From digital art project to in-demand influencer, this avatar created by British photographer Cameron James Wilson is spearheading the 3D fashion revolution
Words Hannah Kane
Photographer Liam Arthur
Creator Cameron James Wilson
Online Fashion Director Charlotte Holt
Makeup Nicky Weir
Special thanks to Original Floristry
Shudu has the body of a goddess, impossibly tall and lean, with glowing ebony skin. She wears her hair in a short, natural afro style and appears confident but approachable. As an influencer she has 177,000 followers on Instagram and counting, recently shot a campaign with global sports brand Ellesse, has worked with high-end fashion house Balmain, and walked the red carpet at the BAFTA Awards in a partnership with EE.
Shudu is also not a real person. She’s the creation of photographer and retoucher Cameron James Wilson, a long time PHOENIX collaborator, whose personal side project has now taken on a life of its own, literally. He never set out to create an avatar influencer. “I wanted to create a piece of art, starting from a portrait of a beautiful woman. I was just in that kind of creative hub, locked away in my room, just being creative, being experimental.” Using 3D modelling software such as Daz3D, Photoshop, and garment simulation software Clo3D, Shudu was inspired by iconic black models Naomi Campbell, Alex Wek and Iman – “those incredible models that I absolutely adored,” he says. Wilson imagines Shudu to come from the Ndebele nation in South Africa, though some people think she looks South Sudanese.
There are two ways Wilson can create images of Shudu. The first is fully 3D – but here he says the problem is that many fashion designers don’t have 3D computer generated versions of their garments, so to dress the model effectively you need to shoot on a real model and then merge the images together. “It makes Shudu probably one of the most ‘collaborative’ models. A combination of lots of people rather than just one. I find that really, really interesting,” Wilson explains. “The models convey some of their personality to your character, almost like someone playing a character in a film.”
Wilson has a small roster of “muses” he uses to act as a stand in, including Jamaican model Misty Bailey who is signed to D1 Models in London. Bailey originally discovered Shudu on Instagram, “I was like: ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ At first, I obviously thought she was a real person, but then I realised that this is digital. I posted a picture of myself wearing swimwear from a shoot I did, and Cameron commented saying something like ‘Oh, you look so much like Shudu!’ I was flattered. Then we started talking about doing projects together, but we actually started collaborating a year after. We did that campaign for Ellesse and then the BAFTA Awards.”
“I feel like this digital model concept is creating more opportunities for black models”
Wilson loves what the real women bring to his fictional character. “Working with models like Misty, the way that she poses, I then portray Shudu in exactly the same way,” he says. “I match the light and blend further, and you get this incredible fusion of the two, which I really love.”
In the world of social media, the potential for offence is great. Commentators online question whether Cameron, as a white male, should be creating an idealised black woman. Bailey is unconvinced of this line of thinking. “I think that’s a bit racist to be honest, because how can you tell someone what colour or race they should create? I don’t think it makes any sense. I believe they are racist with that.” It doesn’t bother her then? “No! It doesn’t. Because there are photographers working with black models, designers working with black models, that are not black. Why should there be any difference?”
For Bailey it has genuinely created work. “I feel like this digital model concept is creating more opportunities for black models,” she says. “Some people might look at it like: ‘Ok, digital models taking over our jobs’. But it’s not so because it’s actually a real model doing the job, and then obviously the digital form.” When working with brands Bailey gets paid the proper commercial rates. “God, if it wasn’t for Shudu, I am forever grateful for that,” says Bailey. “And they have decided to use my image as well, instead of just the digital form. Which is really cool because you have never seen anything like that before. That’s something different, and I’m on board with it.”
Some people argue that Shudu’s exaggerated proportions perpetrate an unrealistic ideal of beauty. Wilson says he makes no pretence about the fact she’s fiction, and cites Barbie as a reference. “I am very honest with that, and I think if you’re open and transparent with where you have got your references from I think it’s totally fine.” Misty, who isn’t particularly tall for a model at 5’9’’, agrees. “Some models actually look like that. Some models are 6 feet tall and over. They do exist!” Wilson agrees, revealing Shudu is between 5’11” and 6’2”.
For Wilson, the process has been counterintuitive to his work as a professional retoucher, whose job it was to remove flaws from real model’s skin. He explains, “for me, the retouching has been so much healthier, I’m adding imperfections rather than taking them away. With photography and retouch, I have to take bits away – fine lines, pores, stuff like that. But with CGI models I end up adding them back in!” Human flaws stop the character from appearing unnervingly robot like.
Wilson’s newly launched digital model agency The Diigitals also ‘represents’ ethereal, elfin Dagny, plus-sized model Brenn, Shudu’s sculpted partner Koffi, Balmain models Margot and Zhi, and shapeshifting alien Galaxia, a feat of the imagination who is currently on the back burner until Wilson has time to develop a whole world around her / it.
Wilson is not the first to create digital avatars. Insta-famous 19-year-old music star and “robot” Lil Miquela has 1.6m followers and has a full back story as an American-Brazilian living in California who identifies as gay. Indeed, in May this year when supermodel Bella Hadid kissed Lil Miquela in a brand film for Calvin Klein, most public outrage focused on heterosexual Hadid pretending to be a lesbian, never mind that the object of her affections was completely fake. In June 2018 Lil Miquela was named one of TIME Magazine’s 25 Most Influential People on the Internet, in the company of Kanye West, President Trump, and Rihanna.
It’s a brave new world, one that’s experienced in 3D. “Fashion is going through a 3D revolution, like when photography went digital or when the film industry moved from special effects to CGI,” explains Wilson. “The design process for fashion is extremely long when developing new items, or garments – you have to make a sample of the item, it needs to be approved, you have to create physical samples, and that can take absolutely months to happen. But with the use of 3D programs, like Clo3D, you can cut out weeks. You can make changes in a couple of hours.” It’s a more sustainable method of garment production. “There is no waste of fabric because you’re not actually producing the garment. It’s definitely going to be something that in the future every single company will adopt. Right now, we’re at the very beginning of this revolution.”
The next step? Fashion companies will want to showcase their 3D designs. “That’s the future, and they will obviously need 3D avatars to do so. That is where I come in the revolution,” says Wilson. “It basically means that the consumer, when they buy an item, they’re most likely looking at a 3D image, so what they get is an exact version of that. Not much will change, but it will be massively sustainable.” CGI is already being used to sell you things, and you probably haven’t even noticed. IKEA catalogues, and car adverts, for example. “If you look at the automotive industry when you buy a car, that is generally an avatar in CGI, Wilson explains. “But most of us don’t really care about that, because the car is exactly like the advert.” Companies prefer CGI models as they can control the light and environment more accurately.
On the other hand, Wison doesn’t think that consumers will want an all-digital model shopping experience, and his models will “stay as something used now and then.” He believes digital models “work well for social media, if you want to find engagement and inspiration. I think that digital models offer a look into the future: they are sensationalised right now.”
Every day, a staggering 95 million images are uploaded to Instagram, and every day it becomes harder to create truly memorable images. Digital models tap into the inherent human appreciation for art and imagination, and where there’s viral content there’s commercial potential. Unlike artificial intelligence, which potentially has the power to deliberately extinguish humanity out of precautionary self-preservation, or some unfathomable motive, these aesthetic avatars are at our service. The revolution has begun.