Will the next influencer you hire be digital?
She’s got style. She’s got grace. She’s a virtual influencer.
Brainchild of former fashion photographer Cameron Wilson, Shudu is known as the world’s first virtual supermodel.
With her flawless skin, striking eyes, and the resemblance of a 20-something-year-old, she’s the source of admiration—and also of great debate.
Opinions are forming rapidly on both sides of the divide regarding the real value and danger of CGI creations, especially as the responsibility of influencers overall is coming into question. Are virtual—and moreover AI—influencers the hope of tomorrow? Or are they, as several blockbuster films seem to warn us, risky business?
We chatted with Wilson and corresponded with a few virtual influencers to get their thoughts. Here’s the latest on digital influencers, and what they could mean for business moving forward.
Fashion’s impact on the evolution of virtual models
In 2023 we find ourselves in an era where virtual influencers like Shudu have amassed enormous followings.
It's estimated that there are more than 200 active virtual influencers today, and brands like Dior and Prada are already jumping at the bit. LVMH introduced Livi as its ‘new face of innovation,’ while NARS rolled out its ‘Power Players’, metahumans Maxine, Chelsea, and Sissi, last year.
Shudu herself has been commissioned by Louis Vuitton, Cosmopolitan, and Lexus (among others).
She’s also one of several models that Wilson’s all digital modeling agency, The Diigitals, represents.
“At first [a digital influencer] was kind of a sensational thing,” Wilson says. “But now, with all the developments that have gone on with the metaverse, digital fashion, NFTs, and digital collectives, brands are much better educated. They usually approach us with a detailed brief and a project now.”
It stands to reason that CGI influencers are not so much a passing eCommerce tech trend, but a symbol of changing times. That change began long before the first virtual influencer, according to Wilson.
“There was this huge shift taking place [pre-metaverse times],” he says. “Fashion was moving more toward using 3D programs to design their collections…which allows them to sample a garment without actually having to make it.”
“This was a move towards more sustainable design,” Wilson adds, noting that a typical photoshoot for an eCommerce brand may involve 200 to 300 garments. Each garment requires development, transportation, and tailoring—just for the photoshoot alone. Meanwhile, virtual models open up the possibility of advertising a collection without ever needing physical garments.
“What I was creating [at the time] was almost two steps further down the line. We were creating campaigns and editorial imagery using 3D design, so we were showcasing the potential of where this shift could take us.”
Early and persisting fears
Not everyone was on board with this digital revolution. Even now, the move towards 3D modeling has many questioning whether digital influencers are truly creative masterpieces or provocateurs of dangerous beauty standards and racial stereotypes.
Some concerns are further sparked by modern-day AI technology, which sets the stage for CGI beings that can think, speak, and act for themselves.
It wasn’t too long ago that AI rapper FN Meka was dropped by Capital Records for using racial slurs and appropriative behaviors. Shudu herself—though not an invention of AI—received backlash from critics, raising concerns about racial stereotypes and who ultimately benefits from her success.
Both are cautionary tales of the murkiness of this emerging industry. Virtual and AI influencers still leave many questions unanswered: Who really profits, the creator or community behind the influencer? In cases where artificial intelligence does the scripting, who should be held accountable? What legal frameworks need implementing to reconcile the brave new world that these technologies represent with the very real, very ugly side of unchecked AI?
The human nature of virtual influencers
Depending on who you ask, the “human” aspect of these fictitious characters is either one of wonder or concern.
On one side, you have the argument that virtual and AI influencers rob real models of jobs.
“Companies get to say they ran Black content without having to work with or hire Black people,” argues author Vanessa Angélica Villarreal on Twitter.
On the other end, you have those arguing that such influencers are helping to dismantle stereotypes and create more opportunities for the communities they represent.
“[AI technology] does have the potential to have a negative impact,” says Wilson. “[But] I think that the way we manage this technology could actually change it from being negative to positive, and create new roles and new jobs.”
Consider virtual influencer Kami, who is the embodiment of 100 real women with Down syndrome from 16 different countries.
“A real human makes decisions for themselves, but a virtual human has other people controlling them,” Kami tells Wix. “The people controlling the virtual human have to be responsible that they are authentic to the character and include the communities she/he/they represent. That's why I have a team of real women with Down syndrome helping to decide what I do and say.”
She adds: “Every time I get a job, a real woman with Down syndrome is paid to help with the project. So, when my career grows, theirs grows, too.”
In November, Kami made history as the first model with a disability to walk the virtual runway at Brazil Immersive Fashion Week. Her message to the world: “I want people with Down syndrome to be represented in places they never were before. In gaming, the metaverse, virtual fashion shows, everywhere!”
Similarly, Shudu is supported by human “muses” who stand in for her in photoshoots, video campaigns, and interviews to bring the team’s collective vision for Shudu to life.
“Storytelling is at the core of what I do and who I am and so we are constantly thinking about the narratives we tell through the projects and brands we work with,” Shudu says. “I want to create a safe space for the more challenging conversations that face the industries that I’m a part of and provide a platform for the voices that need to be shared.”
While thus far most virtual and AI influencers have debuted as new identities, this new generation of influencers represents another revolutionary idea: that human models could live in digital form forever. Think: Burberry’s 2020 TB Summer Monogram campaign with a virtual Kendall Jenner. Or, the CGI of Justin Bieber sponsored by Amazon.
“Once you are digitized, you are immortalized,” says Wilson.
Some of the biggest icons can expand their careers without limit. They can work without aging (or even age backwards). They can work within any medium, language, or environment.
Beyond this, “AI and digital influencers could be valid for almost every industry possible,” says Moran Kadussi, content strategy lead at Wix. “They could represent startups, gaming, automotive, and leisure and wellness. Imagine, for example, a virtual model who travels the world and represents an online travel marketplace, or a virtual trainer who encourages you to do your pushups every day.”
Digital influencers’ impact on social commerce is indisputable, especially when it comes to attracting the Gen Z consumer. Over half of Gen Z social media users say they plan to get fashion or beauty inspiration from digital avatars or influencers in 2023, according to an Instagram Trend Report.
"Once we have Gen Alphas ruling the world, AI influencers will be so much bigger,” Kadussi further points out. “I’m not sure everybody understands what possibilities can be reached with AI.”
Currently, digital influencers are still somewhat of an enigma, with a relatively small number of creators and brands taking part. But, 3D animation is wide open territory. It can be learned. It can be tested. It can be improved upon.
As Shudu reminds us, “As you and your understanding of technology continue to advance and change, so will I…I’m ageless and timeless.”
“The only limits I have are the ones you create in your mind.”
Editor, Wix for eCommerce
Allison is the editor for the Wix eCommerce blog, with several years of experience reporting on eCommerce news, strategies, and founder stories.