RE­AL­ITY BYTES

All is not as it seems in these im­ages … Wel­come to the world of the dig­i­tal su­per­model.

VOGUE Australia - - CONTENTS - By Zara Wong. Vis­ual artistry by Cameron-James Wil­son.

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.

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