It was a Sunday evening, the house was quiet and I was sitting on the sofa with a thick issue of Copy, which is described by its creator Carl-Axel Wahlstrӧm as "the world's first AI-driven fashion magazine". The more I leafed through it, the more restless I became. I knew the "models" were compositions, but they looked like real people; they also had real-sounding names, as did the brands. Had I missed something? I was desperate for a clue, something that would help me make sense of it all.
"I'm too fabulous to fit into a budget," a quote from a story about young rich Hamptons, elicited a deep eye roll, but another from a beauty story, "Say goodbye to emotion, wrinkles and individuality," made me wonder what exactly Wahlstrӧm's goal was. Should I immerse myself in this world of hyper-perfection, where fashion is not only flat and banal, but reduced to stereotypes?
This sense of disorientation was intentional, Wahlstrӧm said on a call from Stockholm, his hometown. Wahlstrӧm, a 41-year-old Swede, has a degree in marketing communications. After entering the workforce, he was drawn to the fashion industry, where he founded a magazine called Fashion Tale in 2008, which he published until 2012. I have an older issue that consists entirely of fashion illustrations. The magazine can definitely be described as an "alt publication", which is more about ideas than luxury. Much of Wahlstrӧm's career has consisted of working with fast fashion. As a Swede, he has worked with local brands such as H&M, & Other Stories, Gant and Björn Borg. It's not just a matter of opportunity, but also inclination, and this is something he also explores at Copy.
When Wahlstrӧm started playing with artificial intelligence, he wasn't doing it to make a magazine, but that changed with the push of a button. From one day to the next, he explains, the technology improved to the point where he could create images that were realistic, not contrived or abstract. "It was love at first sight," says the Creative Director. "I saw a lot of red warning signs, but I also felt that I was part of something new and revolutionary. I realized early on that the technology was still very young and had a lot of flaws, but I just wanted to get it out there and be able to say that I made the world's first AI fashion magazine - as far as I know. I realized that no one would sponsor me, that I wouldn't find advertisers, so I decided to fund it myself, make it myself and try to make the technology work for me, because the technology wasn't that good and still isn't. The reason I think we created such a beautiful result is because we put so much human intellect and knowledge and craftsmanship into the images."
Wahlstrӧm, a team of one, worked with Midjourney and Chat GBT to create images and text that were edited and retouched (by humans). He sees the first edition of Copy as a document of fashion to date. He spoke to me about his process.
It's hard to believe that the images in Copy aren't of real people and places, so perhaps we should start with the basics. What exactly is an AI image?
An AI image is an image that has been created using computer-generated intelligence. The software uses algorithms to create images that are very similar to real photos, but are entirely computer-generated. The AI learns from a variety of real images to accurately capture the realism. Basically, it was created from nothing. Creating images in AI requires a very imaginative use of words. If I type in words that are very clear to me, the AI often gets me completely wrong because the training models and the metadata we put into our images get mixed up. It's also interesting because you discover things that you might not have thought of, because we are also very limited in our imagination and our ideas of what we want to create. If the AI misunderstands you, it often comes up with something more interesting than what you could have imagined. I really believe that AI is a very good creative partner in this respect; the misunderstandings often become quite funny and interesting.
Can you tell us a bit about Midjourney, the program you used for Copy?
Midjourney's algorithm is based on images from the internet. I have to say that I'm not an expert on how Midjourney is created, but it gives the program a very unique style. I can definitely tell if a picture was taken by Midjourney. There are other apps, like DALL-E, that are based on a different kind of algorithm, and there's also Adobe and other big companies that want to get into this race of AI-generated images.... they're working with the big stock companies and using their material, so their models are trained on a different kind of aesthetic. Depending on what type of images you're looking for, you'll use the model that best fits that style. For me, Midjourney was the perfect solution; I could never have done this magazine with Adobe because everything would have looked like a stock image.
Midjourney sort of took all the images we've ever created and uploaded to the internet and machine-learned them. So what we see and what we can create is what we've fed ourselves - the aesthetics, the imagery, the stereotypes, the norms, everything. This is a summary of that. Midjourney doesn't create anything out of itself; it has been taught by what we have created. That's why it's very hard for Midjourney to create what's to come, because the computer can't really imagine it - at least not if the results are to be realistic, and that's what I'm aiming for. I was, and still am, very limited to norms and stereotypes, and if I try to push those boundaries, the results just become surreal and fake.
