Twenty-one-year-old model, Shereen Wu, has accused former Project Runway designer Michael Costello of using artificial intelligence – or of allowing a photographer to use it – to edit her face on the runway. The alleged modification didn’t seem just to change Wu’s features but also her ethnicity and race.
The Taiwanese American model Shereen Wu claims that her face was digitally altered to appear white by renowned fashion designer Michael Costello in a photo from a recent fashion show.
The incident has sparked a debate about the ethical use of AI in the fashion industry and its potential to reverse progress on diversity. Costello denied altering the photo, claiming it was ‘fan art’ sent to him.
Wu, who did not get paid for the show, was upset that the edited photo did not give her the exposure she expected.
The incident highlights the lack of protections for models when their images are manipulated.
The photo depicts Wu in the slinky black ballgown that she walked the runway in – but her face has been changed, made to appear as if she is a white woman.
In a statement posted to Instagram on Thursday and deleted less than 24 hours later, Costello denied altering the photo and said the image was “fan art” sent to him by an unspecified source, but he “took responsibility” for sharing it. “I didn’t think before resharing it on my Instagram Stories as I was on an emotional rollercoaster, resharing all that I was tagged in,” the statement read. (Costello did not respond to a request for comment.)
As a 21-year-old independent model who is not signed to an agency, Wu relies on small jobs to continue working. She said she did not get paid for the show, which took place during Art Hearts, a Los Angeles fashion week.
To Wu, that’s not an issue, as long as it gets her face out there. “I expected to be paid in exposure,” she said. “But I didn’t get exposure, because this is an edited photo. By cutting off my head, neither did the makeup artist, hairdresser or photographer. That’s what peeves me so much.”
Wu added that her mother was the first person to notice that her face had been replaced. “My initial reaction was, ‘Who would remove someone’s head like that?’” Wu said. “My next reaction was fear, then a sense of melancholy because my mom had to see her daughter’s face cut.”
In his now deleted Instagram post, Costello said that “in light of the false allegations presented in [Wu’s] videos”, his eponymous brand was “moving forward with legal proceedings”. His statement does contradict smaller points in Wu’s story, such as the fact that she was a replacement for another model in the runway show. According to his post, he did not produce the show and did not know that Wu was not compensated for her time until he saw her TikTok. “After finding out through her videos that she wasn’t paid, I offered Shereen compensation for her time and talents,” Costello wrote. He also said he was receiving death threats and that the show was a tribute to his aunt, who recently passed away.
Erik Rosete, a fashion designer and president of Art Hearts, said the organization could not afford to pay all the models it takes to put on shows for over 30 designers. “We’re all doing this for exposure, and to take that away from anybody is taking away their time and their dignity,” he said.
While the origin of the altered runway photo is unknown, Wu believes someone – she doesn’t know who – used AI to create the white face that covered hers, a theory Costello echoed in his Instagram post.
Ten years ago, models complained about their bodies being photoshopped to an emaciated degree. In 2009, for example, Filippa Hamilton spoke out when the Ralph Lauren brand altered her image, slimming her hips to the size of her head. Now, the fashion world faces issues of how to ethically use AI, a technology that has been shown to bake racist and sexist stereotypes into the imagery it creates.
Earlier this year, Levi’s announced that it would use computer-generated models on its website in an effort to include a diverse range of ethnicities. Critics of the decision said that if brands truly wished to enrich people of color, they should hire human models.
For Susan Scafidi, academic director of Fordham’s Fashion Law Institute, changing a real model’s ethnicity with AI is another part of this evolution.
“The modified image of Shereen spotlights the possibility that an AI program that has absorbed mainstream beauty preferences may erase the race of a model altogether, turning back the clock on the fashion industry’s progress toward diversity on the runway,” Scafidi said. She said Wu and other models had little recourse in these situations: copyright law protects photographers whose work is altered without permission, but it does not extend to the models they shoot.
Wu said: “I hope people can understand how hurtful it is to have your work stolen from you. It’s very dehumanizing. The very thing that makes us human is our ability to create something beautiful, and to have this beauty be twisted into something that can potentially be ugly is a terrifying thought.”
As Sinead Bovell, a model and tech commentator who wrote about the ethics of AI models for Vogue in 2020, put it: “[Wu] was erased from the digital world, which matters because the digital world is a real place for models. It leads to real economic and visible pathways.”
This is not the first controversy attached to Costello’s name. In 2021, Chrissy Teigen, the model and cookbook author, faced allegations of bullying. As the Cut reported, Costello added to the pile-on, sharing screenshots via Instagram of a supposed DM conversation with Teigen that left him “traumatized, depressed” with “thoughts of suicide”. But after he posted, others accused Costello of sexual harassment, racism and body shaming, and Teigen said that the screenshots had been altered, statements Costello described as false.
After Costello’s threat of legal action over her viral Tiktok, Wu contacted the Model Alliance, an advocacy group for fashion workers, which referred her to a lawyer.
“For over a decade, we’ve heard from models who have walked into a store or browsed a company’s website only to find that their image has been heavily manipulated or otherwise used without their informed consent or compensation,” Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance, said. “Unfortunately, Shereen’s experience is one of the many examples of why models need protections as workers.”
Ultimately, as Ziff said, “AI technology may be new, but the problem of models’ images being misused is not.”