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Digital Models and the Diversity Dilemma

Technology has undoubtedly reached new lengths in the fashion industry in recent years. As a result, CGI models are becoming the virtual influencers of our society, amassing a huge following on social media platforms.

Cameron-James Wilson is the founder of the world’s first all-digital modelling agency ‘The Diigitals’. Yet, he is also the creator of the world’s first digital supermodel ‘Shudu’, who has gained a huge media presence.

Shudu’s symmetrically stunning face and flawless dark skin is overwhelmingly beautiful. She featured as a hologram on the red carpet, and also as part of the Balmain campaign with the CGI French Margot and Asian beauty Zhi. The Balmain press release stated that these virtual models reflect the brand’s ‘unfettered celebration of inclusion’.

However, diversity and inclusion are very human concepts. These non-white animated models replace the opportunity of employment for real-life dark-skinned models. Therefore, in an industry that is notorious for undervaluing human lives and worth, CGI models only perpetuate the competition.

It gets even more problematic when we consider the idea of white man profiting from his perception of black womanhood. Balmain’s campaign might promote inclusivity, but doesn’t it also prolong the problem of little human diversity within the fashion industry?

CGI influencers: fashion’s new frontier

The cyber world’s unprecedented impact on the industry can feel as though we are immersed in fashion’s expansion pack of The Sims. Wilson was not the first to showcase his digital skills by creating animated models. Lil Miquela was created by the transmedia studio ‘Brud’ that specialises in ‘character-driven story worlds.’

The young, freckled-faced Brazilian-American, has a political voice and has modelled merchandise on social media. She has now amassed over 1 million followers, with her single ‘Not Mine’ also having over 1.5 million plays on Spotify.

The creation of animated influencers such as Lil Miquela undoubtedly reflects experimentation within the industry. But, how far should this blurring of the lines of reality actually go? CGI influencers are now occupying a space that should be reserved for genuine people living very real experiences.

Also, Wilson is now advancing his CGI craft, digitising human models by creating 3D avatars from photos. These images are posted on Shudu’s Instagram, seeing the likes of Nigerian male model Nfon Obong and Wilson’s friend Ajur Akoi. Many have mistaken Akoi for another one of his fictional characters.

He is therefore overtly blurring the already ambiguous boundary between reality and fantasy on social media. Perhaps the most famous image of Shudu features her wearing orange SAW-C Fenty Beauty lipstick. The image was so striking it was reposted on the Fenty Beauty Instagram page, skyrocketing the reach of Shudu’s profile.

Should they be celebrated?

Wilson has championed the collision of 3D digital imagery and fashion. He commends the futurism of the technology that would allow icons of the past to still model today. For example, Wilson claims that 3D images of Marilyn Monroe would have allowed her to still take part in shoots in our generation.

Shudu is therefore a fierce representation of the advancements in technology that are now offering endless possibilities. Wilson celebrates the success of his digital agency that will allow brands to craft an influencer that speaks to exactly what fits their marketing. It will also allow 3D images of existing models to allow them to do more shoots in one day.

Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell are amongst digi-supermodel Shudu’s many admirers, advocating her as a powerful image of black representation. Wilson celebrates Shudu as a black model gaining recognition in the fashion industry.

Shudu also sparked his creation of Brenn, a black plus-sized model to further his promotion of inclusivity. Wilson claims his aim is not to erase or discredit new or existing non-white models, but rather to promote diversity and open conversations around inclusivity in the industry. Yet, why not just hire real women of colour?

The animated it-girls: a futile attempt at diversity

The fashion industry is consistently maligned for its lack of diversity and inclusivity. The Fashion Spot recently released a diversity report. It exposed the fact that although racial diversity has gradually increased year on year, still only 36.1% of castings were given to models of colour in Spring 2019.

It is unsurprising then, that debates sparked around the success of Balmain’s unorthodox 2018 campaign. Featuring Shudu alongside other CGI models Zhi and Margot, the campaign slogan emphasised that ‘anyone and everyone is always welcome to join the #BALMAINARMY’. Yet, ironically, the brand prides its diversity whilst eliminating the opportunity for real women of colour to promote its message. CGI models surely cannot herald important, urgent changes to the fashion industry. They fill the space that should be awarded to the already underrepresented voices.

Wilson’s inspiration behind Shudu was the barbie doll called the Princess of South Africa, and Australian model Duckie Thot. Thot has been extremely vocal about her difficulties in kickstarting her modelling career as a result of her skin colour.

Therefore, by failing to remunerate living models of colour, Wilson is inadvertently adding to the lacking diversity. Promoting the black aesthetic without supporting real women of colour is arguably a perpetuation of their long-felt objectification.

Many responses have questioned the problematic nature of a white man profiting from his perceptions of black women. It seems to contribute to the history of black cultural appropriation. One tweet in response to Shudu’s creation justifiably asked ‘is it that hard to pay black women? It also shows how much dark skin is still being exoticised in the media.’

Digital models: a new facet of fashion’s lack of inclusivity

Digital models are ultra-cost-effective for fashion shoots, requiring fewer staff and expertise. However, along with leading to less jobs in the fashion industry, it also destroys the inclusive, collaborative processes within fashion. The creative development of campaigns is in the hands of only those with the refined, digital skillset. Aside from the production process, CGI models also deconstruct the gradual progress made within the fashion industry in terms of inclusivity and embracement of ‘flaws’.

As if the unrealistic beauty standards perpetuated by the media weren’t high enough, no human will ever compete with the CGI level of flawlessness. Yet, Wilson expressed his take on the issue to Lifestyle magazine. He argues, ‘when you are aware that you’re looking at a 3D model, you understand that the whole image is a fantasy.’ Wilson is proposing that people are less likely to compare themselves to a CGI model.

The reality, however, is very different. The photo-realistic nature of Shudu led to many viewers initially believing her existence, until Wilson revealed to Harper’s Bazaar of Shudu’s online creation. Also, social media comments reveal that even those aware of Shudu as a digital creation seem to admire her beauty rather than credit Wilson’s artistry. Therefore, Shudu’s flawlessly lifelike imitation of the models that inspired her creation, sends out yet another non-realistic message to society.

CGI models further the exclusivity of fashion’s standards of beauty, the antithesis of the recent body positivity movement. Digital models and their eerily perfect composition will ultimately intensify body image dysmorphia amongst many. Plus-size and genderqueer models are yet to experience any Shudu-level CGI success. But then, their inclusion would only add to the inclusivity dilemma: brands such as Balmain could pride on size diversity without adjusting their fashion production.

Back to reality

Removing the human aspect from fashion is ultimately an alarming prospect. These idealised, fake CGI images could prove very damaging not only to their viewers, but to the models of colour they are replacing. Yet, bringing ourselves back to reality is the key to not allowing these digital animations to entirely dominate our perceptions of beauty and fashion.

Although the creation of these stunning digital models is admirably innovative, we should stay aware of their artificiality. They even prove to be a little too unreal for the likes of many designers such as Michael Kors. At his show in New York he asserted he preferred real people with ‘personalities and opinions.’

After all, digital models restrict the diversifying process.

There are far too many dark-skinned models whose lived experiences in the industry need to be told on and off camera. CGI models and their imitation of reality cannot be given the power to prevent real equality.


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