AI technology is very literate. It sees everything in either black or white: you're either thin or fat; you're this or that. There is rarely an in-between. Machines are very pragmatic, and the metadata we put on our images are very succinct, very strong words. I realized quite early on that the only realistic images I can create here are very stereotypical.
I'm definitely happy with the result, because I think the magazine itself is a summary of how we've portrayed fashion and style, norms, bodies and shapes over the last 50 years. The problem for me is that I like the end result. I think it's beautiful, but I also see a lot of flaws, problems and questions. For example, I think the models are far too thin and I think they are far too perfect, but that is also very interesting for me. And being in that tension between what's real and what's not makes it a bit more interesting. You could argue that if I have the technology now to push the boundaries, I should definitely push them towards the future, maybe more towards healthier stereotypes. But it wasn't interesting to me, at least not in this issue. I wanted to mess around a little bit and confuse the reader and viewer a little bit as to what my goals are. I think if you look closely at the magazine and read the captions, there's a lot of irony in there and a lot of criticism of the fashion industry.
I was quite disturbed by how shallow it all felt. How can it be so easy to be reduced to stereotypes?
I think we've been confused for the last 10 years - maybe 20 years - since I started working with fashion. The only thing we've achieved is to look back, look at what we've done and then redesign it. I think Midjourney is a perfect example of that. If you call up the 1990s, it looks like the 90s. If I call on 2010, it looks like nothing, it doesn't know what 2010 stands for. If I ask Midjourney to show a fashion collection for fall 2022 in Paris, it doesn't know what to do because [the range] is so confused and diverse. We all have a pretty clear idea of what fashion was in the 80s and 90s.
The bigger the fashion industry has gotten - more fast fashion, but also high fashion - the more everything is competing with itself. I think the summary of what AI does is pretty apt, because it reduces it to a nothing. And I kind of embraced that [nothingness].
I think it's important for readers to understand how enmeshed you were in the fashion world and how that might have influenced your vision.
I feel very comfortable in the world of haute couture and the aesthetics associated with it; with the normal customer who just wants to look good. They don't have as much money to spend, so they have to be creative. They have a great urge to renew themselves and I love these customers. It's very interesting to work with them because they are very predictable, but also very unpredictable and very open-minded. In the world of haute couture, we rarely talk about this group of clients, and we certainly don't want to valorize them or celebrate them in any way. I think that's wrong; to me it's just as stylish and inspiring as anything else, and it's also where I come from, what I know and what I like in many ways. I think fashion has been divided into good and bad, right and wrong, up and down for far too long.
And I think that's also something we've missed in this type of magazine. I like the contrast with what I've created here, which is a very niche fashion product that's sold in stores where the other fashion magazines are sort of the opposite of where I am in the fashion triangle, but my images and the way I present them are pretty similar, so it's kind of a mindfuck here.
Is it fair to say that there is an implicit bias in AI, both in terms of stereotypes and the male gaze? For me, there was a lot of the latter.
I realized early on that I couldn't erase my white, privileged, male gaze on women's bodies and styles, that it would be reflected in the magazine and the images. It's also very interesting to me because it's a representation of what I was taught was beautiful - and I think also what the majority was taught was beautiful. So should I have pushed the boundaries even further for this issue? No, because I really want to stay on that fine line between what's real and what's not. And I think the reality in this case is even more disturbing.
I was definitely ruled and dictated to by the AI, the limitations and the software. I also find it interesting that I still find it beautiful, because otherwise I wouldn't have done it. So something in me that's been fed these images my whole life also thinks there's something beautiful about it, even though I see hundreds of problems and hundreds of red flags everywhere. I think the one factor where I really felt like I could make a difference - and took the opportunity to do so - is the ethnic diversity in the magazine. There are a lot of blonde women, but also a lot of other types. The AI didn't seem to have that many restrictions there, but when it comes to styling and the female body and the perfect norm, it was really hard, almost impossible, to change that because the AI doesn't know anything else. It knows what it's been taught and that's how we made the images.
Based on what you've created, it seems that the AI equates fashion with a general idea of glamor.
