Fashion turns to Metaverse for AI models

Sedona Legge is a 5ft 9in model with brown hair and blue eyes. She is wearing a size nine shoe. She has a height of 22 inches. And lately, she’s been everywhere: on the cover of Los Angeles magazine, sitting next to Snoop Dogg in Gucci’s Love Parade ad campaign in February. And starting this week, luxury brands will have the option to choose whether they want to work with the real Legge or his photorealistic avatar.

Legge is one of 12 avatars launched as part of the metaverse division of Photogenics, the Los Angeles-based art-focused modeling agency founded by former model Nicole Bordeaux and Smashbox co-founders Dean and DavidFactor. According to their website, the Photogenics Metaverse division will soon be the beating heart of the agency. None of their avatar talents are purely computer-generated, as they note that “avatars have a real-world voice, unique style, direction and personality that will keep these ‘digital twins’ alive and evolving” .

The industry-wide push toward photorealistic avatars, virtual influencers, and AI-generated human bodies to model clothing for fashion retailers has been slowly bubbling since 2016 when tech startup co-founder Trevor McFedries Brud, created Lil Miquela, a CGI teenage Instagram model from Downey, CA. Since then, Lil Miquela has been featured with every celebrity from Bella Hadid to Millie Bobby Brown. She appeared on the cover of Highsnobiety in April 2018.

For luxury brands in particular, the introduction of photorealistic avatars means they won’t have to spend so much of their budget on advertising. According to Gartner – the world’s leading information technology research and advisory firm – luxury brands in 2021 spent around 33% of their advertising costs on digital marketing. This number is likely to increase as the luxury purchases of Gen Z and Millennials exceed the spending of Gen Xers and baby boomers.

In China, synthesized humans are already a booming industry. According to data from iiMedia Research, China’s virtual idol industry was worth $487 million in 2020, a 70% year-on-year increase, and is expected to reach $875.9 million in 2021. To that end, in April, we reported that virtual avatar startup Genies announced a $150 million Series C funding round led by Silicon Valley private equity firm Silver Lake. And according to one estimate, the size of the virtual human market in China could reach $42.4 billion by 2030.

For e-commerce businesses that spend around three to five percent of their annual gross value on photo shoots, avatars offer a new solution to skyrocketing costs. ZMO.ai, a China-based startup that creates AI-generated human bodies to model clothes from fashion retailers, aims to bring that figure down to 1%, according to co-founder Roger Yin.

So how could working with a photorealistic avatar of a high fashion model work?

According to our own reports on Genies, creators will have “full ownership and commercialization rights” to their Genie avatar creations, according to the company, and will receive a 5% transaction fee each time an NFT avatar is sold. But photorealistic avatars are a bit of a different beast.

According vogue, brands would pay to license avatar models for metaverse campaigns for a set period of time. “Photogenics transfers an NFT with an embedded burn period, at the end of which the proof of license expires,” according to their report. “The Customer License Agreement specifies pricing and usage, however, Photogenics has not disclosed how profits will be divided, or how models will be paid, only that the division is a partnership between all parties and may be dependent on the project.”

As for what that means for the models themselves, it’s hard to say. The story of photogenics Forbes that “pay rates for avatars are similar to those for IRL models depending on the project and usage.” But of course, there’s nothing stopping brands from creating or requesting synthetic, photorealistic avatars based on a confluence of varying human personalities that don’t require such a big chunk of profit with IRL models. Lil Miquela is, after all, not based on any particular human being. In other words, as is the case with so much Metaverse gear, the only way to know what this brave new world of photorealistic avatars has in store for us is to wait and see. André Fiouzi

Today’s newsletter sponsor is Fenwick, one of the world’s top law firms focused on technology and life sciences, including major games, digital media, entertainment, blockchain and NFT practices. Attorneys in Fenwick’s Santa Monica office and nationwide represent more than 1,000 Los Angeles-based startups, established companies, and venture capitalists in corporate, intellectual property, litigation, regulations and taxation.

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