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The latest industry upset with the use of AI: Fashion



New York City, USA – Last week, the fashion world descended on New York City for New York Fashion Week (NYFW). The bi-annual event celebrated the best in the industry and showcased the hottest trends for the season. NYFW is a massive money maker for the city and the fashion industry at large. On average, the event brings in a staggering $600m annually.

But regardless of the stark economic and cultural value the event brings, it is overshadowed by the same existential threat hitting sectors like media and tech – artificial intelligence eroding existing jobs and limiting work opportunities in the future. Behind the glitz and glamour lies the same fears that in large part led to the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild strikes this past year – protection over one’s likeness.

“When your body is your business, having your image manipulated or sold off without your permission is a violation of your rights,” Sara Ziff, founder and executive director of the Model Alliance, said in a statement.

Yve Edmond is a model based in New York City. She says that because of the new era of AI-driven modelling, there is a lot of room for exploitation.

“There are some people in the industry that had their body scanned or photos that have been collected of them over the years have gone on to create their virtual self, yet they have no ownership. They have no claim to that at all,” Edmond told Al Jazeera.

She’s worried that this could undermine work opportunities for models in the near future.

“As models, our image, our measurements, our posture, our body shape is our brand. In many cases, somebody takes ownership of that brand without our knowledge and without our compensation. We’re literally competing against ourselves in the market” Edmond added.

Edmond is among the many models eager for reform and is pushing for the Fashion Workers Act in New York State. Among other larger changes, it would provide new safeguards that would protect models from clients who may try to use their image without their permission. The act would require models to give clear written consent for any digital replica of their respective likeness.

It would also require clients to outline how they intend to use their image. The mind behind the legislation is The Model Alliance.

“We introduced the Fashion Workers Act to create basic labour protections for models and content creators working in an industry that infamously operates without oversight. The misuse of generative AI presents a new challenge, and we cannot allow it to go unregulated,” Ziff, of The Model Alliance, said.

The bill authored by state Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal would change how the fashion industry works in one of the single most iconic fashion cities in the world, rivalling only cities like Paris and Milan.

Models argue this would also protect them from signing onto unfair contracts when the alternative is no work at all.

“You don’t want to end up in a world where the model feels like they are forced to give their consent or they won’t get paid,” model Sinead Bovell told Al Jazeera.

If passed, it would be a state-level law, but it helps set the stage for a more global push.

Models say AI takes advantage of all of the sacrifices of real human models [File: Peter K Afriyie/AP Photo]

Existential threat

As the use of AI spreads across sectors ranging from media to customer service, business leaders argue that it will help improve workflow and help workers’ jobs get easier with the help of new tools.

Yet that has not been reflected in the data. According to a November survey from Resume Builder, roughly one-third of business leaders say AI will lead to layoffs this year alone.

Those are some of the concerns flaring up in global fashion as AI poses an existential threat by undermining work opportunities around the globe, especially for communities of colour.

Models like Bovell have fought for more inclusivity in fashion and voiced this concern.

“You’re going to have companies that take advantage of all of the sacrifices of real human models, and instead just kind of generate diverse identities, on the front end,” Bovell said.

“You might have a brand profiting off of the marginalised identities of communities without actually having to pay them,” Bovell added.

That’s exactly what happened with Levi Strauss last year. The brand launched a partnership with Dutch company which allows for customised AI-generated models. In a release, the company said:

“ uses advanced artificial intelligence to enable fashion brands and retailers to create hyper-realistic models of every body type, age, size and skin tone. With these body-inclusive avatars, the company aims to create a more inclusive, personal and sustainable shopping experience for fashion brands, retailers and customers.”

The move was met with public backlash and critics referred to it as problematic and racist. The clothing company later updated its statement.

“We are not scaling back our plans for live photo shoots, the use of live models, or our commitment to working with diverse models. Authentic storytelling has always been part of how we’ve connected with our fans, and human models and collaborators are core to that experience.”

Some companies are taking models out of the picture completely. In the last year, both Vogue Brasil and Vogue Singapore included AI-generated models on their respective covers in place of human models.

Companies like Deep Agency created AI-generated models to model clothes. Danny Postma, who made the tool, said in a post on the social media platform now known as X that it will help marketers and social media influencers.

In response to his thread, there was substantial public backlash among the applause.

Critics said the concept was deeply unethical and undermined work both for models and those involved in the process, like photographers.

Others accused the company of a cash grab and also referred to the move as dystopian. One user called Postma out saying:

“I’m sure you also have strong proposals to aid everyone who’d lose their jobs if tech like this succeeds, right? Or is everything alright as long as you can make cash? No good ‘solution’ brings even more problems than what it attempts to solve.”

The tool is no longer open for beta testing. Postma, who, according to his LinkedIn profile, has no experience in fashion or photography, has created a string of AI products.

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