How virtual influencers could help create a more inclusive fashion industry in the metaverse

This article is part of a cross-brand Digiday Media series that examines how the creator economy has evolved amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Explore the full series here.

As more people in the metaverse create digital versions of themselves, it remains to be seen whether these reimagined worlds will create a more diverse and inclusive fashion industry.

There’s a lot at stake: traditional influencers wield a lot of power. According to a survey by audience survey company Nielsen, 92% of customers say they would trust an influencer more than an advertisement or traditional celebrity endorsement. The same can be said for how influencers affect body image. One only has to look at social media stars like Kim Kardashian to see that the newly desired “slim-thick” body she promotes has had an impact on her followers, causing more dissatisfaction with their bodies as they compare themselves to the social media star.

However, with the fashion and beauty industry reliant on exercise regimes, diets, Photoshop and Facetune, it can seem difficult to discern what is real and what is not when so much work goes behind the scenes into creating an “Instagrammable” look. But what about if those influencers were not real at all?

Cameron James-Wilson, previously a fashion photographer known for his flawless retouching, is well aware that what users see on Instagram may not reflect reality. There are already over 150 virtual influencers in the world according to influencer tracker Virtual Humans, but James-Wilson has made it his mission to make virtual models that reflect real bodies.

James-Wilson, the founder of digital influencer agency The Diigitals, is responsible for creating virtual models like Black model Shudu Gram and Brenn, a plus-size virtual model. Shudu is one of the most recognisable virtual influencers out there, with 228,000 Instagram followers, alongside the other most well known — Lil Miquela (3 million Instagram followers) and Rozy Oh (126,000 Instagram followers), South Korea’s first virtual influencer.

These models were created through a 3D art process that took into account female features, but as with Barbie 30 years ago, their dimensions were out of the ordinary at first. “We actually made some very big changes to Shudu and her body proportions over the past couple of years to make sure that she isn’t setting a negative example or reinforcing any negative beauty ideals. Shudu’s measurements are actually outside of the norm now for fashion and catwalk dimensions,” said James-Wilson. Shudu struts, models high-fashion garments and has been featured in fashion campaigns. But one of James-Wilson’s biggest challenges in creating her  hasn’t been convincing the public about her validity as a model — it’s been her skin color. Computers and graphics are typically programmed with white, male features in mind and Shudu’s dark skin can be difficult to showcase through 3D imaging software and AR programs.

The Diigitals in its mission of inclusivity has just partnered with The Down Syndrome Institute (DSI) to create the first virtual model with Down syndrome called Cami. Ellie Goldstein, who was the face of the Gucci Beauty campaign in 2020 was one of the first models with Down Syndrome to land a major beauty campaign, and the industry has been slowly trying to add visibility to those with disabilities, with adaptive fashion becoming a target for luxury brands. James-Wilson and his agency will be responsible for the imagery that has come from combining the faces of 30 real women with Down syndrome for a realistic representation.

While James-Wilson prefers to keep Shudu out of the activism space, Cami will have a big role as an activist representing DSI. As she will be connected to the DSI, the link seems more natural compared to Shudu, who was meant to be a virtual influencer without an agenda. Cami will still be a typical virtual influencer, doing brand partnerships and loving fashion and make-up, but her presence is supposed to help bring visibility to the group and educate her followers on the topic on social media. “A person isn’t all activism — when you’re creating a character, they have to be well rounded, they have to have their own likes and dislikes. That’s something that we have to consider when building a virtual persona,” said James-Wilson.

Leanne Elliott Young, the co-founder of The Institute of Digital Fashion, a collective focused on bringing diversity and inclusion to the metaverse, has been in the industry for over 15 years and has seen how slowly the industry adapts to new initiatives. By focusing on the metaverse and tech spaces, she hopes that progress is quicker, especially when it comes to diverse and inclusive avatar representation.

She sees that the presence of virtual influencers is vital to fashion’s hermetic environment, as they can reconcile fashion’s past and build a new fashion future with inclusivity and fairer representation in mind. “We want to shift characterisation into representation and believe that IRL x URL should work in unison, not negating the vital importance of the physical space. The metaverse could ultimately set a new standard for representation, self-expression, and inclusivity — and virtual influencers can ultimately take the stage as role models,” she said.

Some of the most important decisions in creating avatar and virtual influencers come from the studios — and Dimension, a London-based volumetric and 3D capture studio that has worked with fashion brands like Balenciaga, knows that this applies to diversity and inclusivity, too. “Virtual influencers present a huge opportunity for fashion brands to improve inclusivity within the industry by giving creative agency to minority groups when creating virtual representations. Increasingly, we will see virtual influencers help to promote inclusivity and celebrate diversity among different groups — doing so in a way that helps fashion brands connect with wider audiences, and develop new story worlds that broaden their reach and represent people from all walks of life,” said co-CEO Simon Windsor.

The virtual plane also attracts a chance for reinvention as well as representation — like Galaxia, virtual influencers do not have to be human. “What’s really exciting about this space is that a virtual influencer can be anyone, real or conceptual, that can believe in anything, with a greater representation of diverse values and identities,” said Windsor.

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