Growing up, most of us who worried about AI taking over our lives were mostly worried about the kinds of deadly robots we saw in films like The Terminator. Now, the modern-day AI takeover has proven to be much more insidious, and it seems like there is no aspect of our culture that it can’t make worse. Case in point: Taiwanese-American model Shereen Wu alleges someone used a fashion AI to make her look white before “a well-known fashion designer” uploaded her photo.
When Wu released a TikTok video, which you can see above, to discuss her thoughts about fashion AI and what happened to her, she wasn’t afraid to name names. She squarely blamed designer Michael Costello for releasing the altered image that made Wu look like a white woman. Before this, Costello seemed to have a solid record as well as quite a resume thanks to his previous work with big names such as Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé.
Costello made (and later deleted) an Instagram post that attempted to salvage his reputation, and the content of that post merely increased speculation about fashion AI having a negative effect on the industry. In the post, Costello simultaneously claims he “took responsibility” for sharing the image while distancing himself by saying it was “fan art” sent to him by an unknown source and that “I didn’t think before resharing it on my Instagram Stories as I was on an emotional rollercoaster.”
According to Shereen Wu, the dark irony here is that this alleged use of fashion AI may be cutting into the exposure that so many employers offer in lieu of real compensation. “I’ll pay you in exposure” has become something a punchline in numerous creative industries, but the 21-year-old Wu (who was unpaid for her appearance at Los Angeles’ Art Hearts fashion show) didn’t mind the lack of a paycheck because she hoped Costello (with his 1.7 million Instagram followers) would help get her face out there.
Now, thanks to fashion AI altering the image, she didn’t get the desired exposure because, quite simply, that’s not her face.
As for Costello, he has denied many of Wu’s claims and will be pursuing legal action. If we are to take his denials at face value, though, it still leaves us with the uncomfortable fact that a mysterious third party used fashion AI to alter her appearance and that the technology itself may cause irreparable harm to the fashion industry. It wasn’t that long ago that models had to worry about digital artists changing their appearance via apps like Photoshop…now, with AI, the most problematic aspects may be baked directly into the technology.
For example, there is a strong chance that the fashion AI wasn’t deliberately instructed to give Shereen Wu a white face. A large part of what AI is designed to do is absorb mainstream preferences and spit out content that it thinks most people will like. What happened with Wu illustrates the major issue with this: when “mainstream preferences” effectively erase the existence of minority models, we simultaneously lose the beauty diversity the industry thrives on even as we dehumanize the models who bring the industry to life.
Now that we have seen how insidious fashion AI can be and how it may very well have racism baked into its core, we’re starting to miss the AI dystopia presented in films like The Terminator. Sure, a hulking, metallic murder skeleton is scary enough, but at least you can fight back against it. With the current state of AI, it seems that Skynet is already here, and there will never be human resistance because the idea of sharing bad art and altered images amongst ourselves is just too damn entertaining.