You don't know their names. You might not remember their faces. But they are the people who persuade you to buy.
When it comes to fashion models, you might think of Kendall Jenner, Gigi and Bella Hadid, Taylor Swift's bestie Karlie Kloss or any one of the Victoria's Secret crew, from Adriana Lima to Joan Smalls. But how many of them have directly impacted your decision to buy a piece of clothing? Sure, they build brand image and create buzz, but they most definitely aren't there when you click "add to cart."
Instead, a growing and increasingly powerful army of e-commerce models exert a major influence on buying habits. As sofa-and-laptop swaps out bricks-and-mortar, a different type of model is emerging, and retailers know they are effective at getting people to empty their pockets.
In some ways, e-commerce models on sites like ASOS and Nasty Gal hark back to a pre-Instagram era of commercial model anonymity: they function as a blank canvas for the brand and for shoppers. While we might follow the dating lives and diet plans of supermodels, as consumers we know next to nothing about e-commerce models — they are whoever we want them to be.
"E-commerce is the newest articulation of pre-digital catalogue modeling. The objective is generally the same: you're communicating directly to people who are highly likely to make a purchase or are already regular customers," Jasmine Chorley, former model and co-director of online modeling resource The Business Model, said in an interview.
"In the case of e-commerce, the potential for a sale is a literal click away. For companies, deciding what models are most likely to swing the consumer to make a purchase is very important."
Because of this, models online tend to be more "normal" looking (though still beautiful). Few can say they see themselves in Candice Swanepoel or Chanel Iman. Online models are much easier to project oneself onto. And that's deliberate.
E-commerce models are usually slightly bigger than the typical runway model. ASOS models, for example, typically wear a UK size 8-10 (US 4-6) and are chosen to reflect the retailer's "dominant customer."
"People identify with images that confirm their own identity. So, if someone is young, female, blonde, tall and with blue eyes they will be attracted to similar models — if the individual sees themselves as young, blonde, tall, etc.," internet psychology consultant Graham Jones said in an interview.
There's no space for supermodels in e-commerce, as British catalogue and online retailer Boden learned when they hired Helena Christensen, sparking outrage amongst loyal customers used to seeing themselves reflected in brand imagery.
Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, who first used her friends to model clothes for the site, told the Huffington Post, "Nasty Gal customers are all about being pretty but not overly cool, and that stands for our models as well. We choose girls that are flirty, badass and relatable to the everyday girl."
What's interesting about this new type of model is that their beauty — or at least their public appeal — can be quantified. Yup, add this to the terrifying ways algorithms are taking over: constant data collection means brands know which models move stock and which struggle to sell. Websites can instantly swap out images that aren't delivering clicks and buys.
"Models working regularly for e-commerce clients can earn a very comfortable living if they are able to secure a solid client base. However, if a model books the job and is not able to generate sales, he or she will not be hired again," Natalia Zurowski, model and co-director of The Business Model said in an interview.
Feeling powerful yet? The shopper on a late-night ASOS spree has become the arbiter of beauty and the decider of models' fates. And while that might mean many shoppers see themselves reflected in the models they buy from, it also has worrying implications for how beauty will be decided. If online models represent each site's average shopper, purchasers could find their exposure to different forms of beauty drastically reduced.
Many "plus-size" models, after all, often are size 8 because retailers know that women from sizes 4 to 14 will be able to see themselves in the model. And while high fashion has been slow — way too slow — in hiring models of color and plus-size models, some progress has been made on the runway. This is even more true of commercial online fashion, where retailers can measure the positive impact of diversity in dollar terms.
Could consumers be the ones to undo that work? The desire to see oneself reflected back while shopping could create a beauty "filter bubble" where people only see faces that reflect their own physical appearance or some "ideal" version of it, eliminating faces and body types that differ greatly from their own reflections.
If internalized beauty standards drive more clicks, models who don't fit those dominant standards could be less successful, thus squashing the advances in diversity that have been made through deliberate efforts of the industry.
"As facial recognition software improves, it will be possible to provide models that look like us," Jones explained. "But more likely is that the adverts will feature our own images, meaning that models will no longer be necessary online. When we visit a website we'll be able to see the clothes on ourselves, rather than on other people."
But it is not only our desire to see ourselves in online models that could prove a hurdle to diversity. Internalized beauty standards — deeply embedded in our psyches after a lifetime's exposure to supermodels who epitomize dominant beauty ideals (often white, thin and very unrepresentative) — might prove hard to shake.
And so online fashion finds itself at a crossroads. Will e-commerce further embrace and celebrate diversity in faces and physiques to represent the full spectrum of shoppers, or will it too go the way of high fashion, selling by using models with matching waistlines and so-called "perfect bodies"?
Those whose late-night shopping binges and covert workplace purchases finance the e-commerce industry, will decide the diversity we see online.
Every click counts.