NEW YORK, Sept 21 — Welcome to the metaverse! After NFTs, cryptocurrencies and other digital goods, get set for virtual muses, custom-made from their human counterparts. Brands are gradually calling on these next-generation ambassadors, some of whom are now even represented by real-world modelling agencies.

Could you identify with an avatar? The question is worth some thought at a time when virtual ambassadors are poised to take off in a major way. But what is a concept for some, is already a reality for some big fashion brands, as well as certain modelling agencies, which now have departments entirely dedicated to the metaverse. The goal is not to generate avatars by computer — not entirely, anyway — but to create them based on a flesh-and-blood personality from the real world. They are essentially a kind of digital twin that, in theory, should cost much less to brands looking to sign up renowned ambassadors to front their new products.

A dual career in the real and virtual worlds

Photogenics is a modelling agency like many others around the world. Based in Los Angeles, it represents talents like Amanda Steele, Luma Grothe, London Knight, Sedona Legge and Latham Ford. So far, so normal. Except that the agency recently opened a new section called ‘Metaverse,’ featuring a dozen avatars, all modeled on real-world models represented by the company. Thanks to this new phenomenon, the models in question are able to pursue their career beyond the real world, and in all circumstances, as a parallel opportunity or when they’re not physically available.

Many talents have been put to work on this large-scale project, including digital designer Nina Hawkins of Lilium Labs, billed as an avatar incubator. The whole project relies on a host of new technologies, including artificial intelligence, necessary to perfectly reproduce the face and body of each model. As impressive as it is frightening, perhaps. And everything points to this concept having the potential to quickly go mainstream.

“The Photogenics Metaverse Division isn’t just any iteration of what the future holds for the fashion industry in the new Web3; this is one with a beating heart. None of our Avatar talent are purely computer-generated; all Avatars have a voice, a unique style, a direction, and a personality stemming from the real world which will keep these ‘digital twins’ alive and evolving,” reads the Photogenics agency website. Avatarised models include Sedona Legge — whose real-life version recently appeared in the Gucci Love Parade campaign alongside Snoop Dogg — and The Fly Twins, who have worked for Calvin Klein. And this is just the beginning.

A new era

At a time when the majority of consumers around the world have yet to become familiar with the metaverse, this concept of virtual models may seem crazy, but these next-gen muses could well start springing up here, there and everywhere in advertising campaigns. Indeed, Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) reports that the Elite World Group has joined forces with Igoodi, a specialist in the field, to create the virtual versions of its models. And this is major news, considering that the agency counts, among its rank of globally famous talents, the likes of Kendall Jenner, Sara Sampaio, Vittoria Ceretti and Josephine Skriver.

However, the concept is not so new, and virtual models have been around for some time. While the phenomenon is already booming in China, it was in the early 2010s that it really emerged. In 2011, the brand Forever 21 was already experimenting with hologram models. A few years later came the first digital supermodel, Shudu Gram, who now has 236,000 followers on Instagram. Four years ago, it was Olivier Rousteing, artistic director of Balmain, who experimented with a first campaign for the brand fronted by virtual muses. The only difference being that they were not modelled on real-world human models.

Propagating certain stereotypes?

So why are modelling agencies entering this niche? It seems evident that the metaverse represents a financial goldmine for agencies, models and brands, which should be able to make cost savings by using these new digital muses. But according to Photogenics, this isn’t the only reason.

“This division uniquely harnesses the power of career longevity and flexibility for human models through digital art. It is a chance for our industry to evolve,” reads the agency website. In terms of flexibility, this could indeed avoid many models needing to fly several hours to get from one project to another, or to attend castings all over the world, thus reducing their carbon footprints. But when it comes to the longevity of these digital twins, questions are inevitably being raised. These avatars have indeed the particularity of never being sick, always being in shape, and especially, never aging, and — why not — always conforming effortlessly to brands’ requirements in terms of body shape and size. As such, the concept could potentially revive and propagate certain norms and prejudices that some thought were gradually being driven out of fashion. — ETX Studio