Virtual Models are Changing the Scope of the Fashion and Modeling Industry

Credit: Yemi Faleti for Videre Worldwide

Credit: Yemi Faleti for Videre Worldwide

ARI has glowing skin, curly brown hair, pronounced cheekbones and plump lips. Last year, like any other model, she was offered a contract by management company IMG Models. But she isn’t like most models. In fact, she isn’t even human. ARI is an avatar.

Virtual models are real participants in the fashion industry. Last April, the first season of AI Fashion Week took place in New York City. For the event, participants created a collection by using artificial intelligence technology. Virtual models displayed on digital screens wore the outfits and accessories. AI Fashion Week’s second season followed later that winter.

Meanwhile, some major companies are also using virtual models. Victoria’s Secret collaborated with Maison Meta, an AI and New York-based creative studio.

ARI was created by Lior Cole, the founder of AI-backed startup shopARI and a model signed by IMG. The 22-year-old said that ARI is “a fashion version of ChatGPT,” which is a chatbot that responds to a user’s prompt using AI technology, and a “personal shopper.” Cole said by email that she used a range of 3D sculpting and digital imaging software to design the avatar. ARI and Cole bear somewhat of a resemblance to each other because she used her mirror image as a guide, but still molded ARI to have a distinctive look, Cole said. “ARI’s modeling income will be the same breakdown as if I was modeling, with a talent fee and IMG’s agency fee,” she said.

When designing ARI, Cole said that she had two considerations. One was to make her glow, because she wanted to make clear that ARI was an avatar.

“AI is a complement to human beings, not a replacement. So when people interact with my avatar, I want them to know that they’re speaking to AI so that they use it correctly, like they capitalize on the benefits of talking to AI versus an actual person,” she said. “The other design considerations are just that we’re going to model together probably, so I just made her look a little bit like me, like complementary.”

Yemi Faleti is the founder of Videre Worldwide, which offers services ranging from the consultancy on generative AI applications to the creation of AI designs. A post by Boston Consulting Group refers to generative AI as algorithms that can create “seemingly new” images, audio and other forms of content. The post also explains that the technology is able to do this as a result of the so-called training data it was fed, which teaches it how to detect patterns. Faleti participated in both seasons of AI Fashion Week.

Faleti described his first collection and how he created virtual models using the generative AI application Midjourney.

“AI models and avatars are completely made from words, so I used no digitized images as a basis for creating them. I simply type in a written description of what I want the model to look like, and Midjourney puts together the keywords and uses them to generate the avatar for me,” Faleti wrote in an email.

Faleti, who had once worked as a videographer, added that while having design and photography knowledge was useful, not a lot was needed for this process.

But the emergence of generative AI has started to worry those in the modeling and fashion industry. Their worries include — but also goes beyond — virtual models. Last October, the Federal Trade Commission hosted a virtual roundtable discussion about generative AI’s impact on various creative fields. Sara Ziff, who is the executive director of the nonprofit the Model Alliance, was one of the speakers.

Ziff outlined that the Model Alliance had carried out a poll that revealed two concerns. The first one she named was the interaction between a model’s 3D scan and generative AI. “Increasingly, companies are asking models to undergo scans that generate a 3D model of their body or face,” Ziff said, adding that almost 18% of the poll respondents had been asked for one.

She said that those models had little information on what happened with their scans and explained that this was concerning with the emergence of deepfakes, defined by Britannica as “AI-generated synthetic media.”

The second worry Ziff highlighted was about AI models — more specifically about them possibly pushing human models and other industry workers out of jobs. Ziff also relayed the concern about AI models being utilized for diversity and inclusion efforts. She named Shudu as an example of the latter. Shudu is a young, Black, computer-generated model and influencer, recognizable through her signature buzzcut. She has around 240,000 followers on Instagram, and her bio describes her as “the world’s first digital supermodel.” She has worked with several prominent brands and is represented by an agency called The Diigitals. Ziff said that those critical of the avatar considered it “a form of digital blackface,” because the person who built her is white.

The introduction of AI to the modeling industry is new, and some of the potential issues to come are still unknown. Some of those answers could come from a research study conducted by Cornell University’s Worker Institute and The Model Alliance that will examine how those working in fashion are affected by AI.

Some issues that have emerged due to AI’s arrival in the industry were newly included into the Fashion Workers Act bill. This bill defines the responsibilities and “registration requirements” of management companies in New York and would create a safer working environment for models and workers in the industry. The bill now states that the so-called clients and management companies would need to “obtain clear written consent for the creation or use of a model’s digital replica, detailing the scope, purpose, rate of pay, and duration of such use.” They’d also need that same consent to “create, alter, or manipulate” the “digital replica.” The Model Alliance is rallying for this bill to pass into law.

When considering what modeling jobs might be at risk, Cole named e-commerce as an area where AI models could replace humans, due the utility and efficiency of putting an avatar into various outfits on a website.

“The reality is that the fashion industry and modeling industry in general is very much an art form,” Cole said.

Victoria Pousada Kreindler, a model and actress based in New York, said that she does see virtual models “as a threat.”

“But I also haven’t been personally threatened by their existence, especially because these AI models are still adhering to traditional standards of beauty, being 5 [feet], 7 [inches] and taller, 5 [feet], 9 [inches] and taller, being a size 2,” she said. “And so, they haven’t been coming for me because fashion honestly doesn’t accept my body type just yet. I’m short and fat,” she said. “But they are threatening other people.”

Faleti explained that when he entered text prompts into Midjourney to create curvier or plus-sized models, he didn’t receive the same “high-quality results” as he would for skinnier models. He said that the plus-sized models looked “less photorealistic” and more “cartoonish.”

“I think that’s a result of the training data, and it just reflects real world biases because this is an AI, but people are responsible for coding it at the end of the day,” Faleti said.

Despite the current uncertainty in the industry, Cole offered some reassurance.

“It’s very easy to be afraid right now, but there’s a potential to actually just be excited,” Cole said, referencing virtual models. She said that when the camera was invented, painters might have feared for their job. “But then it just created a whole new terrain to create,” Cole said. “So I think the role of the model will shift, like the fashion model, but I don’t think that it’s ever going to go away.”

About the author(s)

Tara Hirszel is a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School.