In Defense of H&M’s Fembots

Fashion retailer H&M recently got called out for using computer-generated bodies in their online catalogue.

The company has admitted that the bodies are “completely virtual,” with faces of real models pasted in. “This is a technique that is not new, it is available within the industry today,” said an H&M spokesperson. “The virtual mannequins are used in the same way as we use mannequins in our stores for ladies wear and menswear.”

Bloggers have responded with appropriate criticism. Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation spokesman Helle Vaagland said, “this illustrates very well the sky-high aesthetic demands placed on the female body.” Blogger T.M. Gaouette writes, “I’m confused! If the intention is to just show the items of clothing, then why put real heads on fake bodies? Why not just put a fake head on the fake body? Is the real head needed so that we can relate to the models as human beings? But how is that possible when we are faced with a perfect body to which no one can relate?”

On Facebook, a couple of friends expressed concern that this trend will decrease the number of jobs available to working models. Another issue is the creepiness factor: “Man,” writes Jenna Sauer at Jezebel, “isn’t looking at the four identical bodies with different heads so uncanny?”

With that in mind, there are a few beautiful and amazing things going on here. First of all, there’s the unintentional modern art: this catalogue has brought us the haunting, Ringu-esque Model Without a Face. Also, this foray into the uncanny valley brings us one step closer to the age of the idoru. With teenage pop idol Aimi Eguchi, whose face is a composite of six different singers, and vocaloids (singing synthesizers) such as pigtailed holographic superstar Hatsune Miku, we’re almost there. And even though H&M’s online catalogue conforms to the same beauty standard as any other big fashion retailer, this technology actually has the potential to subvert the paradigm altogether.

Imagine an online shop where your preferred weight/height/measurements are used to generate 3D models of the bodies that you want to see. Imagine if there was an API for this that could be used across all online clothing stores you visit, so that no matter what site you were looking at, the models appeared the way that you wanted them to. Standardized beauty ideals would become less relevant, because people would have greater control over their exposure to them.

In the short term, it may seem like computer-generated models reinforce a homogenous beauty standard. In the long term, this technology may pave the way towards greater body diversity and inclusiveness.

EDIT: After some wonderful discussion in the comments, I’m appending my responses to the post:

Some of you have pointed out that advertisers aren’t known for championing body diversity. It’s true. Perfume companies hire leggy, angular supermodels to to sell you a lifestyle. Some female-targeted TV commercials begrudgingly include the token African-American women (especially, for some reason, when selling yogurt, cleaning products and tampons), but it’s rare to see them go beyond that. If you read Sociological Images, you know how often advertisers and companies create ads that are super-racist, sexist or classicist even in this day and age.

The reason why I think this has a chance of succeeding is that the advertising and retail branches (or outsourced teams) of a company have totally different goals. The goal of advertising is to make you aware of the brand, and to associate that brand with glamour, mystique, etc. That’s why fashion and editorial models are very tall and have exotic, alien features – Andrej Pejic, Alek Wek, etc. On the other hand, catalog models tend to look “wholesome” and just slightly more attractive than average. Your mileage may vary – the Victoria’s Secret catalog models will look more glamorous than the ones from Gap, and these H&M girls are on the more glamorous side – but generally, catalog models are supposed to be a very standard type of “pretty” that’s not supposed to make people insecure, because they want you to feel happy when you make the purchasing decision. Here are a few models from the Macy’s catalog… I think they’re pretty, but I don’t think that they’re “impossibly” pretty. They look like women I see every day:

Advertising makes people feel insecure, like they’re lacking something, with the implicit message that buying this brand will make them somehow more attractive or fulfilled. But that’s not the goal of a product shot. The goal of the product shot is to make the average consumer feel like the item is right for them. Consider the difference between the Levi Jeans ad campaign and the completely neutral, non-threatening, disembodied product photo on their website:

Calvin Klein Ad:

Calvin Klein Product shot:

It’s true that almost all models presented in catalogs are still uniformly size small. That’s because they are often modeling samples, before the full line of clothing is produced. Samples are manufactured in size small because that’s always been the industry standard. Most of that is for practical reasons: size small clothing is faster and cheaper to produce, because it requires less fabric and time. But with advanced 3D modeling, that convention may go out the window as far as online catalog photos go. (I’m sure it’ll remain as a standard in the fashion world for a long time). There’s already a company called that’s working on this. It’s not as advanced as H&M’s one-size-fits-all fitting room interface, but hopefully it’ll evolve in that direction.

