Despite the public roasting Levi’s took for flirting with AI, smaller clothing sellers who model their own products online maintain a growing interest in replacing themselves with the computer-generated kind.
On Tracy Porter’s clothing site, it’s all Tracy Porter.
Thin, blonde and 5-foot-10, the 55-year-old entrepreneur poses in each and every one of her designs. Her husband uses his iPhone to snap pictures, which they often take on the wildflower-strewn bluffs overlooking the beach 15 minutes from their home in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, before uploading them to their e-commerce site, The Porter Collective. There, you can see Porter in her striped midi dress, in her multicolor crocheted cardigan and in her black-and-white rattan visor.
Porter said she’s been searching for ways to replace herself as a model, not only to lighten the load but to bring some diversity to the site. Humans, however, are prohibitively expensive. So she’s been testing a new artificial-intelligence service from Israeli startup Botika. She said the images look so realistic that when she showed her sons, they told her she was out of a job.
“I’m actually excited about that. I don’t want to be our model anymore,” Porter said with a laugh.
After Levi’s endured a scorching backlash in March for its plan to bring more diversity to the site with AI-generated models – critics flayed the company, which had 2022 sales of $6.2 billion, for not simply hiring more humans – it would be no surprise if big clothing retailers have gotten skittish about using, or admitting they use, nonhuman models. That same public disapproval hasn’t yet extended to the many mom-and-pop clothing shops, whose budgets, like Tracy Porter’s, would collapse under the costs of professional hair, makeup and photography – even without inflation, rising borrowing costs and a recession that feels as if it’s been looming forever.
Services like Botika let brands easily display their clothing on various (computer-generated) fashion models. However, they are still working to add more ages, body shapes and ethnicities.BOTIKA
“In the current economy, customers are mostly looking to optimize costs,” said Eran Dagan, cofounder and CEO of Botika, which caters to small businesses and plans to start subscriptions for its AI model service at just $15 a month. It’s preparing to launch on Shopify and has a waiting list of over 1,000 customers. Dagan said Botika has gotten interest from sellers on resale platforms like Poshmark and Depop, where entrepreneurs typically photograph clothing on themselves and crop out their heads.
Another company in the space, Lalaland — which is still set to power Levi’s attempt to go AI — said its recent growth has been driven mainly by small and medium-sized businesses. While the company declined to disclose revenue figures, cofounder and CEO Michael Musandu said business has picked up significantly over the last eight months and sales have grown by eight- or nine-fold.
“We’re helping emerging brands that are just starting out and have zero budgets, or low budgets, to actually plan photoshoots,” said Musandu. “We really help level the playing field by representing the underdog.”
The fact remains that for everyone, photoshoots are pricey, and while shoppers are increasingly demanding that clothes be shown on a variety of models, no brand has an unlimited budget to do that. Tracy Porter used to hire outside photographers, models and hair and makeup stylists to shoot her products, but it would cost $5,500 every time she brought them out. If she outsourced photography for her multimillion-dollar business today, she estimates it would set her back $500,000 a year. “It’s just too much money,” she said.
“What I’d like to do is take an image and see it on different sizes. Small, medium and large. But I don’t want to have to hire all the people to do that.”Tracy Porter, small business owner
Which is how Porter landed on modeling the clothes herself. However, that makes it difficult for shoppers with a different body shape or ethnicity to get a sense for how her products would look on them. “What I’d like to do is take an image and see it on different sizes. Small, medium and large. But I don’t want to have to hire all the people to do that,” said Porter. “Because there will be no profit left in our company and we’ll have to close.”
Another small business owner, Jacob Flores, is looking forward to more easily finding models that reflect his customer base. The 50-year-old former web designer from San Antonio, whose online store Blissfully Brand sells skintight dresses, skater skirts and bell bottoms in colorful prints inspired by fashion from the 1960s and 1970s, has a lot of customers in their 40s and 50s. But many models for hire tend to be much younger.
Flores recently started using Lalaland, where he can hand-select digital models from a library, dress them in his products and upload the images to his site without leaving the house. For $300 a month, he gets 50 images, enabling him to display more of his clothing on models much faster. He was previously limited to doing photoshoots four times a year, where he would pay $900 to get as many shots of a few models in 20 outfits as he could in two hours.
Now he plans to do photoshoots just once or twice a year on location so he can show his clothing at the beach or on a city street. He also sees AI being helpful with social media ads, allowing him to target certain audiences with tailored images.
Richard Evans, founder of wellness startup Juro Miru, also opted to include some shots on AI models to launch his new e-commerce site, in addition to images of clothing laid on a flat surface.
Startup Juro Miru displays some of its products on AI models.SCREENSHOT OF JURO MIRU WEBSITE
As for shoppers, it can be impossible for them to tell whether they’re looking at a real or fake model. There are no clear rules for disclosure, although companies are beginning to think about it. TikTok is reportedly working on a tool that will give creators a way to say whether they’ve used generative AI.
“When you’re presenting an image that could easily be mistaken for an actual person, I think you should disclose that it’s a computer-generated image,” said David Danks, a professor at the University of California, San Diego whose research explores the ethical issues around artificial intelligence.
Porter is wrestling with this question, among others. “How would you even know? Do we have to say? Are we supposed to say? There are a lot of questions,” she said. Her friends seem afraid of AI and have told her they think it will put models out of work. “It’s a constant dinner table conversation for us.”