Picture perfect and non-existent: The rise of the digi-models

Last month, a new model popped up on fashion retailer PrettyLittleThing’s website. 

Wearing a cutaway black dress that clung to her size 8 body, she had flawless skin, perfect hair, full lips and a symmetrical face. She was, in short, a picture of perfection.

Looking at the young woman, she didn’t look a hair out of place next to the other models on the site. But the reality is, she is very different from them. 

Called Luna, she’s PLT’s first digital model – yet even when you know that, thanks to the intricacies of CGI, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between her and a ‘real’ woman. 

Luna is the first of the brand’s ‘virtual girls’ who have been introduced to catapult PLT into the metaverse. 

She won’t replace real women, PLT insists. Rather, she is one of a number of AI models that will be manufactured ‘to show different shapes, sizes, and ethnicities’. 

Digital ambassadors are becoming increasingly common on our screens. In 2019 Daisy Paige became the first avatar to sign up with American model agency Lipps LA.

Described as ‘a self-assured, freckled-faced nineteen year old,’ by her creators Spark CGi, her constructed persona raises questions about the fetishisation of youth.

In 2016, Louis Vuitton used Lightning, the hero from the Final Fantasy video games, to model its spring-summer collections. And with 5.8million followers, Lu do Magalu is the most popular digital human on Instagram.

The mononymous Shudu, ‘born’ in 2017, has been described as the world’s ‘first digital supermodel’ by her creator Cameron-James Wilson. But her introduction to the fashion world was ambiguous. When she appeared on Instagram – where she now has 225k followers – she was presented as a real person. Most commentators didn’t know she was computer generated.

Such a rise of digital models has been met with controversy – a headline from the New York Post in 2020 concluded: ‘Sexy robot influencers are taking over Instagram – and coming for your jobs.’

However, digital experts say that the introduction of virtual models is part of a wider move to make fashion both more accessible and sustainable.

Gemma Sheppard, who claims to be the first fashion stylist working in the metaverse, is a big advocate of tech in fashion. She’s been helping the users of kids’ online game Roblox to develop their avatars’ looks, and is working with big brands to create virtual styling services. 

Gemma, of Channel 5’s 10 Years Younger in 10 Days, says digital models ‘liberate’ consumers, as they allow them to move beyond physical constraints. 

‘The metaverse is a hugely creative, all-inclusive space where people can express themselves and become a representation of the type of person that they want to be. 

‘The confidence that people develop in the metaverse has been proven by research to help them better express themselves more authentically in the real world. I’m hoping that as technology and the real world converge, it will help accelerate our ability to accept each other as we are.

‘For brands to connect with this hugely important market and remain relevant they are wisely introducing marketing techniques that this generation relates to. One of these ways is through digital models. This is fashion evolution.’

Gemma says digital models should not be seen as an alternative to physical ones, but that they can work alongside humans. 

‘I don’t think it’s a case of “this” or “that”. Lots of things have changed over the years. When e-commerce first came along, everyone thought it was going to be the end of the High Street but the two have been able to work in conjunction with each other. 

‘One of the incredible things about the metaverse is its inclusivity. It is a social playground of acceptance where we can be versions of whoever we want to be. It’s fashion liberation 2022-style and there’s little wonder we’re seeing this freedom of expression since the pandemic, a time that made us all realise that life is too short to be stuck in one place, mindset or style forever.’

The use of digital models makes the industry more sustainable, Gemma adds, as in the virtual world a designer can make garments look like anything they want without being constrained by the limitations usually imposed by market practicalities.

‘Being able to see how trends fly or flop will help brands better understand stock and help them predict how much of each product they will need so it will be a gamechanger when it comes to product waste,’ she explains

The introduction of ‘virtual fitting rooms’ is also better for the environment, says Chloe Campbell, Art Director at creative agency Digital Natives. They reduce returns and enhance customer experience, she says, adding that digital models help to build collections with realistic measurements and body sizes.

‘AI helps consumers measure their size precisely and the brand adjusts the CGI models accordingly, resulting in them purchasing the correct size of clothing when shopping online,’ Chloe explains.

‘Digital models are being used to sell clothes because the fashion industry needs to change it up. Fashion has a huge impact on the planet from creation to design and distribution. The use of AI is positive from a sustainability point of view, as it reduces shoot locations, and over-production, meaning brands can be more eco-friendly when creating their collections.

‘Featuring products on models of different body types and sizes is a big step in becoming a more inclusive industry.’

However, many disagree. When PLT launched Luna, consumers took to social media to express their disappointment.

One woman told the company on Instagram: ‘Nobody asked for this, it’s so unnecessary.’ Another described it as a ‘massive step back’, while one said: ‘Not only does this take away jobs, but I’ll no longer buy from you if I can’t even see what I’m buying on a real body.’


Another, more to the point, tweet read:  ‘These weird digital robot models on PLT are creepy as…’ 

Consumer Maria Villar admits to feeling conflicted by this latest digital move in the fashion industry. 

She says that while she has welcomed the way in which AI has made the shopping experience more convenient, she feels put off by the use of ‘virtual girls’. 

