated with various streetwear and fashion labels, frequently using these as opportunities to raise money for activist causes such as RAICES, a refugee charity, and Trans Lifeline. Since its launch, Miquela has also been appointed as Dazed Beauty’s very own arts editor, and was named as one of Time’s 25 most influential people on the internet ( big deal).

Another notable CGI personality is fashionista Noonoouri. With her Bratz doll-like cartoon eyes (decorated with Kim Kardashian’s KKW make-up line no less) Noonoouri is the creation of art director Joerg Zuber, who launched her back in February this year. Whereas Miquela is more in tune with the street, Noonoouri is a luxury lifestyle player, appearing immaculately polished in current season looks from the likes of Dior, Jacquemus, and Off-White. Her feed is peppered with short, ethereal videos, executed with the glossy fantasy of a luxury campaign. She defines herself as “cute, curious, and couture”, and recently graced the cover of Madame Figaro alongside Carine Roitfeld, before ‘attending’ Dior’s 2019 cruise show back in May – where she took over the label’s Instagram for the evening. 

“As the IRL world becomes ever more disturbing, fashion appears to be seeking solace in the realm of AI and tech – blurring the increasingly wobbly parameters of reality with a new generation of digitally rendered avatars” 

While Miquela and Noonoouri might better fit the category of multi-hyphenate influencer/model, other CGI girls fit more neatly into the role of traditional mannequin. E-commerce site Yoox this week launched a “fashion-conscious avatar called Daisy”, who will try on outfits in the CGI YOOXMIRROR suite, modelling clothes for you to consider. CGI model Shudu claims to be ‘The World’s First Digital Supermodel’, despite only existing since 2017. The creation of British photographer Cameron-James Wilson, this year Shudu featured in editorials for Cosmopolitan and Vogue Australia, and also scored a campaign for Balmain, in which she appears alongside robo-girls Margo and Zhi. Dubbed the ‘Virtual Balmain Army’, the models are signed with ‘The Diigitals’ – a digital modelling agency which describes itself as a place where “a portfolio of diverse digital identities can be appreciated.”

Such claims of diversity have given rise to controversy, however, particularly in Shudu’s case. While the fact it seems to be mostly male creators behind these female avatars feels distinctly Pygmalion-esque, many argued in particular that a black female character created by a white man further perpetuates a damaging history of cultural appropriation. “It’s objectification in its purest form. Now brands can borrow Shudu’s deep melanated skin and Miquela’s feisty online persona without the hassle of smashing the glass ceiling to let POC reach the top,” explained Kemi Alemoru, as she argued against the rise of CGI models of colour earlier this year.

Debate has also ensued as to how these new digital models might impact the careers of real models, channelling more widespread fears about robots replacing humans in the workforce. One brand directly addressing this uneasy subtext is, of course, Balenciaga. The primary proponent of high fashion satire and acerbic cultural commentary, the label recently released a digital campaign featuring CGI models, but not as you’ve seen them before.

The campaign shows a number of artificially rendered figures who, as they are being watched, begin to bend and contort into weird, inhuman shapes. This uncanny imagery reflects the general anxiety about what such technology means for the future of reality in the digital age. But hey, we’re all essentially avatars of ourselves on Instagram – so having actual avatars front fashion campaigns is pretty much our culture’s logical next step.