H&M doesn’t deserve TOO much praise because they didn’t really step outside the status quo with their use of digital models, but I don’t think they should be criticized, either. Their fake-bodied models were no skinnier than any real models that they would’ve used otherwise. I worry that if the blogosphere crucifies them, and so far that’s what has happened, then other fashion retailers will get discouraged from trying this type of technology in the future because they’ll think that people are just uncomfortable with it, and that it doesn’t test well. Ms. Magazine wrote in an op-ed about this, “Sign here to urge H&M to use real women to model its clothes.” If H&M does that, then it definitely won’t make any lasting change, because they’d just go back to using real Size 2 models. However with digital imaging, we can end up with a catalog that lets you change the size and shape of the clothing, looking something like this, only with more variations:

“Custos Cavum” by U-Ram Choe

Via Devon, thanks!

This beautiful video footage was recently shot by the Asia Society Museum in New York City, where Korean artist U-Ram Choe‘s most recent triumph, a shimmering, golden, “breathing” sculpture, is being premiered.

Most of Choe’s elaborate kinetic sculptures are assembled from stainless steel and acrylic, and motorized with robotics that he himself develops and programs. The above work, called Custos Cavum (“Guardian of the Hole” in Latin) is a particularly delicate and elaborate piece created as a response to this tenth-century Shiva Nataraja sculpture. (Custos Cavum is part of the Asia Society’s “In Focus” series, which invites contemporary artists to craft new works inspired by pieces from the museum’s permanent collection. Choe’s new work is being shown with the Shiva sculpture.)

Choe has stated that his creation is “a creature [that] protects the flow of communication between the two realms that assures mutual respect. In this fable, the guardian is a symbol of coexistence just as the Hindu god, Shiva, is a symbol of balance and harmony.” (via)

The exhibition will run until December 31, 2011.

Previously on Coilhouse:

Raymond Lemstra’s Masked World

In the alien world of Raymond Lemstra everyone wears masks, and yet, no one does. Here we have strange artifacts, the masks of some long forgotten Martian tribe or, perhaps, another dimension altogether. They have life to them, though, these bizarre visages, as if they were not fashioned from wood but were, instead, impressions of actual faces, like death masks. Indeed, his figures reinforce this feeling, their faces cuboid and frozen. One gets the feeling that the people underneath this ornamental headgear aren’t obscuring their features or hiding their identities, but merely accentuating them.

Via we make money not art

“Mechanical Dolls” Editorial for Vogue Italia

Via Lana Guerra. Thanks, doll!

A backstage peep at photographer Tim Walker’s phenomenal ‘Mechanical Dolls‘ editorial for the October 2011 edition of Vogue Italia, featuring models Audrey Marnay & Kirsi Pyrhonen. Brilliantly styled by Jacob K. — a truly breathtaking amalgam of outmoded automata and puppetry, paired with delicate vintage French, British and Japanese garments. Make-up by Val Garland, hair by Malcolm Edwards.

Photo by Tim Walker from the “Mechanical Dolls” editorial, Vogue Italia, 2011.

“Going to the Store” (aka nnnnNNNNAAAAAA KILL IT WITH FIRE, Part XXVII)

via Whittles

You can thank David Lewandowski (lead animator on TRON: Legacy) for the nightmare juice. The Jean Jacques Perrey music makes it extra disturbing, capsule somehow.

BTC: Hans Reichel’s Daxophone

One of the more unique looking, and easily one of the most unique sounding musical instruments ever invented, Hans Reichel’s daxophone is sure to put some spring in your step and some giggles in your face this fine morning:

A bowed musical instrument that falls into the category of “friction idiophones“, the daxophone consists of a long, thin wooden blade notched into a wooden block containing one or more contact (piezo) mics, often attached to a tripod. In addition to being bowed, daxophones can be plucked or struck, conducting sounds the same way “a struck ruler halfway off a table does”, with each vibration moving through a “tongue” of wood into the instrument’s wood block base, which acts as a resonator for the contact mics contained inside.

