Models and Machines: Why we're facing the biggest industry turning point yet

Our world is changing. We have, for decades, looked to models as the pinnacle of the unattainable - equating success with the surreal, pairing bone with beauty and championing one race (however unintentional, it’s definitely a thing) over another with selective casting, editing and branding decisions. Attempts to define the “ultimate in beauty” began at the top of the corporate pyramid, with executives operating under the assumption that what consumers wanted to see was one kind of body, one kind of look, one kind of image for customers to measure themselves by.

Until, of course, the millennial consumer spoke up.

Over the past several years, we’ve experienced a slow-burn of change unprecedented in our industry, as comments, likes and followers dictate where we put our wallets, mouths and, consequently, brands invest their dollars. Magazines - like ours, Teen Vogue, or Refinery29’s latest 67% initiative - are also restructuring, championing the beauty inherent in all woman and not just the fabricated ideal. Fashion models - those who once succumbed to being moulded, sculpted and chiseled into impossibly sustainable shapes - are collectively speaking up, revealing that all of us, period, are better off when we give ourselves the permission to embrace, share and love the beauty that appears when we stop hiding, altering, and apologizing for who we are.

When it comes to our industry, it’s clear we’re in the midst of a runway renaissance. Designer Christian Siriano represented all of us in his latest New York fashion show, model Diana Veras is crossing seamlessly from commercial to editorial collaborations - a feat unheard of for most models - and modelling agencies are providing options for their girls, creating divisions that cater to a climate celebrating the person over the physique. “When I get in front of the camera it feels like a relief, to just express myself even if it's only for a couple of hours,” notes Veras, on set here with photographer Brandon Aviram. She’s signed to JAG model management, an agency that sprang to existence on the cusp of this body breakthrough - it’s the first of its kind to be unbound to size. “I hope that when people see pictures of me they see more than just a pretty girl, I hope they feel something,” follows Diana, speaking on set, speckled with rain. “I don’t want to be curated, I just want to be myself, and I’m getting work and it’s working.”

I don’t want to be curated, I just want to be myself, and I’m getting work and it’s working.
— Diana Veras

Things are looking up, as years of once-ignored demands for real over rigidity are slowly bearing fruit. We’re beginning to see a mosaic of models take the industry to new heights, with shapes, stories and skin colors that more accurately reflect the vivid country in which we live. We have a ways to go - but as power begins sliding to the people (literally, it’s in the palm of our hands), girls like Diana Veras, Charli Howard and Iskra Lawrence aren’t going anywhere, anytime soon. “Technology’s not only allowed me to have a voice, but it’s also connected me to like minded people hoping to change the way we view fashion,” notes Charli, model and co-founder of model-packed ultra squad, All Woman Project.

One crack that could take this progress away from us, however, lies in the removal of models entirely. At a time when models are turning a mirror onto us and revolutionizing the way we see our bodies, companies are replacing real-life fashion models with digitally-altered scans of the “ideal” human being. This may sound eerily next-gen, but it’s happening now - many brands you know are cutting corners to remove human beings from online shopping sites (what’s known in the industry as “e-commerce”), threatening the loss of our favourite models, makeup artists, photographers and art directors from having a say in what you see online.

Why is this scary? For the consumer, there’s a few reasons to freak. So far, brands haven’t notified us that they’re replacing real models with fake ones - so as you browse online through thousands of tanks, tees and tunics, the “perfect” body you’re gazing at won’t only be one-size-fits-all (a major regression from the diversity we’re seeing now); it won’t even be human. Looklet, one of the companies to head the charge in this model-free movement, says it even further alters the measurements of the straight-size models they scan for their 3D mannequin moulds, ‘cause “not even the supermodels are perfect.” What this means, according to brands adopting these model surrogates, is that for an item of clothing to look good online, it must be displayed on a body that doesn’t even exist. (Cue Zoolander impression; “what is this? A sweater for ants?”)

