Im­ma­te­rial Girls

Way be­yond fil­ters and Face­tune, meet the vir­tual in­flu­encers and CGI su­per­mod­els rul­ing fash­ion’s dig­i­tal fron­tier. By Divya Bala

Harper's Bazaar (Singapore) - - CONTENTS -

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)

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