‘Being able to try on some clothes in a fitting room without taking off any, or ordering online from the fitting room as in the Burberry shop in Regent Street or Mango in Serrano street in Madrid, is helpful,’ explains Maria, a 24-year-old account executive from London. 

You can also try makeup on without really trying in Sephora through their mobile app virtual artist technology.’

But, she adds, AI should be used alongside real people, rather than instead of them, if the industry is to protect jobs in an unstable time. ‘Personally, I don’t like digital models. I like to see real people expressing emotions. They don’t make me want to buy the goods,’ explains Maria. 

‘It makes me ask why [PLT] are using digital models when they can hire a real model. Certainly, it diminishes cost, but why have something digital when we are surrounded by people? Replacing a human model for AI when there are so few opportunities for some of them in the fashion industry means models will be missing out on opportunities and jobs.’

Maria says the use of digital models discourages her from shopping from any brand that uses them, adding: ‘It will create a rather artificial and non-natural aesthetic.’

And if the use of digital models does promote diversity as it claims to, why do they all appear to be slim, able-bodied and impossibly beautiful?

Model Sophie Hughes, who has experienced a lifetime of her own images being edited, filtered and enhanced, says AI promotes unrealistic beauty standards and exacerbates poor self esteem. 

Sophie, who is also a body positivity advocate and influencer, says the use of digital models can be ‘incredibly damaging’. 

‘I was signed as a model at the age of 15, and for years, I saw images of myself that were so highly edited, I barely recognised myself. A whole generation grew up seeing photoshopped images of models that looked realistic and it was so damaging for everyone. 

‘Fortunately, the modelling industry seemed to move away from that and we seemed to be getting somewhere. We saw the rise of natural models, campaigns like Dove using real women and the body positivity movement. But then the next cycle begins and then we have the rise of social media and augmented reality filters, and it’s like we’re back at square one.’

For 31-year-old Sophie, the constant churn of images that looked nothing like her real self, took its toll on her emotional wellbeing: ‘For such a long time, it was – I will be happy when I have lost six pounds. I will be happy when my skin is perfect. I was so associated with my body image. But you get there and you lose six pounds and you’re still not happy and you still pick yourself apart. 

‘For all of my early 20s, I lived in a space of not embracing myself and sitting on the sidelines in my own life because I wasn’t proud of my body and I wasn’t comfortable in my body. I was missing out on so much of my life, all based on not feeling confident in the way I looked and this illusion that one day I was going to get to a space where I felt incredible.’

Sophie is happy and feels more confident about her appearance now. She says: ’I realised that the way I look is the least exciting thing and the least impressive thing about me and I want to encourage other women to feel the same way.’ 

The use of digital models will damage young people’s self esteem, she warns. ‘It’s just not representative. I don’t think it serves anyone because everyone looks at them and feels that they’re not enough.’ 

And on a practical level, how can someone buy real-world products advertised on an imaginary being, Sophie asks. ‘If you’re selling makeup, how can you use something that basically doesn’t have any pores?

‘These models are not diverse. They have perfect flawless skin, while humans have stretch marks, scars, pores and hormonal acne. This is all very circa-2012. I would like to think we have moved on from that.’ 

Carolina Mountford, mental health speaker and writer, warns that the irresponsible use of AI in fashion will fuel eating disorders, body dysmorphia, depression and anxiety among young people. 

She says: ‘The use of enhanced, perfected and digitally created models fills me with utter sorrow. There is already too much imagery out there that young people are exposed to that is filtered, airbrushed and improved. 

‘This impossible version of beauty is just deeply unhelpful to most people. The line between reality and fantasy is becoming increasingly blurred and I worry about the impact this will have on self-conscious and impressionable young people.’

Carolina, who from her teens experienced years of eating disorders, knows how external pressures can exacerbate low self esteem. She argues that if PLT is to target young adults (who are especially vulnerable) for their business, it shouldn’t be promoting images of ‘unachievable beauty’. 

She adds: ‘For those who are on the verge of an eating disorder for example, [images] like this could just be the thing that tips them over the edge. 

‘Social media and fashion companies need to be responsible in how they communicate with the people whose business they want. If they are taking young people’s money, they have a responsibility not to produce these impossible beauty standards. 

‘They want young people’s business, but project images that can ultimately cause them harm. It is a really ruthless and reckless approach to business. I find it very worrisome. 

Images like these will fuel young people’s already extremely high levels of anxiety that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. It will give them even more reason to doubt themselves. I think PLT should demonstrate its integrity by using real, life size models.’

What Pretty Little Things say

A spokesperson for PLT told metro.co.uk: ‘The launch of our first virtual model is PLTs first step into the metaverse. We understand that our Gen-Z customers have a strong interest in the virtual world, and this is not to replace our current existing models that feature across our website. 

‘We will be looking to design more models in our new ‘virtual’ world to show different shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. We have no plans to stop using human models across our e-comm platform. As a brand we pride ourselves on being at the forefront of social media and keeping up with social trends we know our customers are interested in. We have also listed the models’ measurements on our website so our customers can view as a size guide as we do with our regular models.’

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