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Fri - 11 Sep 2020

Influencer Marketing Future: How Virtual Influencers Are Changing Fashion

Computer-generated influencers blur the lines between the real and the virtual.

The Computer Generated New Gen Social Influencers

At first glance, Lil Miquela looks like a new gen influencer who is most likely working with top-level brands and companies. However, the “young woman” chosen by Calvin Klein to star alongside top model Bella Hadid in the brand’s 2019 campaign was not an actual human being. The computer-generated beauty is a “CGI” influencer (ed. note: computer-generated imagery), but the photorealistic nature of her appearance meant many people mistook her for being human, which caused quite a stir on social media. As of today, Lil Miquela, has gained a massive digital following since first appearing on social media in 2016 – she has over 2 million followers on Instagram – and is an industry favourite. 

The digital avatar identifies as a “19-year-old Brazilian-American model” and does what every other influencer does on Instagram: in addition to taking selfies in designer clothes, Lil Miquela hosts live sessions with real-life artists, and even promotes her latest music records online. But her reach goes far beyond fashion: on social media, she calls herself as a “change-seeking robot”. Recently, she helped to raise money for a COVID-19 relief fund and supported the Black Lives Matter movement by sharing Instagram posts in which she condemned police brutality and systemic racism. That being said, her Founders, Trevor McFedries and Sarah DeCou, have been repeatedly criticized for promoting Lil Miquela as a social justice activist. Lil Miquela is de facto puppeteered by McFedries’ and DeCou’s L.A.-based start-up named Brud, which is a content creation agency specialized in transmedia and artificial intelligence. Her digital activism is something her many detractors consider to be problematic when seen in tandem with her use as a new gen marketing tool. But this criticism doesn’t hinder Lil Miquela from thriving. In fact, she seems quite unbothered by her critics: “It’s easy for people to just write me off as a gimmick or some kind of commercial object instead of trying to understand me,” she stated on her Instagram account. “It’s not like I’m a toaster, I’m just different. Like you!”

Digital v Physical

Whether you like Lil Miquela or not, does not matter: her success is symptomatic of our fast-changing digital landscape and shows that the union between influencers and the new technology sector has never been more relevant than it is today. With physical fashion weeks and fashion productions being put on hold as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the luxury industry is forced to reinvent itself online — all while tapping into precedents set by digital pioneers. “The global lockdown situation prompted us to look for some new formats,” confirmed Alexander Shumsky, President of Russian Fashion Council and Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia. Together, the two aforementioned organisations launched Global Talents Digital earlier this summer on June 10th. This hybrid online fashion-project combines virtual and human models who presented real designer collections along with the digital ones during a two-day long digital event. The participating designers as well as virtual Instagram celebrities also presented their own digital collections in video presentations, some of them using AR technology and digital avatars. 

Virtual reality enthusiasts further argue that CGI technology is opening up innovative ways for influencers to express themselves and also urges them to think out of the box. When used appropriately, and with an ethical mindset, it could spark interesting conversations around the representation of gender identities in the digital world. In fact, prominent new gen creators, such as the progressive make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench, have proven that virtuality and femininity are a powerful duo. Ffrench’s work explores the metamorphosis of beauty standards and AI-generated make-up in our digital age. The young British creative has been working for a large portfolio of luxury brands, such as Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent Beauty, Junya Watanabe, Christian Louboutin and Burberry, amongst others, and is the Director of Dazed Beauty, a British media that also promotes artists, influencers and models rendered as nonbinary CGI avatars. “My work sometimes draws on surreal image manipulation to redefine the way we see and communicate about beauty,” stated Isamaya Ffrench during a panel talk at Reference Festival, the industry’s first AR and VR tech focused luxury, culture and music festival that took place in 2019 in Berlin. The festival also featured major brands such as Gucci, Comme des Garçons, Alyx, Diesel and Gosha Rubchinskiy who all tapped into the tech-savvy spirit of the event. 

Feminism and CGI Technology

At the same event, the Los Angeles-based fashion-forward label Perfect Number staged an intriguing performative installation that foregrounded the relationship between women, cyberspace and technology. “We were very much inspired by Donna Haraway’s take on cyberfeminism,” explained the brand’s founder Yana Sosnovskaya when asked about her installation named ‘Is she a cyborg or a goddess?’. “We wanted to refer to this idea of women being cyborgs, which is why we’ve created this adaptable feminine statue (ed. note: a 3D-sculpted physical avatar of top model Adesuwa Aighewi) and put it on a pedestal. As people interacted with it, something new came out of it – a new shape and thus a new meaning. In a way, this is also very inspiring for women, because we feel that we can create something positive and creative that comes out of all these expectations and labels that are put onto us.” 

“Tech development becomes unavoidable and unstoppable forcing the radical changes in the very core of human civilization,” stated Anna Osmekhina, the designer behind TTSWTRS, a Ukrainian fashion-forward label worn by celebrities and digital influencers such as Kourtney Kardashian, Sita Abellan, and Tommy Cash. Her latest Fall/Winter 2020/2021 collection named Technological Singularity gives its own interpretation of the future driven by artificial intellect and features a semi-virtual model that explores the realms between IRL and URL. Needless to say, CGI technology is providing opportunities that are as transformational for the influencer and modelling industries as they are challenging and controversial. But will virtual influencers be able to cope with the luxury industry’s battle horses, namely socio-political causes such as inclusivity, diversity, and sustainability? Or will these computerized beauties merely brush the surface of these complex topics with their virtual tricks? Only the future will tell.