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Are avatars replacing models on the runway?

New Times: The Covid-19 pandemic has distorted many sectors and among those is the fashion industry. Designers have had to find creative ways of showcasing their collections and Congolese designer Hanifa Mvuemba set ground with a 3D showcase. Uganda designer Sham Tyra also used avatars to showcase her latest collection. Is this the end of modelling as we know it? Hassan Ssentongo writes.

The fashion industry, just like any other business, responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by paring down, and going totally mute in some sectors. Fashion shows, which are the industry’s biggest platform for designers to do business, were suspended, only to return as socially distant events with so few people and a lot of tech involved.

For an industry that has for years struggled to be sustainable, the idea of virtual shows has since been welcomed with thunderous applause. Besides being less wasteful, some Chinese brands have gone ahead to create software where viewers can choose the appearance of the models they want to see in the show, making shows more diverse. This begs the question – is this new normal rendering runway models obsolete?

“Not at all,” Joram Muzira, a model manager, firmly says when I pose the question to him. “It’s too early to even think about this, and also, no amount of digital work can replace the input of models in a fashion show,” he argues.

 

Muzira runs Joram Model Management, a boutique agency, which supplies renowned international agencies with fresh talent from Uganda and the markets around it. His earnings as a manager accrue from jobs these models score when they get to work in Europe and the US. This definitely means the pause in business, and eventual morph into ‘virtual shows’ has had a significant effect on his business.

Runway shows are a big deal to model managers and scouts. As much as they pay little compared to advertising campaigns, “they are a huge platform to showcase fresh talent,” explains Ronnie Nsubuga, the proprietor of Crystal Models Africa, another boutique agency in Kampala.

One of his talents, Anna Gloria Anena, made her global debut during Gucci’s Fall/Winter show in February. They are also a huge spectacle for fashion enthusiasts to marvel at the sheer display of creativity and theatrics in the name of showing a new collection. The Gucci show that debuted Anena, featured a giant merry-go-round which models got onto after getting outfitted right there in front of hundreds of invited guests. It was a huge spectacle that had the Internet talking for weeks.

This kind of extravagance has since been replaced with socially-distanced shows, where a few models walk the runway to a virtual audience online, and 3D shows where computer-generated avatars, holograms and augmented-reality take centre stage.

Glam. Some of the models that showcased Anita Beryl’s Futuristic Africa collection in a virtual show at Kampala Serena Hotel.

Anita Beryl, a Ugandan designer, who used the former to present her ‘Futuristic Africa’ collection in August, believes the new normal is “about exploring new ways to reach consumers while keeping their and my team’s safety in mind.” Her show was streamed on YouTube. On why she chose to keep ‘human models’, the couturier says she wanted it to feel and look “as real and possible”. Muzira, who produced the show, explains this well. “The idea of a fashion show is to showcase how a garment will appear on your body, should you choose to buy it. There’s no better way to do this than with real human beings.”

In September, designer Abbas Kaijuka of the brand Kais Divo Collection, unveiled his latest collection, titled ‘Hope’, in a virtual show streamed on Instagram Live. The aptly titled showcase, according to Kaijuka, was a celebration of the resilience of every individual who has fought to end this pandemic.

Like Beryl, Kaijuka too used human models, which according to the designer, was intended to transport the viewer back to when it was normal to walk on the red carpet in a frothy gown with adoring paparazzi flashing away.

Sham Tyra. Ugandan designer Sham Tyra was the first to use Avatars to showcase her latest collection titled ‘Boldly Bold’.

Sham Tyra, another designer who just showcased her new collection, preferred to go with the former. Titled ‘Boldly Bold’, the collection was presented with a 3D animation video produced by Kasule Rafael, and featured curvy computer-generated avatars strutting down the runway.

Unlike Beryl’s, this one had about 30 people in attendance who watched in awe on giant screens during the presentation at Kampala Serena Hotel.

Interestingly, this world of avatars is so big that it has its own supermodel. Shudu, the world’s first computer-generated supermodel, boasts of more than 200,000 followers on Instagram, and countless appearances in big name fashion publications. And yes, she gets paid for all her gigs.

We cannot fail to talk about Congolese designer Hanifa Mvuemba, whose viral show had the entire collection appearing in 3D, with clothes swimming in the air nonchalantly like they are being worn by invisible models or ghosts. The show streamed on Instagram live and was watched by thousands of viewers across the globe.

Hope. One of Kais Divo’s designs from the Hope collection that was unveiled on Instagram live.

It is not just digitally-created avatars that are trying to replace ‘human runway models’. Jeremy Scott took it a notch higher by letting tiny puppets model his latest collection for Moschino.

Unlike Muzira, Nsubuga believes virtual shows have posed a serious challenge on their business.

“We have indeed felt the pinch because fashion shows have been bringing in a lot of work for our models,” he says.  After her Gucci show, Anena was lucky to return to Uganda safely before lockdown and has been home since. “She’s organising herself very well for the next coming fashion season since she now has free time on her.”

The case is the same for Godfrey Mutebi, a budding model who had hopes of having a “really great year”. “Well, it terrifies me when I see these digital shows,” he says. “It terrifies me that we might get replaced completely. It is really costly putting together a show, and if this is [virtual shows] less expensive, I believe designers might take that route.”

“I was hopeful that I’d participate in the Abryanz Style & Fashion Awards, but I hear they might also go digital,” Mutebi cries.

When I asked Brian Ahumuza, the proprietor of Abryanz Style & Fashion Awards if he would consider doing the show virtually, his answer was stern.

“Only if it makes business sense!”

Nsubuga has similar thoughts: “Virtual shows sound like a good idea but that does not mean that they are automatically more sustainable than physical events,” he argues.

Muzira, on the other hand, believes this is just a wave that will pass. “Just like everything, it shall come back to normal after a while. This is fashion, and fashion thrives on human interaction,” he says.

Lyn Atwiine, a fashion editor, considers this as a ‘big wakeup call’.

“There’s no way digitally-engineered avatars can replace humans, unless humans offer only what the ‘faux models’ are offering,” she says.

“Models can do a lot more than acting as hangers for clothes. They can be influencers, activists, social entrepreneurs, street style stars and so much more,” Atwiine adds.

True to that, as much as the world has been on pause because of the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of highly sought-after models such as Sarah Aliet have been busy hopping from one city to another for shows.

Aliet was discovered in Uganda by Joram Management, and has since enjoyed a colourful career as one of the most sought-after runway models in the business.

“It’s a battle, designers are only working with models who are impactful and powerful,” Muzira explains. “Yes, the industry has to evolve. Models have to cultivate alternative ways to rake in money for themselves and their clients besides just walking for shows as it has been.”

Nsubuga says he and his team at Crystal Models have designed a number of development programmes to give models a proper understanding of what the industry is like now and how they can evolve.

Whether models get replaced or not, the industry is not going to be the same again after this.

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