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Virtual Models in Clothes of Bits

Twenty-First Century Haute Couture and the Future of Fashion Design

Julia C. Lipman

You were probably wondering what happened to virtual reality.

After all, you couldn’t open a newsweekly a few years ago without reading about a future of avatars inhabiting virtual universes. What happened? Did those goggles just become uncool?

Well, virtual reality hasn’t disappeared after all. Modern technology has created a computer-generated virtual fashion model that looks something like a real fashion model. If you’ve always wanted to experience looking at a picture of a model, you’ll finally be able to see what it’s like, thanks to the Elite Modeling Agency and the company Illusion 2K.

Webbie Tookay, as she’s unfortunately named, is being touted as “the world’s first virtual model”; I guess they’re not counting Jar Jar Binks. She’s a vaguely Lara Croft-like figure who can be “photographed” from all angles, wearing a variety of different “clothes.” This Aphrodite, emerging from the foam of a digital sea, has “perfect measurements,” according to her creators. She has different facial expressions ranging from vacant to concerned. Webbie’s rates are about the same as those of a real-life model, though, so you probably won’t be able to hire her for your Quake website.

Now, before you say “A virtual model? Isn’t that kind of like a virtual paperweight?”, just hold on. Webbie Tookay does a lot more than look pouty for a camera. In fact, her programmers have stumbled across one of the most momentous computer science discoveries ever. They have apparently created a formidable artificial intelligence that thinks for itself about a variety of complex problems.

For instance, Webbie’s strong animal-rights beliefs preclude her from wearing fur -- she would never kill a virtual mink for the sake of fashion, her handlers say. “She has environmental concerns, she is for birth control, and, besides, she looks very pretty,” Luciana Abreu of Illusion 2K informs us. (Sources also say that Webbie may have made some major progress in cracking RSA codes last week.) This technology is being used with various degrees of success in other areas, as you might have noticed if you’ve been following Steve Forbes’s presidential campaign.

Not only is Webbie Y2K-compliant, she’s also just plain compliant. As Abreu notes, “she doesn’t age and she doesn’t gain weight.” In fact, she doesn’t even have weight. And her proportions are negotiable; “if we go back to the skinny look, she can be skinny in the blink of an eye.”

Webbie’s already fairly thin by most standards, as you may have guessed, and the creation of a virtual woman with a “perfect” body raises some disturbing questions in the national dialogue about body images. At a time when Camryn Manheim’s book Wake Up, I’m Fat! is a bestseller, and stars like Calista Flockhart are criticized for encouraging eating disorders among young girls, could Webbie be part of a fashion-industry backlash against recent skepticism about media images of women?

“We are launching a new concept of beauty for the next millennium,” Elite chairman John Cassavetes declares. This concept is apparently one of female beauty only; Elite plans to create more virtual models, but the division responsible for creating them is called “Virtual Models and Actresses Management.” Virtual actresses not only don’t gain weight, they don’t demand equal pay or any control over their scripts.

Will these virtual models, then, replace real ones? Abreu is reassuring. “There are things that only a real model will be able to do.” Like wear clothes, perhaps you’re thinking? Well, that question reveals just how narrow your assumptions are. Why must “clothes” be defined as things that you wear, made out of pedestrian materials like cloth and leather?

Perhaps clothes made out of cloth will become passÉ as designers concentrate their energies on the virtual kind. As haute couture types like Isaac Mizrahi and Todd Oldham see their much-talked-about clothing lines go out of business, maybe it’s time to abandon the assumption that fashion is about what people wear. Susan Faludi, in the feminist classic Backlash, memorably chronicled the late ’80s mania for frilly, impractical clothes which began and ended with the fashion industry itself -- that is, no one was buying them.

Designers like to design clothes, whatever clothes are. Virtual clothes could help designers break free of the constraints of the human body and completely redefine the concept of fashion. And while the technology of virtual clothes may be new, the concept is timeless; I recall an old story about an emperor who wore them.