All is not as it seems in these images … Welcome to the world of the digital supermodel.
All is not as it seems … Welcome to the world of the digital supermodel.
Shudu is my muse – as a photographer, if I get inspired and want to try out a new lighting concept, I can do that at any time of the day,” says CameronJames Wilson, the creator of the CGI avatar – or digital supermodel as he calls her.
Working with the Vogue Australia team on these images, the process involved photographing real Tiffany & Co. jewellery pieces from its new Paper Flowers collection on a stand-in model before blending the photographs with three-dimensional renders to create the hyper-realistic portraits of Shudu. Each image can take days to produce.
“Working with such delicate and intricate pieces was such an exciting challenge,” he says. “I had to adopt new techniques in order to blend Shudu’s virtual presence with the very real Tiffany pieces.”
For Wilson, Shudu is a creative project, a way to explore his interest in illustration, make-up, fashion and design as well as threedimensional imaging. “So, really, this encompasses and appeals to all my creative tendencies,” he explains of his endeavours.
With questions raised around authenticity and identity on the internet, the increased prevalence of these avatars – the terminology that Wilson is most familiar with, given his background in gaming – is both a result of a digital realm and reality merging, and a comment on humans’ relationship with technology. “I love to wonder about fakery and what exactly it means,” says Wilson. “Where do we draw the line between fantasy and reality? What is real, anyway? Pushing the fantasy into reality, Shudu has more skin texture than your average Instagram post,” he quips.
Shudu’s Instagram account is filled with comments from people amazed at the realism Wilson is able to capture, and others fanatically track the technical progression in his work from image to image.
“I created Shudu during one of the toughest periods in my life,” remembers Wilson. “I had moved back home, where there were not many models. I’d been a photographer for 10 years, so creating a digital model was a natural progression for my new-found 3D hobby.”
With a long-time interest in fashion, Wilson was inspired by incredible models that he had admired growing up: Iman, Alek Wek, Naomi Campbell and Grace Jones. “In the 3D art world, there really aren’t a lot of resources to create ethnically diverse characters, especially when compared to the assets on offer for Caucasian characters,” says Wilson, who’s aware of the debate surrounding the issue of having a non-black male creator produce a CGI black model. One controversy being that a fake rendering of a woman of colour is taking up space in an industry where real women of colour already struggle to find a platform. But to him, it comes from wanting to celebrate beauty and show diversity in a gaming and 3D art world, where homogeneity is the norm.
“With VR [virtual reality] growing, I think this divide needs to be a serious consideration,” he says. “This also parallels the very real under-representation of dark-skinned and diverse models in the fashion industry, which Shudu’s creation has sparked a lot of debate about.”
The human eye naturally picks up on markers of authenticity; the skin texture is a key one, especially with Shudu. The way the fabric moves around her could be another, but there are features that remind us that the human hand – or mouse – is at play here. While to some there is unease because Shudu is just too eerily realistic, to others there is a sense of marvel of what technology can do. If Louis Vuitton can have characters from Final Fantasy model their wares in a campaign, as they did in 2016, and if imagery can be manipulated on one’s own smartphone, a CGI avatar is the next understandable progression.
The man behind Shudu’s exquisite floral jewels is Reed Krakoff. “We found a drawing from the 1800s of an iris that ended up being an inspiration for Paper Flowers,” says Tiffany & Co.’s new chief artistic director on his first jewellery collection for the storied American jewellery house.
“The idea was how you make the iris in jewellery feel modern and not something that has come from the archives or is historical,” he says of the inspiration point. “It’s the idea of cutting flat petals and pinning together and making the flowers out of paper by hand. So that tension between hand-made and natural is kind of the beginning. What gives it its modern feel is that it’s feminine and pretty, but not traditional.”
And here, modelled by Shudu, a human-made creation taken out of nature, she is much like the jewellery itself.
Krakoff is in his office in Tiffany’s New York headquarters in the Flatiron District. It is large but not cavernous, a tasteful sofa on the side, windows to coax the natural light in. His desk is covered with perfectly aligned stacks of books and papers, like miniature skyscrapers, and he, Krakoff, is the overseer. After his noteworthy rehaul of Coach, and designing an eponymous minimalist label of ready-to-wear that has since closed, he was waiting for the right opportunity before returning to his love of design.
His laptop is tucked neatly away: using his iPad is his favourite way to sketch. He’s decisive, concise in his speech and devastatingly particular. Combined with a slight shyness, it gives him an air of authority and assuredness, but there is a serene curiosity behind the exterior.
