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.
Lilium by Shavonne Wong
Wong composites the features of Lilium from various people in real life.
3-D modelling and design is a bit of a full-circle moment for Shavonne Wong, who studied IT in polytechnic (learning, briefly, some 3-D techniques) before becoming a fashion photographer. “When I was younger, I wanted to be an animator in Pixar. I’ve always loved the creative freedom the 3-D world provides,” she says.
“The objective isn’t to replace humans or to overly simplify the form, but to create virtual models that celebrate human diversity.”Shavonne Wong
She’s parlayed a decade of photographic experience and knowledge into considered creative choices: focal lengths, lighting choices and the most flattering angles that can elevate her renders. There are, she says, similarities between the two practices – except perhaps that 3-D now gives her more time for decision-making. She’s even launched Gen V, an agency that represents her avatars.
Wool jacket, silk fringed skirt and leather belt, Prada
Wong’s style of design and rendering is life-like. It approaches the hyper-perfection and polish that a computer generated image has – glassy skin, not a hair out of place – then dials it back a notch for a semblance of reality. Her models have visible pores and their skin is made to appear textured like a real person.
The model in this photo is Lilium, a completely ground-up creation. Wong composites the features of her models from various people in real life. “One of the beauties of virtual models is that they can be tweaked and adjusted, and inspiration can be sourced from across the world. The objective isn’t to replace humans or to overly simplify the form, but to create virtual models that celebrate human diversity.”
This article first appeared in the Oct 2020 Animation Edition of FEMALE