Way beyond filters and Facetune, meet the virtual influencers and CGI supermodels ruling fashion’s digital frontier. By Divya Bala
Asac hild,Ih ada n imaginary friend. I named her Neri after the Ocean Girl character. She would tell me about the flickering, confectionery hues of the coral, the clicks and coos of the dolphins and the salty depths—it was a world I knew only through her. In older years, my interest in the fanciful began to dovetail with that of the wider cultural landscape. Fight Club’s Tyler Durden; Gorillaz and their cartoon counterparts; James Cameron’s Avatar; the robot hosts in Westworld; and “friendships” with Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. It seems many of us fantasise on some level about the alternative possibilities of our identities.We Facetune, we filter; there’s nary an image we see that isn’t in some way edited. Isn’t it understandable then, that the next step is visuals that are unabashedly virtual?
Take Miquela Sousa, aka Lil Miquela, a 19-year-old Brazilian-American slashie with over 1.3 million followers (@LilMiquela). She appears on magazine covers, in Instagram takeovers for luxury brands such as Prada, “collaborates” on a line of a clothing, has three singles on Spotify and iTunes, and an enviable wardrobe of the latest Chanel and Vetements. Between hanging out at hip real-life eateries such as Cu ties in East Hollywood, she champions social equality and advocates for transgender rights.You could be forgiven for scrolling straight past her photos, dismissing them as those of just another influencer, but a moment’s study reveals skin that refracts light ever so slightly oddly, features that are a little too smooth, eyes that are a little too glassy. In truth, she is the digital construct of Brud, an L.A.-based startup specialising in artificial intelligence and robots, the team also behind her “friend” and fellow CGI influencer Ronnie Blawko (@blawko22), a moody yet inexplicably stylish male “robot” with a following of 132k and counting. (Despite rumours to the contrary, Burd denies creating Bermuda—@BermudaIsBae—a virtual Trump-supporting frenemy of Miquela’s who once hacked her account.)
In an email “interview” with Miquela mediated by her agents, she mused to BAZAAR on her wide reach as a virtual influencer.“I’m out to inspire anyone who thinks they don’t quite fit in. I felt like an outcast for so long and I couldn’t find my place, but I’ve experienced an overwhelming amount of acceptance, which gives me hope for the next waves of artists and creators.” When asked why she thinks the digital self is seemingly more important today than the physical, she prickled. “Ummm, who said I thought that? I encourage everyone to get their paper.”Whether through prestigious editorial featuring actual shoppable designer clothing or product placement from brands seeking to reach her many followers, it’s clear that Miquela is making bank.
And fashion has history with virtual models: Louis Vuitton dressed the Sailor Moon-esque Hatsune Miku, an anime pop star, for an opera and featured Lightning of the Final Fantasy gaming series in its spring/ summer 2016 campaign as the brand explored “the infinite possibilities of the virtual world”. It was through working with forward-thinking luxury houses such as this that Artistic Director Joerg Zuber of global design and branding agency Opium was inspired to create his own avatar. Far from Miquela’s augmented realism or even his own physicality as a Caucasian male, Zuber’s creation, Noonoouri, stands at 150cm tall, with huge doll-like eyes and an oversized, cartoonish head.“I had long been thinking of this digital character who discovered the world of beauty and fashion and who was fascinated by that world,” Zuber explains with a truly childlike enthusiasm. “Similar to when I was a young boy myself.”
Zuber’s excitement has caught the attention of power followers such as Carine Roitfeld (who was one of his first), Alexandre Vauthier, Giambattista Valli and Naomi Campbell (who personally messaged Noonoouri, inviting her to her Fashion for Relief fundraising event in Cannes earlier this year).The way it works is, Zuber attends, plays the game with PRs who ask him eagerly,“Is Noonoouri here?”, to which he responds with something like, “Yes, I believe I’ve seen her around”, and 24 hours later, there’s our girl on the catwalk at Chanel cruise doing an Insta takeover for Dior or speeding away in a Fiat in Florence.
Cameron-James Wilson is the photographer behind what he refers to as the “world’s first digital supermodel”, a venture he says was born of artistic expression. His creation: Shudu, an avatar modelled on Princess of South Africa Barbie and the women who inspire Wilson in real life, such as Iman, Grace Jones and Alek Wek. The problematic nature of a white guy potentially profiting from the aesthetic of a woman of colour has not passed without controversy. Wilson acknowledged this, explaining that Shudu began as an art piece celebrating the g rowing presence of women of colour in the fashion industry and that he never expected or planned for the level of exposure Shudu’s 135k+ followers have brought him. But the thing that surprised him the most? “She’s genuinely loved by people,” he says.“To have your work loved… It’s very emotional for me to think about. I never thought she could matter so much to people”.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Zuber on having access to worlds he otherwise might never have. “People like Maria Grazia Chiuri or Giambattista Valli tell me they love her. Naomi Campbell would have never talked to me! I was so flattered, I was almost crying. Because, for me, it was a personality that was in my head for seven years, and people like this knowing and loving her? It really touched my heart,” he said.
Wilson muses that his ability to transcend boundaries may ultimately lead to a complete democratisation of identity, a blurring of all boundaries—age, race, gender, geography, socioeconomic status, everything. He suggests that in the not too distant future, our digital selves will perhaps even surpass our physical selves. “I love this idea because in 3-D we can be anyone,” he says. “We can leave behind all the labels we’re born with and create our own.” ■
“[Shudu] is genuinely loved by people. To have your work loved... It’s very emotional for me to think about.” — Cameron-James Wilson
Noonoouri in a Balmain outfit. OPPOSITE (Clockwise from top left): Shudu wearing makeup inspired by YSL Beauty. An up-close portrait of Miquela. Miquela with her signature double buns. Noonoouri in a Versace outfit. Shudu in a look called “Flamingo”. Miquela with fellow digital influencers Bermuda (left) and Blawko (middle)