Whether you’re an industry insider or not, when one looks at a fashion image, questions about its reality tend to arise quite simply because fashion is built so much on a hyper-extended version of the world.
Runway outfits are styled not for real life, but a form of artistic messaging, for example. When hair and makeup are referred to as “editorial”, it insinuates that they’ve been created for the pages of a magazine and not for, say, wearing to an office. And when photos are heavily retouched to perfection, it’s often perceived as fashion’s attempt to elevate the mundane and realise an ideal.
These days, however, one could well be looking at an image of a model and realise that its layers of simulation and reality (not to get into a Baudrillard spin here) have been completely flattened: Enter the world of virtual models.
Here’s a case to be made though that, while virtual, these avatars are very real.
The biggest names so far are perhaps Lil Miquela and Shudu; the former a virtual avatar styled after modern-day social media influencers, and the latter a high fashion model working in the style of Ajak Deng. What they have in common: Neither of them actually exist – they’re both works of fiction that exist only in a digital space, thanks to the hand of their makers.
Here’s a case to be made though that, while virtual, these avatars are very real. Lil Miquela is wildly popular, and fashion brands have caught on to that – she participates in magazine shoots and gets invited to Prada shows. Shudu, meanwhile, has a Balmain campaign under her belt. Not bad for two girls with no corporeal bodies.
Each creating imagery featuring their virtual models (complete with their stats) in runway pieces from the new season for Female – the avatars’ Fall/Winter 2020 magazine debut, so to speak – they shed light on how their make-belief digital characters can be an empowering thing.
Aeon Lou by Nicole Wong
Wool coat, Balenciaga
Nicole Wong is no stranger to the worlds of fashion, modelling, and influencers – she’s done all of that as herself, IRL. Of late, though, she’s moved into a more boundary-breaking space of combining technology with fashion in content creation.
Before creating 3-D models, Wong had already begun to explore the interface between technology and fashion. Using the open-source Spark AR (augmented reality) software from Facebook, she had started work on creating filters for Instagram. There are Marc Jacobs-inspired makeup looks, sci-fi settings, and a host of other playful effects, accessible through an app and a front camera.
Nicole Wong (left) with her avatar Aeon Lou
“We’re all creating how we want people to see us – the idea of what they want from us.”Nicole Wong
Wong is almost prescient in embracing the sort of technological advances that might threaten digital-native creatives. Rather than focusing on the trite worry that 3-D models and influencers might put their real-life counterparts out of work, she’s instead championed and led the charge for incorporating it in her work.
In creating Aeon Lou, Wong says she drew inspiration from “independent women that I look up to, who aren’t afraid to be who they are.”
On the canny crossover between real-life and the virtual. “I actually like it,” she says. “We’re all creating how we want people to see us – the idea of what they want from us.” And the more gleeful upside of a virtual model? Fewer limitations. “They can be in Europe and outer space at the same time.”