What we can learn from the creation of digital supermodel Shudu

07 : 03 : 2018 Technology : Beauty : Fashion
Digital supermodel Shudu Gram Digital supermodel Shudu Gram

Technology is being pioneered by a small group of white males, rather than reflecting the diversity of society at large. While Wilson’s project can certainly be criticised, it has at least inadvertently served to highlight this point.

Rhiannon McGregor, Foresight writer, LS:N Global

Rihanna’s beauty brand, Fenty Beauty, recently sparked an online furore with its re-posting of model Shudu wearing its Saw-C lipsticks. With more than 216,000 likes, the image of the striking, dark-skinned woman wearing a zingy shade of orange attracted significantly more likes than the average 50,000 likes typically received by the brand. The image doesn’t look out of place on Fenty’s feed, a brand known for its extensive range of foundations and concealers created for ‘traditionally hard-to-match skin tones’, but if you click on Shudu’s own Instagram page it immediately becomes apparent what sets her apart from the rest of the models featured. ‘Shudu Gram – World’s First Digital Supermodel’ states the avatar’s Instagram biography.

Created by celebrity photographer Cameron-James Wilson, Shudu has provoked an online backlash, as Twitter users slammed Wilson’s decision to create a black female computer-generated avatar at a time when the lack of diversity in the fashion industry is such a pertinent topic. In autumn 2017, across the four global fashion hubs – New York, London, Paris and Milan – only 28% of the female models cast for the runways were women of colour, while 72% were white (source: The Fashion Spot). While this figure is an improvement on spring 2017, when only 25% of models on the runways were non-white, it is still shockingly low.

In light of this, many have argued that Shudu is particularly problematic, as she fails to proactively promote change, while also opening up the potential for real black models to lose out on jobs to a CGI-avatar. ‘She is not a real model unfortunately, but she represents a lot of the real models of today,’ says Wilson, who believes that being made in the image of many real-life black models – such as Lupita Nyong’o, Duckie Thot and Nykhor Paul – positions Shudu as an advocate for diversity in the fashion industry. But without a black female designer behind her how can she represent anything more than a fetishisation of the black modelling industry?

Shudu is particularly problematic, as she fails to proactively promote change, while also opening up the potential for real black models to lose out on jobs to a CGI-avatar.

In fact, the design industry is similarly shocking when it comes to ethnic diversity. In a recent survey by the professional association for design (AIGA), of 9,602 designers, 73% of respondents were white, 7% were Hispanic, 8% were Asian, and 3% were African-American. In our forthcoming macrotrend, Morality Recoded, we examine how it has become appallingly apparent that technology is being pioneered by a small group of white males, rather than reflecting the diversity of society at large. While Wilson’s project can certainly be criticised, it has at least inadvertently served to highlight this point. ‘The 3D world is sorely lacking ethnic diversity and black characters and assets are particularly rare,’ he says.

‘There is a push to shift this, and with the advancement of technology and 3D industries, we can expect a change. But it’s one thing that Shudu is contributing to in her own way. It wasn’t something intentional from the start, but now I’m very interested in helping to create the resources needed for game developers and 3D designers to make more diverse characters’. As the technology used to create avatars continues to develop, creating more life-like digital iterations of ourselves than ever before, brands need to ensure that they are just that – a true reflection of who we are as a society – rather than merely a fetishised version of diversity.

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