“I have to say I’m more excited than daunted,” he says of working for Tiffany. “It’s a big responsibility to work with a brand that has had such an incredible history and has had many, many accomplishments before. Tiffany has always been about this American sense of luxury, understated, easy, complicated. It’s more pressure to live up to the name and to continue the next chapter.”
Fine jewellery of this ilk is a first for Krakoff, although he had designed sterling and casual jewellery before. Krakoff’s hand can be seen clearly in his past endeavours and now at Tiffany. There are the clean lines, a minimalism without coldness and always a sense of function and “the idea of surprise and irreverence and the dreamy and fantastical as well”.
“I had to adopt new techniques in order to blend Shudu’s virtual presence with the very real Tiffany pieces”
So to come forth with Paper Flowers, a fine jewellery collection that uses precious materials like white and yellow diamonds and tanzanites to be worn for the daytime rather than just for formal evening events, is a culmination of Krakoff’s and Tiffany’s essences. “It’s not typical of fine jewellery,” he says. “The objective was to make diamonds in a modern way, not something to put away in a jewellery box or safe and wear once a year. It’s the sort of thing you can wear with a T-shirt, or dressed up. It’s a statement about the attitude of how people want to dress today.”
When Krakoff holds a meeting at Tiffany, he will often put something on a table. A work-inprogress design. A point of inspiration. “If no-one says anything, it’s probably not very desirable,” he explains. “If someone says: ‘Oh, my God, where can I get that? I love that’ you know it’s something. It’s a really intuitive, visceral thing. You can’t look for people to advocate for something being great – it is or it isn’t. There’s no in-between.”
He’s quietly proud that his taste is unpredictable, “because I’m always taking in information and evolving my thinking … everything in a way surprises me, because I try not to have anything I’m sure of until I understand what I’m talking about, because that’s when you get in trouble”, he says. “You need to keep updating, otherwise you end up with a stale business that people don’t get excited about, and you end up being predictable, which is the death of every brand. We can’t expect people to buy something because it says Tiffany.”
Under Krakoff’s watch, Tiffany in 2018 had the song Moon River from Breakfast At Tiffany’s be reworked with A$AP Ferg rapping and actress Elle Fanning, on vocals, dressed in a Tiffany blue hoodie, a Tiffany Paper Flowers tiara sitting askew on her head. Interested parties in said tiara would be disappointed to find out that the jewelled ornament, a one-off piece, was quickly sold. (We can hazard a guess that it passed the meeting test.)
The idea of flowers made out of petals that are remade highlights the craftsmanship of the artisan. “It’s a funny thing about a company that’s big: everything is still made one at a time, in the right way,” he says, his voice faltering with surprise still. His induction into the company saw him taken on a tour of Tiffany’s landmark store on Fifth Avenue, where he was handed a paper coffee emblazoned with Tiffany & Co. and hit upon one of his first designs – aha! A Tiffany coffee cup recast in sterling silver. “I didn’t think I was going to make a paper cup out of silver,” he says. “I was taking all these photos of this paper cup. People are like: ‘Why are you taking pictures of a paper cup?’ And I’m like: ‘No, it’s going to be good!’ I don’t know what everyone else was thinking of me doing that!” he says, chuckling.
The finishing touch of the Paper Flowers collection came from a scene in a recent movie he watched, where a character is surrounded by fireflies – real or imagined. “We had not anticipated this in the collection,” he admits. “It needed something surprising and magical, and this idea of a firefly came up. So we started thinking of this glowing yellow colour and it brought us to the Tiffany diamond.” (The Tiffany diamond, one of the largest yellow diamonds ever found at more than 287 carats, was worn by Audrey Hepburn in publicity photos for Breakfast at Tiffany’s.) It was a late addition to the collection, with the necklace of multiple flowers and a firefly nestled in it as the final touch. “That was when it felt like the collection was finished,” says Krakoff.
For Cameron-James Wilson, his work is far from finished. If Shudu’s Instagram feed is anything to go by – there were 130,000 followers at last count – we’re set to see more of this digital influence in the real fashion world.
“I see the natural development of these avatars to be digital doubles,” predicts Wilson. “Imagine we could scan ourselves and that digital self would never age. We could change our appearance at a click of a button, or become someone different altogether – I think it’s a very exciting space to be a part of and I can’t wait to see how it develops.”
Lee Mathews dress, $649. Tiffany & Co. Paper Flowers Open Flower platinum earrings set with diamonds, $6,650, Cluster platinum pendant set with diamonds, $14,200, Open Flower platinum pendant set with diamonds, $2,950, and Cluster platinum ring set with diamonds, $22,100.