Depending on the shape and grain of each wooden tongue, and how they are manipulated, all manner of uncanny (and often hilarious) warbling, moaning, grumbling, yodeling, spluttering, rasping, growling, yowling sounds can be coaxed from these oddly human-sounding pieces of wood. (The daxophone’s name comes from the use of a stopper block of wood called the “dax”, which is fretted on one side to produce fixed pitches, while the other side is curved and smooth, allowing a performer to shift more fluidly from one note into the next.)

A variety of daxophone tongues. (Via

Generously, Reichel offers extensive downloadable plans for his invention on his website so that other woodworkers can create daxophones of their very own.

Visit to find out more about this, and countless other experimental instruments and musicians. Also worth checking out:

BTC: Grandma and Baby – Day at the Park

Buy your own giant wearable latex infant head from HYPERFLESH. Three different moods to choose from! (Via BoingBoing.)

Good morning, drugstore good morning, GOOD MOOORRRRRNING.

Suspended Disbelief: A TED Presentation by the Handspring Puppet Company

“Puppets always have to try to be alive. It’s their kind of Ur-Story on stage– that desperation to live.” ~Adrian Kohler

“[…] It only lives because you make it. An actor struggles to die onstage, but a puppet has to struggle to live, and in a way, that’s a metaphor for life.”  ~Basil Jones

In 1981, partners Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler co-founded the Handspring Puppet Company in Cape Town, South Africa, with two other graduates of the Michaelis School of Fine Art. Thirty years later, the two of them continue to run the company, staging theatrical collaborations in theaters worldwide with a cadre of downright empathic puppeteers.

The concerted group effort that goes into designing, building and performing these puppets ensures that they do live. In fact, the illusion is so complete at times, it would be almost frightening, were the creatures not presented so lovingly.

Via Lara Miranda, thanks!

The Handspring Puppet Co.’s inspiring TED talk brings “the emotional complexity of animals to the stage with their life-size puppets.” Their horse, in particular, is a miracle of engineering, art, and soulful expression.

The company’s latest production, War Horse, opened in New York at Lincoln Center last week. Are any of our New York readers going to go see it? Please, by all means, report back in comments!

Yotsuya Simon, Hans Bellmer’s Japanese Heir

Here’s a widely unknown, but interesting example of intercultural influence exchange: Hans Bellmer can be easily called the godfather of Japan’s thriving puppet scene. In fact, the majority of currently active Japanese doll designers graduated from the famous Ecole de Simon. Its founder, Yotsuya Simon, was the originator of the now thriving dollmaking scene.

In 1965, a young artist nicknamed Simon (because of his love for jazz, especially Nina Simone) learned about surrealism and avant-garde theater, which would influence him for the rest of his life. Soon after, he became a member of Jokyo Gekijo (Situation Theatre), which was considered one of the most progressive art movements in Japan at that time. Simultaneously, fascinated by Bellmer, Simon began to create his own ball-jointed dolls.

His most famous works – the Narcissisme and Pygmalionisme series – appear to be studies on the ambiguities of the human body. The life-like, waifish, pale bodies, surgically opened and exposed to the spectator’s eye, bear a mark of complete sadness, leaving the observer with a feeling of acute unease. One might raise the subject of ambivalent eroticism here: it’s remarkable that one of Yotsuya’s past exhibitions was named Dolls of Innocence.

Twin Slimy, Sexy Flames

The Klaxons and director Saam Farahmand would like you to reconsider the benefits and implications of polyamory, and they’re using the music video format to do so. Or maybe they’re just trying to make you squirm. Whatever the case, peep this video for “Twin Flames” – it’s like soft-core porn for the Cronenberg generation. The only thing missing? Tentacles.

Klaxons – Twin Flames from Modular People on Vimeo.