Designing virtual fashion models: the good, bad and (intentionally) “ugly”

As fashion brands embrace virtual models and influencers, Checkland Kindleysides principal creative Becky Phillips considers the opportunities and pitfalls of the technology.

From GCDS’ digital fashion arcade to Pretty Little Thing, fashion brands are doing what fashion brands do best; embracing the weird, the wonderful and the new. This season that’s virtual models.

Virtual models are computer-generated avatars that are being used by brands in marketing campaigns, on websites, within the metaverse for catwalks, and as influencers. The use of virtual models in brand campaigns and in social is becoming de rigueur (even if their presence often makes you do a double take).

It began with virtual influencers collaborating with well-known fashion houses, but more recently brands are beginning to introduce their own in-house virtual models to help them progress on their digital, socially-led journey.

High fashion house Ralph and Russo featured virtual models in its luxury marketing campaign for its fall winter collection in 20/21 and saw a media impact value of $65.1m (£51m).  Prada launched its own virtual model named Candy as the new face of their perfume in November 2021 – marking the beginning of its digital adventure. The list goes on and on.

I often wonder what the consequences of introducing these pixel-perfect people to the public are. And what do we, as designers, need to take into account before we dive right in?

Ensuring they’re data driven

WGSN has been tracking the rise of synthetic influencers since before 2018. The virtual influencer market was worth $4.6bn (£3.8bn) then, and it’s now set to swell at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 26% by 2025. WGSN also noted the potential for virtual models to be fully driven by data in its recent Cannes Lions debate. Models could be changed in real-time according to the latest data on the customers they’re engaging with, meaning there could be multiple versions of the same influencer at any one time. For example, if a customer changes their hairstyle or becomes pregnant, the virtual model could flex in response, ensuring they always reflect the base and their interests.

Few brands have made this a reality so far, but the potential is clear. Virtual models provide designers and brands with a new kind of opportunity: to create characters that completely embody their brand and everything it stands for. They won’t “outgrow” the brand in the way that living people can. Real influencers change over time; their interests, hobbies and loyalties change. The way in which virtual models change can be controlled.

As people become disillusioned with influencers chasing profit and not caring about the brand they represent, so an avatar/virtual model would inherently be born from the brand and be more like a “creator” – more authentic to the brand in spite of being virtual.

There’s no denying that the use of virtual models opens up huge opportunities for the gamification of immersive virtual fashion, which is already on an upward trajectory with spend set to reach $32bn (£26bn) by 2025.

Use of virtual models allows for limitless creative possibilities when it comes to design. Brands like Balenciaga have already stepped into this space with its autumn/winter 2021 collection released through an interactive online video game Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow.

When it works and when it doesn’t

Yet, as exciting as the design opportunities are, virtual models may not always be a wise choice. In markets that have so far seemed more progressive with use of virtual platforms, virtual models will become commonplace. However, in areas that have less exposure to this world, it has the potential to be more of a culture challenge.

For example, in the digitally-led country of China, virtual models are common and are referred to as “Virtual KOLs” – key opinion leaders. By 2023, China’s virtual KOL market is expected to be worth over £190m.

As well as there being different receptions in different markets, there are also industries in which virtual models just don’t make sense. For example, skincare and beauty products. There has already been an increased backlash to airbrushing and photoshopping over recent years so it’s hard to imagine virtual faces being well received to represent the real. Brand relevance is key and this is why jumping on the latest bandwagon and going virtual for the sake of it isn’t going to wash.

There’s also a distinction to be made between virtual models, such as runway models or fashion representatives, and the increasing prevalence of virtual influencers and brand ambassadors. Both offer brands an opportunity to control their messaging but in different ways.

If imperfections are created by design, are they imperfections at all?

In the physical world – and to appeal to new generations of consumer – we’re embracing authenticity and the use of an ever-rich and diverse mix of models and people. The same should apply in the virtual world.

The reception of these virtual models has been mixed, with some concerned that their introduction will only worsen unrealistic beauty standards and body expectations, particularly for younger people. I’d like to turn this on its head and ask could virtual models create and normalise imperfections? Or if imperfections are created by design, are they imperfections at all?

In the age of TikTok where raw and real content is king, could designers use virtual models as an opportunity to normalise imperfections like acne, rosacea and scarring? If used creatively, virtual models can be designed to represent what society actually looks like, creating opportunities for individuals to see themselves represented in a way that makes them feel good about themselves.

Take Chinese influencer Angie, for instance. Angie is an imperfect virtual personality with acne and grumpy days. She’s amassed over 280,000 followers to date. According to her creator, Angie’s real-life characteristics are part of her appeal.

Brands have a responsibility to be diverse and inclusive, virtual models and avatars can be created to capture different body types and ethnicities, but there have been some well-publicised missteps. Caution should always be taken over potential cultural appropriation in design. Take the model named Shudu Gram and her creator Cameron-James Wilson. She’s amassed over 200,000 followers and been praised for her awe-inspiring beauty, but when she first appeared, it took a while for the news to break that she wasn’t a human model but instead a computer-generated character.

However, British writer Bolu Babalola called Shudu an image “contrived by a white man who has noticed the ‘movement’ of dark-skinned women,” and others have accused him of racial expropriation.

On the flipside, a brand doesn’t actually need to create a model that is lifelike. Why not give designers free rein to create something more alien or otherworldly that still has a strong brand connection and aesthetic? It’s proven that you can equally create a community through these characters.

A chance to wipe the slate clean

Designers should embrace modern technologies and the fantastic creative opportunities that they bring, but they should also be wary of the social and ethical challenges that these virtual models bring to an industry already criticised by the public for unrealistic beauty expectations and limited diversity. I hope this is a chance to reset and think differently, to introduce and embrace a new way to design and create virtual models who can connect with audiences across the digital and physical world.