As India gets its first virtual model, Ritu Kumar, Prasad Bidapa and others weigh in on the trend
IN EARLY 2016, Nicolas Ghesquiere of Louis Vuitton, launched a Spring campaign that saw fashion entering unfamiliar territory. Lightning, a character from the video game Final Fantasy, was one of the featured ‘models,’ alongside names like Jaden Smith, Rianne Van Rompaey, Jean Campbell, Sarah Brannon, Doona Bae and Fernanda Ly. At the time, Ghesquiere was quoted as saying that the aim was to make the casting include “a global, heroic woman for a world where social networks and communications are now seamlessly woven into our life.” It was new, it was risky, it was the future. The same year, the world was introduced to Miquela Sousa or Lil Miquela through her Instagram page. A virtual character created by Trevor McFedries and Sara DeCou as a marketing tool, Miquela is known for her edgy streetstyle ensembles and has modelled clothes for brands like Prada and Calvin Klein. The next two years would see two more of these much sought-after, digital personalities making their presence felt on social media — Shudu in 2017 and Noonoouri in 2018. The former, conceptualised by British photographer Cameron James Wilson is a woman of colour and has appeared in campaigns by Fenty Beauty and Balmain, while the latter, best described as a virtual influencer, has ‘collaborated’ with Dior, Versace, Emilio Pucci and Fendi.
There are numerous others, like Zhi, Margot (both exclusive to Balmain), Perl and Lil Wavi. The latest to join this group is Nila, created by a Mumbai-based talent management agency called Inega. Nila’s personality and complete avatar is still under wraps. But what we do know of her is that she is perennially 20, is named after the Tamil word for ‘moon’ and that her ‘favourite emotion is love’ because ‘it is huge and composed of all colours and feelings.’ “Digital models have been around, especially in the West, for a while now but we felt that there was a need for them in India. Around September last year, we acquired Prograde, a post production company and we decided to use our resources to design our own character. Nila was conceptualised at the beginning of this year and we are currently in talks with a number of brands for collaborations,” shares Ankit Mehta, CEO of Inega.
Nila was first sketched, sculpted and rendered, and then, her skin was added. Nowhere during any of these stages, did Ankit or his team think about what her features would look like, would they be Indian or non-Indian, would she look convincing in an Indian outfit, decked head to toe in exquisite Kanjeevarams, Benarasis and heavily-embellished lehengas, or more at home in slinky evening gowns and perfectly constructed trousers. “We didn’t approach it from that perspective. We just started the process of sketching her and went with the flow. It was automatic,” he explains. So really, she’s universal and versatile. Though they didn’t have a specific idea of what she should look like, the team designing her kept a few traits in mind. “She believes in fairness, justice and equality, and doesn’t hesitate to stand up for herself, though she is sometimes shy,” reveals Ankit, whose company set up a board for transgender and plus-size models and was the first to represent international models in India. Nila, says Ankit, will follow the same career path as any model and comes with her own set of limitations, just like a real model. Hiring her for a project can be done in two ways — they can render the entire outfit by using samples and swatches of the actual fabric, or they can take photographs of the clothes and place it on her. Like all the digital models before her, Nila predates the outbreak of the pandemic. She was always part of the plan. However, in the world we’re currently living in, these ‘unreal’ characters, might well be the answer. For one, social distancing will certainly not be a concern, and secondly, they can be used to take a stand on pertinent issues without fearing repercussions. For instance, Noonoouri, who has 3,62,000 followers on Instagram has been using her visibility to create awareness about the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Lil Miquela, who has 2.5 million followers has also been vocal about BLM.
According to Irene Augustin, a supermodel from Bengaluru who has worked with designers like Anavila Misra, Gaurav Gupta and Masaba Gupta, there are as many disadvantages as there are advantages. “For the safety of the world, a digital model is a great concept and with all the technology we have in 2020, yes, it’s wonderful that they were able to create them,” says Irene, who is currently working out of Auckland, New Zealand, where she was holidaying when the pandemic broke out, forcing her to stay back after all international flights were grounded. However, she adds, “At a photoshoot, this is what I hear from photographers and designers, ‘Irene the mood board is basically you having the attitude of a tomboy but still looking cute, sexy, fierce, bold, cheerful and also having a very strong face.’ Or, ‘We need your legs to always be parallel to each other and stationary but with your upper body, we require a lot of movement and you need to break your body as the sleeves are beautiful’ and so on. How much of that can actually be replicated by a virtual model?”
For Prasad Bidapa, Bengaluru-based fashion consultant and choreographer, it’s authenticity that’s the main concern. “In the 1930s and 1940s, all magazines resorted to illustrations to grace their covers. And this new concept is sort of like that, only updated for the modern world. But my question is how do you create celebrity around a digital model? How can a virtual model be a showstopper? In the past few weeks, there have been quite a few online fashion shows... I’ve produced one myself... but people are missing the immediacy of live shows. I much prefer live models. Also, the modelling industry already has problems because quite a few jobs have been taken up by Bollywood stars. What’s remaining is not much. Now with digital models, how much more of it will be available?” asks Prasad. House Of Three’s Sounak Sen Barat also has his doubts, though he clarifies that the invention of digital models and influencers was inevitable. Sounak believes that the popularity of Nila and her counterparts depends on the brands, their philosophy and positioning. In a world where entire lives are lived through social media, these computer-generated personalities might help reach a younger audience, but there are many variables. “There is AI available that can track past sell-through reports and analyse what you should make for the future. (The use of) 3D printing is growing by the day, although it will be a while before it becomes mainstream. So having a virtual model was expected. However, whether one can apply this to their business remains a big question mark. There are multiple yardsticks that will help you decide whether it works for you. It depends on your scale, positioning, business model, target market and most importantly, the ‘why’ of your existence,” explains Sounak.
The bigger picture
Legendary designer Ritu Kumar, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013, has a more practical approach to the concept. “With COVID-19, things are moving very rapidly on the virtual stage. Every day there are new solutions for problems, particularly in the fashion world, which has been hit very hard. Buying online has taken precedence over physically visiting stores. Now when that happens, the campaign collections have to be rapidly photographed and uploaded. Considering the current situation, it has become difficult to get so many people together — the photography team, the stylists, the models and other artists. So, Nila is a great solution,” reasons Ritu. Granted, it’s the perfect stop-gap solution, but is it really viable in the long run? “The experiences of making a collection and curating a shoot are left to the way things pan out. I think there will be a place where real shoots do take place and this (virtual models) perhaps will be used more for the digital presence of the brand, but it’s too early to tell,” says Ritu, in conclusion.