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AI Beauty: Tech Experts and Creatives Discuss Explore the Pros and Cons of the Tool

Artificial intelligence and digital art are swiftly transforming fashion and beauty. Tech experts and creatives reveal how they are bridging the uncanny valley.

Photo: Zeina McLany and Chadi McLany

In a world of Instagram filters, Snow editing, and Facetune tweaking, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s heavily enhanced. But with Artificial Intelligence (AI) becoming easily accessible to the public via avatars, apps, and software, the conundrum is now less about who is being real, and more about how fake one is willing to go when it comes to creative AI in fashion and beauty. For the debut of Prada Beauty, the Italian brand’s move into makeup included collaborating with digital makeup artist Ines Alpha, whose role is dedicated to using the products – or digital equivalents of them – to bridge the IRL and URL dimensions. Los Angeles-based Smashbox announced its entirely computer-generated ambassadors earlier this year, a big move for a makeup brand originally developed for use in real-life photography studios. Meanwhile, with Hollywood on strike, digitally developed actors are replacing real-life talent.

AI is not as clearcut as computers superseding humans, says Dr Hao Li, associate professor at Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence and CEO and co-founder of artificial intelligence company Pinscreen. Focusing on the creation of “digital humans” or avatars, Dr Li has seen AI developments expand from the tech industry to the mainstream, with brands now broadcasting their increased usage. “It started with these digital influencers becoming popular on social media, like Lil Miquela and Noonoouri. People then wanted to see how we can use these technologies for creating virtual humans or clothing to digitize fashion.” At Pinscreen, Dr Li has developed tech concepts for brands including Japanese retailer Zozo, DressX, Louis Vuitton, and Estée Lauder, and presented innovations at creative gatherings such as South by Southwest.

The tech expert says that the proliferation of AI will improve brand interactions for consumers, as fashion and beauty groups use the tech to improve shopping experiences. One of the problems Dr Li’s team is currently refining is perfecting the look of 3D avatars that replicate the user’s body shape for virtually trying on clothes. “Creating the exact look and feel of a fabric, how it falls and folds, the difference between cotton and leather, for example, is much more challenging than it seems on the surface,” he explains. “Trying on makeup virtually is also something that is very difficult to get right due to all the variables in the product texture and then the differences in an individual’s skin.” While he points to AI-generated images being capable of convincing us at a glance – for example, a reimagining of Harry Potter with the film cast as Balenciaga-style high cheekboned models, and viral “photos” of Pope Francis dressed in the label’s puffer jackets – he says, “The problem is that these things look incredibly impressive, but once you zoom in, you’ll start to see inconsistencies, like where fabric turns into skin, or the expression isn’t quite human. And the hands; it can never get the hands right.” But for a dedicated tech team like Pinscreen, these glitches can be ironed out to edit existing visuals or create entirely new content with some careful finessing. “Visual effects have reached the point where you can take footage of one person and basically turn them into an entirely new person,” points out Dr Li. “We can make someone speak a different language with matching facial movements, or even make a baby or animal talk in a way that is very realistic.”

Dr Li agrees that the threat of AI replacing humans in creative industries is overblown, pointing out that the technology works best when used to enhance human artistry. “I think people are often scared, especially in the film industry, because what AI generates is very impressive, but I think people lack a bit the understanding of what it can and cannot do, like not having that human connection,” he says.

One concern among creatives is that the new and expanding tech will make their work obsolete, edging out artists, models, and photographers from their niche. Dubai-based makeup artist Zeina Mclany says she initially felt threatened by AI entering her industry. “At first, I was feeling like AI would take my job. I had heard a lot about it, but I was never interested because the visuals kind of looked like anime. However, one day I saw a crazy visual by an AI artist, which looked photoreal, and I started using AI to push my ideas to the next level and bring them to life without worrying about my budget.” Collaborating with her brother, photographer Chadi Mclany, she takes his images of makeup-free models and creates a full makeup look using her Wacom tablet and the Midjourney program, layering base, shading, and color just like she would in real life.

“My mind exploded by the possibilities, and I’d never felt more alive,” she enthuses. Instead of making her role redundant, Mclany says that the introduction of AI has ignited new sources of creative inspiration and opportunity. “In this industry, you don’t always get the chance to work, and it’s not always for fashion editorials. By using AI, I’m showing everyone the skills I have and the vibe of my makeup with the aesthetic I always wanted to achieve.” The Lebanese creative also says that AI makes playing around with new makeup ideas easier and more efficient. “Instead of booking a model and studio and getting a stylist on set and talking to a photographer, I can wake up every day and create art on my own time.”

She asserts that AI can be very beneficial for new artists who don’t have a big portfolio but do have lots of ideas. “I imagine the future seeing creatives collaborate with AI to make out-of-this-world work. It may reduce some opportunities, but for sure will open doors to jobs we never knew existed,” she predicts. “Nothing can replace the charm of real life, but AI definitely has some magic to it.”

Originally published in the October 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

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