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“I think it's really important for there to be a deeper and stronger connection between the world and the fashion industry in the form of representation,” says Olivia Anakwe, model, former ballet dancer and one of Glossier’s freshest faces. “Fashion is empowering and connected to identity, so diversity of all ages, sizes, and colors is what makes the opportunity for connection possible.” Olivia’s springy, soulful manner emerged in every photo we took of her; there was a pop present in her eyes that no robot, no matter how advanced, could duplicate. It’s like that je ne sais quoi you feel upon visiting Paris for the first time, only to find it vanish when you return home and desperately try to recreate it with a french film. When it comes to human beings, it’s simple - there’s no way we can copy the real deal.

How does this work? Under the Looklet model, the company creates green, full-size mannequins from the altered measurements of real models, who come in for a one-time scan before losing their job entirely (E-commerce work is notorious for being the bread and butter of most industry artists, so to lose these opportunities is to lose the flexibility that keeps fashion so creative). In the studio, typically one stylist is present - eradicating work for makeup artists, photographers, art directors, and models. The stylist places clothes to be shot that day on the mannequin, shoots the images, and does all else expected of a five-person team, solo. The clothing captured is then input into a software, where a limited selection of photographed faces, hand positions and legs can be interchanged to give the “model” a human feel.

"Even though e-com can be uniform, there's a joy in being able to point to an arm or a chin and being able to say, hey, it's me!" Says Vitalisa, a former straight-size model who is now working successfully as a plus-size model, after embracing her body’s own beauty. "With looklet, there's no deviation, however small. In those small moments, there's something precious and human, even when shopping for a shirt."

“I think that with every industry, the threat of change is always there, the uncertainty in general,” notes Madison Leyes, a model who first burst onto the scene with a stomp in Prada’s 2012 runway show. “I agree that after photoshopping [models are] still pretty close to being "digital,” but talented retouchers can really make you shine through while just ironing out the details. Hopefully as we move forward, more and more photographers and publications will value more traditional photography.”

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Technology may appear like an easy villain - think sci-fi scaries like Ex-Machina or The Matrix - but luckily enough, it’s the solution we need. Model Charli Howard rose to fame in the international market upon posting a facebook status that - for better or worse - shook up sizing standards in the fashion game. After being cast aside by her agency for failing to maintain a size zero, Charli took matters into her own hands, stating “the more you force us to lose weight and be small, the more designers have to make clothes to fit our sizes, and the more young girls are being made ill. It's no longer an image I choose to represent.” She has since cultivated a community of empowered voices in fashion, signed with Muse Models in New York City, and is well on her way to changing body image expectations for women all over the world. Alaia Baldwin, too, uses modelling as a way to share who she is with the world. Suffering from endometriosis, her mega-watt exposure and strength serves as a reminder that all we owe others is to be the best version of ourselves. On her body, Alaia recently stated on Instagram “I have to stand up for myself and my body, because no one will ever understand my body like me. It is our job to remain open and honest about what is going on. It is our job to not be embarrassed or shy. It is our job to remain strong. It is our job to keep on pushing, just like we were before, and just like we always will.”

I have to stand up for myself and my body, because no one will ever understand my body like me.
— Alaia Baldwin

The empowering and vulnerable qualities models are finally bringing into our industry mustn’t be shut down - fashion has always been about expression; an outlet for outcasts, something we are all, finally, getting a chance to witness. Even in a widely-produced, highly commercialized market, online shopping is a sensorial experience, and for many, an escape from the chaos of daily life. After school wishlists with friends, eagerly browsing sequined skirts for holiday parties, or picking out the coolest sneaks for that special date - these kinds of experiences happen on the daily, and it’s scary to think that soon, robots could be the ones telling us how our bodies should look. Strip away the human element from fashion and what are we left with?

“I see fashion as an intimate, human experience because it exists all around us,” adds Anakwe, smiling on set at our Brooklyn studio. “Everyday, I am reminded that being yourself is what actually makes you stand out and can ultimately take you the farthest.”

Photography by Brandon Taelor Aviram
Makeup and Hair by Laura Noben
Charli Howard at Muse and Modern Muse Models
Diana Veras at JAG Models
Alaia Baldwin at Stage Management
Olivia Anakwe at New York Model Management
Vitalisa at Modern Muse
All; New York City. 
Special Thanks to Danilo Hess, Cailin Hill, Kelly Mittendorf and Jane Bradshaw.