That's the default mode for the AI because, as I said, it's been trained on the mass of images, and that's the end result, that's the AI's conclusion of what fashion is, that it's glamorous. If you try to call on a very cool independent designer, the AI doesn't know that, it only knows the broad strokes of what fashion is and what it represents.
The RealReal has just published a report showing that people want to look "rich". That seems to be the case in your magazine too.
Almost subconsciously, I had the urge to make my characters, these fictional AI people, look quite rich and successful. In many of the stories, the people look quite posh and in some ways very respectable. How rich people live their lives and how they dress has always fascinated people, and it still does.
I found reading the magazine very confusing. It wasn't until I got to the beauty editorial with its ironic take on fashion that I started to rethink everything.
I definitely agree with you that the skincare, the beauty story, is the most obvious one. When I wrote those quotes, I was afraid to post them because I thought you can't criticize the beauty industry. So what do I do? I'm writing ironic things and suggesting that maybe you shouldn't buy makeup - and I'm a man saying that. I was really scared to publish them, but I think there's the same tone in all the stories, just on different levels. For example, in one of the stories, which is about very wealthy women in the Hamptons, I really exaggerated their lifestyle and also reinforced the view that money can bring you joy, which everyone knows is not true. I want to reinforce that in a way so that it should be questioned.
Do you think Copy is a kind of cosplay of a high fashion magazine?
In a way it is, because I feel like I don't belong; I don't feel part of the gang; I feel like an outsider trying to do something that should belong, but I know for a fact that it doesn't belong. I know for a fact that the people who really know what's going on - [fashion insiders] - won't believe it. They'll realize it's kind of fake, but I like being in that category. Maybe that's what makes it a little bit more interesting. I don't think anyone is independent; I think we're all very influenced. For me, the problem with fashion images in recent years is the narrative. Why are they produced, and by whom, and for what purpose? I think the problem with stereotypes and norms is that big companies are making a lot of money out of it. This magazine is not interested in making money, it's more about a discussion. A visual story of an AI and me, a collaboration between humans and technology.
Ego is also an important factor in fashion. Will AI change this dynamic?
My hope and dream is that in the near future, AI will reshape the structures and the hierarchy so that it will be very obvious and very clear who is actually the most creative person in the room. AI gives you the opportunity to create something that you couldn't have created yourself before. Now anyone with the right attitude, knowledge and maybe the aesthetics can make a fashion magazine and earn a bit of money. That wasn't the case six months ago. The hierarchy, especially in fashion and marketing, is so rigid that you can't get through. It's never about the best idea, it's all about other things: politics, capitalism, networks. Hopefully AI can be the messenger here and break through the barriers.
What do you think comes after postmodernism?
That's a million dollar question. AI points to what we've done, not what we want to achieve - at least not if you want a realistic end result. I think AI could be the solution. Sometimes we humans - and the fashion, marketing and communications industries - stifle ourselves because we don't dare to explore new trends because we are so constrained by commercial interests and so on. Even the independent players out there want to please everyone because that's the only possible business model. If something new is to emerge that's going to reach a really large audience, maybe AI could be a way forward, because as I said before, AI doesn't care. AI doesn't say what's right and what's wrong.
What I think this magazine shows a little bit is that we need to close this chapter of endless repetition. I don't think even I realized how much everything is redone. It's just a loop that I discovered when I started to address the AI. I was stunned when I realized that I couldn't capture the present, that I couldn't capture the fashion. I tried to address new designers, I tried to address art movements and aesthetics that I think are pushing the boundaries. Because I think sports fashion looks a bit more futuristic and contemporary, I tried to push the AI to do that, but when it tried to recreate a cool sports brand, it just looked like sports from the 90s.
I think we can train the AI to do that, and I think we will. But first we have to come to the conclusion that we need to stop repeating ourselves and look forward. The reason we've been [in a loop] since the early 2000s - because that wasn't the case when I started getting interested in marketing and images in the 1990s - I think has to do with the advent of the internet. With Pinterest and image search, blogs and social media, we're kind of stuck. Everyone makes mood boards, goes to a client and presents a campaign, it's like a repeat of something that's already been done, which of course is super boring.
There's no way back. That was my thought the day the photorealistic midjourney version came out. I firmly believe that cameras will be around forever, but this is a huge technological step forward. The sooner we try to get control of it, understand it, shape it and work with it in a way that positively impacts the future, the more I think it will be an amazing tool.
January 18, 2024