Fashion has always been laced with an element of fantasy, a faculty designers have been playing on for decades. From Chanel's couture wonderlands to Dior's theatrical circuses, the industry has an unparalleled ability to tap into notions of aspiration and escapism. As we hurtle towards the third decade of the millennium, fashion spans an evermore imaginative playing field, one with its roots in the digital world.
Among the actors and stars on the red carpet at last month's Bafta awards was supermodel Shudu. Dressed in a floor-length yellow gown designed by Swarovski, she was pictured getting ready, posing and rubbing shoulders with the award's presenters. But Shudu's turn on the red carpet had one stark difference from the other A-listers in her pictures: it existed only online, much like her entire being.
Shudu is the world's first digital supermodel. Every part of her face, body and image has been meticulously created using 3D design technology until her maker, Cameron-James Wilson, was satisfied he'd achieved ultimate perfection. But Shudu's virtual existence hasn't stopped her from keeping up with her living, breathing peers. She's been in magazines, fronted high-fashion campaigns, and garnered 159,000 Instagram followers and counting.
"Before I created Shudu, I was a fashion photographer for 10 years, but it never really fulfilled me creatively," says Wilson. "I love storytelling and illustration, and I'm a bit of a geek, but I also love fashion. I looked for a way to combine the two, and Shudu was born."
The avatar was inspired by the Princess of South Africa Barbie doll – Wilson's favourite growing up – as well as supermodels Alek Wek, Naomi Campbell and Iman. While Shudu may be the first of her kind, she is far from the last. The response from all corners of the industry has been so positive that Wilson now runs the world's first digital model agency, The Diigitals, with seven models on its books, and more under development.
The impact of the online world on the fashion industry has been profound. It's changed the way we shop and the way we find inspiration. But the biggest digital developments, it seems, are still to come. Not only are computer-generated models firmly establishing their place in the market, digital clothing is becoming a reality, too.
CLO is one of the platforms turning clothing digital. Specialising in true-to-life 3D garment simulation, the technology allows designers and fashion students to realise their vision without the waste of countless samples. It also helps brands create digital versions of their collections.
"As virtual clothing has become hyperrealistic enough to replace physical garments, its use in multiple facets of the industry is inevitable," says Iris Kim, marketing specialist at CLO 3D. "Not only is it ultra-cost-effective, but it allows for data and information to travel faster than ever by using 3D as a communication tool."
Luxury brands are beginning to embrace a digital way forward and, thanks to a number of high-profile campaigns, digital models wearing virtual clothing are becoming commonplace.
Olivier Rousteing is leading the way at Balmain, following a hugely successful campaign last summer that featured Shudu, as well as Margot and Zhi, two other models created by The Diigitals. "Anyone and everyone is always welcome to join the Balmain army's growing ranks – they need only share our bold spirit of adventure," creative director Rousteing said at the time. "Our new virtual icons, Margot, Shudu and Zhi mirror the beauty, the rock style and the confident power."
Balmain worked with CLO to digitally emulate the label's signature sequinned mini-dresses, which were recreated with the same level of painstaking detail as the real ones, making it almost impossible to tell them apart. There is a difference, of course, between actuality and fantasy, and between natural and unnatural, but in a world where images of models are retouched beyond recognition, where do you draw the line?
"The line is gone," says Kicki Persson, marketing manager at Carlings Sweden, the world's first brand to offer a digital clothing line. Put simply, customers pay for the item they want and send Carlings an image of themselves. The outfit they selected is edited on to the image, which can then be shared on Instagram. "Everything is digitising," Persson explains. "The gaming world is already there, and digital influencers and models exist. Why shouldn't there be a digital clothing collection?"
Naturally, the collection has gone down well with online influencers – both real and virtual – as they continue to "put on" digital outfits in order to stay ahead of the curve. But the designs have a deeper purpose; Carlings created the range in an attempt to help combat the very real environmental threat posed by the fast fashion industry.
"With this project, we want to challenge ourselves and the entire industry to take the next step," says Persson. "Young people love to show and express their creativity in fashion and style online – that's a big part of expressing who they are. But the paradox for today's young people is not wanting to be seen in the same outfit twice, while simultaneously being conscious of the environmental impact of fast fashion. We asked the question: how can we help young people express their creativity online without damaging the environment? This was the result."
The collection, which is priced between $10 and $30 (up to Dh110), consists of jeans, jackets, boiler suits and accessories, with a portion of the proceeds going to the charity WaterAid. "The response has been massive – it has been 95 per cent positive," Persson adds. "The last five per cent of scepticism probably comes from watching too much Black Mirror – impressed, but scared of the future."
However, there is one big elephant in this new digital room. With the fashion industry already under the microscope for its near-impossible beauty standards, doesn't the addition of digital models – designed with perfect features and unattainable proportions – push the bar even higher?
"I feel that clearly labelled 3D models are actually less harmful than non-labelled retouched images," says Wilson. "When you are aware that you're looking at a 3D model, you understand that the whole image is a fantasy, a fictional piece of art. However, when we know something is a photograph, we are less likely to question if it's truly 'real' and more likely to compare ourselves to it."
In fact, Wilson goes so far as to say that by creating his legion of digital models, he's actually come to appreciate imperfections and the character they add to a person. "When retouching a photo, I'm expected to remove most of the things we could consider 'imperfections', but in 3D these natural imperfections are what make an image believable and I've spent hundreds of hours adding them back into my work," he says.
"3D has given me a better appreciation of my own natural flaws and now I look at people's skin and wonder how I can recreate that texture in 3D, rather than wondering how I'd retouch it away. It's much healthier for me."
Whatever your opinion is on digital fashion, people, garments et al, the industry is undeniably changing. And while it is unlikely to replace the look and feel of real clothes on real models, digital no doubt has a starring role in fashion's future. "Fashion has been extremely slow on the uptake," says Wilson. "In comparison to many other industries, where 3D technology is now standard – the fashion industry is stuck in the Dark Ages. As 3D design continues to grow from the core of fashion, such models will be more in demand."
Wilson says that he foresees established models converting their image to 3D, freezing their appearance in time. "They'll be able to shoot unlimited campaigns a day and model for decades, never having to age. Not unless they want to," he adds. "3D fashion design is the single most important step the fashion industry needs to take. I definitely see the light and I'm sure the digital revolution is well on its way."