can robots replace models?

They can, and they are. A former model and activist speaks out about the threat these cyborgs pose to the fashion industry.

by Madison Schill
14 October 2016, 3:40pm

Charli Howard and Diana Veras photography Brandon Aviram

Diana Veras, a cutting-edge cool girl taking the industry by storm, arrives at a Brooklyn photo studio wrapped in her ex-boyfriend's jacket with a lot to say. Throughout the day, she utters brilliant, off-the-cuff quips that echo long after they leave her lips, animating every photo taken of her. She's outspoken about Instagram, body standards, and diversity. Hers is the kind of energy that only a truly individual model can create, working in tandem with creatives like photographers, stylists, art directors, and hair and makeup artists. Veras's real-life curves have graced magazine covers, lingerie campaigns, and of course, her own, highly trafficked Instagram page. "I don't want to be curated, I just want to be myself," she says. Unique characters like Diana are in part what make the fashion industry so inspiring. But the push to make fashion hyper-efficient has resulted in a new kind of model, that could not be further from women like Diana: the robot.

Sometime in the not-so-distant future (like, tonight), you may find yourself shopping online. Clicking through winter coats, t-shirts, and velvet party dresses, you may or may not notice that these looks are hugging the body of a digital avatar that resembles a model, but is in no way a living, breathing human. These computer-generated, size-zero renderings of the perfect human form are already being used instead of their IRL counterparts at Neiman Marcus, Gilt Group, and Saks Fifth Avenue, amongst others. And real models, including myself, are pissed. We believe that robots could never replace the artistic, expressive work we do in the fashion industry.

Some tasks are best executed by robots. Amazon, for instance, is known for employing an "army" of robots to work its stockrooms -- sorting and boxing your next Prime delivery. Automated check-out queues and computer-programmed operators make our lives undeniably easier, too. In the near future, roofers and bus drivers may be a thing of the past. But modeling, which requires grace, style, and flexibility (both literal and metaphorical), is not one of those jobs. Brands and their images are deeply shaped by the strong, powerful men and women who serve as muses and models. What would Gianni Versace's universe have looked like without Linda, Naomi, and Cindy? More recently, look at how Shayne Oliver's army of outré wild kids animates and illustrates Hood by Air. Robots simply cannot tug at our hearts, our minds, our wallets, in the same way.

The fashion industry is notorious for its unrealistic expectations of models, with nonstop demands for them to be thinner, quieter, more adaptable. Charli Howard, model and co-founder of diversity initiative All Woman Project, famously spoke out against this discrimination in a Facebook post last year, after she was dropped by her agency for gaining weight. She wrote: "In case you hadn't realised, I am a woman. I am human, I cannot miraculously shave my hip bones down, just to fit into a sample size piece of clothing or to meet 'agency standards'." Given the demands placed on these women (and men) to be ever thinner and more invisible, it was only a matter of time before some companies attempted to cut out the living, breathing model altogether and replace her -- or him -- with a cyborg.

Related: Now a Size 4 Model is Apparently Too Fat to Model

Fashion brands looking to increase their bottom lines and streamline efficiencies have been known to pay models less, by cutting off their faces in final photos and raising the amount of shots per day. This move toward efficiency is especially clear in the growing e-commerce industry, where revenue from US e-commerce sales is projected to hit $684.24 billion by 2020. As the e-comm world is one of fashion's biggest shots at change, visibility, and a global shift in how we see our bodies, it's all the more important that websites use real models -- and diverse, inclusive ones at that.

In recent years, some models have spoken out for a more responsive industry, becoming less invisible in the process. Models like the albino Shaun Ross and Lauren Wasser, who lost her leg to TSS, are important advocates for change both within and beyond the fashion industry. Gigi Hadid, in her latest collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger, even modeled the garments herself for the online shopping crowd, proving further the importance of all-encompassing collaboration when it comes to models and fashion brands. The erasure of human beings involved in the sale of clothing prevents our representation on a global scale. When a wide range of models reflect the general population, they allow those who feel different to see a version of themselves.

Related: How This TSS Survivor is Redefining Beauty

Social media, too, has given models a voice. One need only look at the popularity of Internet-famous supermodels like Kendall Jenner and the Hadids, as well as the more grassroots popularity of figures like Hari Nef and Barbara Ferreira, to see the connection this young generation of stars has with their fans. Young people expect an unfiltered perspective from their icons.

One company to head the model-free movement is Looklet, offering brands three-dimensional scans of real fashion models to be tweaked and transformed into mannequins on set. Using green screen techniques, the shoot requires far fewer people on set, eliminating jobs and input from art directors, artists, photographers, and models. Instead of the quiet hustle and bustle of a typical fashion shoot, the Looklet replacement works in relative isolation. One person can style the "model" and achieve the shot. Though Looklet states their mannequins are exact scans of real fashion models, the models' measurements, upon later research, act as mere suggestions. In the brand's recruitment video, Maria Kruse, Looklet's head of hardware admits "[we've] made some adjustments, because not even the supermodels are perfect." Our question: What makes a scientifically perfected human being appealing or relatable?

The way forward for the fashion industry is to accept and embrace its humanity, from the designers, to the clothing, and to the models that represent it. Charli Howard wrote that social media allows for models to "showcase [themselves] as people...that can only be a good thing." Models, like all of us, have the right to not only a physical platform, but a voice, and permission to be themselves. Once we begin allowing models to have hips, speak out, move freely, we can send the message to young girls that they can do the same. What message do robots send?

Models like Diana Veras, like Charli Howard, Hari Nef, and Iskra Lawrence are beautiful because of, not in spite of, the stories and strangeness they bring to the table. Their lives, weaknesses, and fragilities are exactly what the industry needs. Rather than rejecting humanity through bots with "perfect" dimensions, let's push designers and brands toward a more humanistic, celebratory, collaborative approach.

Madison Schill is a metaphysicist, model, and founder of Mind Over Model.


Text Madison Schill
Photography Brandon Aviram
Make-up Laura Noben

Diana Veras
charli howard
madison schill