Meet Shudu: an undeniably drop dead gorgeous supermodel, with a compelling look that has caught the attention of many global high fashion brands, and is slowly but surely championing diversity in the world of fashion. Born in the home studio of photographer and visual artist, Cameron-James Wilson, Shudu is in fact an expertly created digital being. She was brought to this world by Cameron himself, when he first decided to embark on a new creative project. Coming from a background in fashion photography, Cameron was looking to change his career path, and ended up forming the world’s first all digital modeling agency, The Diigitals. Intrigued by the unbelievably realistic models showcased on their Wix website, we decided to catch up with Cameron-James Wilson to discover more.
Ten years into a successful career in fashion photography, Cameron felt that he wasn’t being fulfilled creatively. “I enjoy so much about fashion,” he explains. “I had so many interests that weren’t captured in photography.” Despite the tough decision and the guilt feelings, Cameron eventually decided to try out something new. He began experimenting with 3D and soon discovered Marvelous Designer, a tool that enables you to design 3D clothes and fabrics. After designing some looks, he needed a model to wear the clothes. “I found Daz 3D and started posting my work online. Fairly quickly, I got 10,000 followers and some really good replies. I felt like I was onto something,” Cameron tells us.
The birth of Shudu
And indeed he was onto something. That was the point at which Cameron began developing the character that would become Shudu – a stunning, 151K follower-strong supermodel and influencer. “I had the idea of creating a dark-skinned woman wearing a gold necklace, inspired by the Ndebele tribe in South Africa,” he recalls. “I envisioned a really opulent image, with an elegant and regal look. Another inspiration was a Barbie doll that I had. When I had finished, I posted the image to my personal Facebook, then a friend posted it on their Instagram account and it went viral. Everyone thought she was a real supermodel, but I had only planned on creating an image, not a character. I was completely taken by surprise. Some friends advised that I should keep people guessing, so I created an Instagram account for her and tried to make her as convincing as possible. As an artist, it was so interesting to hear people discussing my work. But when it got to a point that there wasn’t really a discussion, but rather just people saying how beautiful she was, it stopped being ambiguous and I decided there was no reason to keep it anonymous.” Knowing what we know now, that Shudu is a 3D digital model, only adds more layers of curiosity and intrigue.
It’s not all smooth sailing
After having created a Fenty Beauty inspired image that ended up being reposted by Fenty and going viral, Cameron found himself faced with criticism, raising questions of race and authenticity. “I was so inexperienced and naive. The only intent was to create beautiful imagery. I knew it could get twisted, especially in this controversial climate. Gradually, I learned how to explain myself better and I made sure to change my hashtags so that it would be very clear that Shudu was not real. I wanted to raise awareness of the technology and shed light on the fact that what you see on social media might not be real at all. I think that’s quite profound,” says Cameron.
Collaborating with Balmain: a dream come true
When Balmain reached out to Cameron to create two more models with different ethnicities, he jumped at the opportunity. “Olivier Rousteing [fashion designer and creative director of Balmain] stands for so much when it comes to diversity in fashion,” says Cameron. Speaking of the creation process of Margot and Zhi, the two digital models they developed, Cameron says, “It was very interesting working with other people and understanding their viewpoint of beauty. Some of the things people requested weren’t my ideas of beauty, but I enjoyed challenging my own views and looking at it from a different perspective. I think that everyone should do that a lot more and try to consider things they haven’t considered before. I’m super proud of the work we did and of the final result.”
The creation of the world’s first all digital modeling agency
Following the success with Balmain, Cameron decided to take it one step further and launch The Diigitals – a digital agency for models and collaborating brands. Him and Tom Lockyer, a friend and the graphic designer behind design studio Pixel Flamingo, had been developing an idea for a digital agency for a while. “One day I saw lots of posts on the subject,” says Cameron. “And I felt like we had to get it out before someone else did, so we ended up staying awake for 24 hours to create a website on Wix. As a control freak, I love being able to easily change anything on the site. We went for an extremely simple layout that puts the emphasis on the press. We wanted to inspire and enable people to reach out. Since launching The Diigitals, it’s been great – I get to sit down and think of what new and exciting things to do next.” Applying a very artistic approach to their projects, Cameron sees The Diigitals as a creative agency under the guise of a modeling agency, that also collaborates with tech companies on innovative projects.
The future of the fashion world
Just like any other design field, the world of fashion is finding unique new ways to integrate current day technology. Cameron speaks of the amazing progress that is being made in Artificial Intelligence, 3D projection and holograms: “I’d love to give Shudu AI so that she can engage with fans, as well as create longer animations and perhaps an Augmented Reality app so that people can go on Shudu treasure hunts. I had an idea to do that and give hints on where Shudu is located through her Instagram account. The first people to arrive would receive a surprise. I feel that there’s so much doom and gloom when thinking about the future, which is partly why I want to get people engaged and inspired by the future. I really want to create as much as I can and look at the future with inspired ideas, thinking where it wants to take us.”
Designing with responsibility
Part of looking towards the future involves considering how to create digital models that are more relatable, human and have achievable body standards. From Cameron’s experience, clients lean much more towards this realistic look, especially as getting people to relate to a 3D model is already a challenge in itself. “They don’t have a personality,” says Cameron. “You won’t see them stumbling out of a club – and that’s something we love. We love Rihanna’s attitude. That can sometimes be a benefit and sometimes be a negative.”
When first creating Shudu, Cameron explains that he made her body to be unrealistic. Simply creating his own muse, he had no idea on the impact she would have. Once he’d understood the power of his creations, he started developing an additional model – Brenn. “She’s still idealized, but she represents a lot of the things that I might feel self conscious about,” explains Cameron. “She has stretch marks on her torso, but she makes them look normal and natural and beautiful. She makes me feel better about myself.” With 3D models, the benefit is that the audience is aware of the fact that they’re not real, so in a way, there’s less of a danger that people will compare themselves to them, as opposed to real models that look perfect because they’ve been so retouched.
Perfect natural imperfections
If as a photographer, Cameron spent hours retouching models, removing peach fuzz (in other words, the little hairs on your face), in an attempt to give his real-life models an almost inhuman glory, his work now requires the exact opposite practice. “My years of photography and retouching have given me an idea of what makes someone look real,” says Cameron. “When you go into 3D, you want to add little details, like skin textures, fine lines and wrinkles. I’ve always been taught it’s a no-no, but now I want more of it. Shudu has so many natural imperfections that make her human that I end up having to retouch them away. I wanted to create something so realistic that I’d then have to Photoshop like for a real model. It gives it this fashion look of a retouched image, rather than a 3D image.”
From Tyra Banks, Alicia Keys and Fenty Beauty reposting Shudu’s image, to Naomi Campbell liking his post, Cameron couldn’t be prouder of his achievements. He feels that this project has taken him from a somewhat hopeless and confused place to one in which he feels very lucky. Another collaboration he’s proud of is the one with Ajur Akoi, a model based in Australia. “We got talking through Shudu,” Cameron explains. “She’s been so supportive and I decided to recreate her likeness in 3D, despite the fact that we’ve never met and we live the furthest away from each other that you could possibly live. The image still gets reposted today. It was amazing for her and I was so happy to use my platform to give exposure to such a beautiful human being.”
For Cameron, the whole project is deeply connected to himself and his feelings: “Seeing it sometimes received well and sometimes not so well is amazing. I feel that people often see me as a brand and assume I have an agenda to replace people or real models with digital models. But it’s so much more about the artistry, the innovation, and inspiring the younger generation to think that the future is bright.”