The world met the first computer-generated model, Shudu Gram, in 2017. Dark-skinned with striking features, it was easy to imagine her on the runways of any fashion capital. One might have even become curious about her African birthplace before realising she's actually the digital brainchild of British photographer Cameron-James Wilson.
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Although lauded on social media, the internet somewhat resented the reality behind who actually profits from Shudu's (cyber) existence in the fashion industry. An article from The New Yorker that examined the polar reception of Shudu, references a Tweet by British writer Bolu Babalola, who cited social theorist Patricia Hill Collins, calling Shudu an image “contrived by a white man who has noticed the ‘movement’ of dark-skinned women.”
A local brand marketing manager of a major South African retail group is of the same opinion, but more so from a marketing perspective. *Bongani Kumalo says "I would never commission the creator of a CGI influencer for a campaign. I'd rather approach an influencer agency or pay the talent directly."
On the other hand, there are factions of the industry that have found value in CGIs for marketing. U.S.based Anifa Muvemba - owner of the Hanifa fashion label - has been using her time in quarantine to digitalise both her models and garments, where all body types are represented too.
But without digressing, Shudu was in fact preceded by Miquela Sousa (CGI influencer) in the online avatar space, although she was indeed the first CGI model. Bermuda and Noonoouri also add to the growing list of CGI influencers who have amassed an organic audience for themselves as well as caught the attention of various brands for collaboration and sponsorship. They're all now officially verified on Instagram too.
And now South Africa welcomes its first CGI influencer, Kim Zulu, a 21-year-old who identifies as a "virtual human", has an eye for fashion, and has aspirations to dabble in DJ-ing. "I know it sounds weird but I hope to really explore the world musically and in fashion," she says.
Image supplied by creator
Her dark skin and bald head is something of a welcome anomaly in our local influencer space. Speaking to her creator, Lebo Kambule, about Kim's aesthetic, he explains that the management and creative team "really wanted to show that there is a lot of beauty in being darker skinned."
"We all follow the notion that lighter is brighter, which I think I want young teenage girls to never be misled by that notion. We live in a society where the colour of your skin ranks you, which is completely wrong, and I want to show young aspiring teenage girls that this should never be accepted. I truly believe that majority of Africa's population is mainly darker skinned, and hopefully the colour of my skin will resonate with the majority demographic," he says.
As for the choice to go bald, the point is to "illustrate that long hair is not necessarily a symbol of beauty."
"Women have the right to have short hair, and embrace it as a beautiful statement," Lebo adds.
But this is not to say we're not ever going to see Kim Zulu in a lush wig, as Kim Zulu has reassured.
Kim's inception appears to be right on time for the digital shift brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen the likes of Bella Hadid and beauty influencers do FaceTime photoshoots for Vogue Italia and Teen Vogue respectively.
However, although she's now on lockdown like the rest of us, Kim Zulu was actually conceptualised six months ago despite making her debut Instagram post in March this year, where she's since bolstered herself to nano influencer status.
"They ran a few experimental tests using me, but nothing came out of it. So then a few weeks ago the world was forced into social distancing then eventually, lockdown. This is when the team decided to officially launch me to the world," the virtual human explains.
"It's weird, because due to the pandemic, social media has turned into the new-age Google, and its given rise to more interest around people like myself, so the pandemic definitely forced the launch of my social media page," Kim Zulu expresses.
And since she established her online presence, Kim says the reception "has been overwhelming".
"My social media followers have been growing quite quickly. I get a lot of DMs from users, always complimenting me. I was just recently noticed and featured on the international KANGOL Headwear brand's social media platforms a few times, so hopefully this will blossom into some exciting projects with them."
With regards to collaborations, the budding macro CGI influencer says the following;
"My creative team has also just included a collaboration with a South African fashion design house, so that will be an exciting project to work on. My main aim is to eventually collaborate with more fashion brands and possibly makeup brands as well. I'm definitely open to local and international collaborations.
"The first brand I want to hopefully get off the ground is KANGOL USA for sure - I'm obsessed with their hats. I really believe I can create some really exciting projects with them. Secondly, a brand like Sorbet would be interesting because I love using their products. Lastly, I absolutely love wearing trendy sneakers, so maybe one day I can collaborate and create my own sneaker design with a big sneaker brand. I really want brands that are not afraid to experiment and explore their creative side, especially with an robot influencer like myself."
She also adds that ultimately, she really wants to become a "South African global brand, flying the South African flag everywhere [she] goes, so that may be in the form of music or fashion."
The SA audience also seems to be happy with Kim Zulu's entry into the market, to which Kim says, "I don’t think many actually realise that I'm a virtual human, but I think that’s the beauty of it all. It just shows that humans have the ability to genuinely adore any type of physical object, regardless of colour, shape or form."
Do you think SA is ready for more CGI influencers? Tell us here.
*Not their real name.