The Rise Of The Contrarian

Until recently, too much honesty could derail a designer or celebrity's career​. But now, unpopular opinions rule

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Kanye West upset my dinner plans. He walked into a restaurant in Havana, Cuba. I was there as was a group of fashion editors and critics, a handful of the best-of-the-best in the business, all in town for a Chanel cruise show. We were dining on grilled lobster, sweet plantains, and rice and beans – a dish known as Moors and Christians. 

As a newcomer to a group who had worked alongside one another for well over a decade, I found them warm, funny and welcoming. And yet, as we all sat there chatting, Kanye – who was not in town for Chanel, but rather to film reality television with his wife Kim and sisters-in-law Khloé and Kourtney – seemed to irritate a few in the group simply by being in the building. The source of frustration: the West-Kardashians had bumped us from our reserved table.

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There he was, pop culture's ultimate contrarian, taking the private dining room with expansive city views earmarked for some of British fashion's most-admired vets without so much as a 'please' or 'thank you'. Sorry, not sorry.

Kanye West

During my plane journey back to London, I couldn't help thinking about this scene and how symbolic it was. The sense that those on the fringes of the fashion world, as Kanye very much once was, are no longer just asking for a seat at the proverbial table, but in some instances are taking the whole thing over. And it's happening on every level of culture, fashion, media and politics in an unprecedented way.

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As Kanye later declared, during a now infamous appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in which he gave a 10-minute monologue, we're living in a new renaissance. Ian Goldin, a University of Oxford historian, former adviser to Nelson Mandela, and author of the book Age Of Discovery: Navigating The Risks And Rewards Of Our New Renaissance, describes it as 'an ideas revolution'. His co-author Chris Kutarna adds, 'Everything you thought you knew is being overturned.'

Many would argue that Kanye, he of the self-declared artistic genius, unfiltered tweets, enraging speeches and polarising Glastonbury performances, is the living embodiment of the worst of modern culture. I think he represents a phenomenon worth being discussed, an idea that ultimately impacts us all.

Welcome to the age of the contrarian. Twenty years ago, this person might have been limited to spaces, groups and places that were largely viewed as anti-establishment. In many areas of society, today's contrarian is influencing the establishment, if not campaigning to take it over altogether. The rise of the contrarian is Serena Williams, a 36-time Grand Slam champion who dares to twerk in music videos and defy those who criticise her for refusing to embody the polite gentility of the sport.

Vetements aw16

It's Jaden and Willow Smith, both dressed in skirts and challenging gender, race and ideological norms. It's also Demna Gvasalia, a man who grew up in the former war-torn Soviet republic of Georgia before ultimately climbing the ranks of fashion to found the critically-adored design collective Vêtements. He also became the Creative Director of Balenciaga, one of Paris's most celebrated houses, not by assimilating to the system but by loudly calling for its dismantlement. This fascinates me as someone who is a contrarian to the core, having spent years as a journalist in fashion media, while loudly questioning the persistent homogeneity of the very community in which I worked.

...contrarianism seems to thrive when there is a collective sense that the system is broken​ 

Until recently, honesty and an unpopular opinion could derail a celebrity or designer's career. Those who didn't mince words were usually so rich and famous that they were impervious to backlash, à la the unapologetic candour of older icons such as Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani, Cher and Patti Smith. Or they were so counter cultural that they couldn't care less about fitting in with the mainstream, such as Vivienne Westwood, RuPaul and Rose McGowan.

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But now it's the unpopular opinions and the outsider sensibility they often represent that have become currency. Because in truth, we're all outsiders. A changing global economy, whiplash fast innovation, increasingly unstable job market (hello, as-yet-unknown impact of Brexit), digital disruption, heightened connectivity and as Goldin says, 'the addition of three billion more literate brains than a generation ago' have exposed the idea of normalcy as a lie, a false positive. And interestingly, it's creating fertile ground for radical thinking and creativity. Because what else do we have to lose? 

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Beyoncé and Serena Williams in Lemonade

In the book, You Are Not A Gadget, the tech entrepreneur Jaron Lanier explained that the difference between sanity and fanaticism is how close a person feels to irrevocable change: 'If you believe the rapture is imminent, fixing the problems of this life might not be your greatest priority. You might even be eager to embrace wars, and tolerate poverty and disease in others to bring about the conditions that could prod the rapture into being.' Similarly, contrarianism seems to thrive when there is a collective sense that the system is broken; that one is on the cusp of a revolution and therefore more willing to take risks. But unlike fanaticism, contrarianism is actually freeing. Kutarna adds, 'We're in a period where we're questioning the known world. Where people are tearing down what they thought they understood.'

In the same way the Industrial Revolution birthed a generation of contrarians – John Ruskin, William Morris, Amelia Bloomer, the Pre-Raphaelites, Oscar Wilde, the list goes on – who questioned everything from fashion and art to sexuality and gender roles, we're entering a period in which the act of questioning the norm has become the norm.

To see what I mean, look no further than the current state of play of the fashion industry, with its most revered creatives burning out, dwindling budgets and unwieldy pace. Adding to the flux, research reveals millennials care more about spending their money to support social causes or experience life-enriching happenings than collecting designer pieces*.

Vetements' game-changing DHL tee

Luxury no longer has the same hold, which explains how we reached a point where a somewhat literal, Duchampian remake of a DHL shirt by the then relatively unknown collective Vêtements shook up the fashion world. 'Reality is a huge piece of our work,' Gucci Creative Director Alessandro Michele told Vêtements founder Demna Gvasalia during an interview with T Magazine, in which they spoke of the need ›to rethink fashion's long-held system of trend cycles and seasons. Gvasalia is now widely viewed as one of fashion's most exciting new inciters: 'I think that fashion, for a long time, has been in a prison. Without freedom. I think that without freedom, with rules, it's impossible to create a new story.'

And so we now find ourselves in a place where the fashion world is rejecting old norms and embracing ideas that were previously unheard of. Couture houses such as Chanel now include elevated versions of pedestrian pieces like denim jackets in their collections. Meanwhile, the models with the most buzz are the ones who reject every possible trope, whether that be Adwoa Aboah's shaved head or Hari Nef's refusal to subscribe to a gender binary (see p230). In fashion, contrarianism is very much about rejecting the fantasy of homogenous perfection and bottomless luxury that ruled for so many decades, and getting honest about our reality.

To be clear, the contrarian is much bigger than fashion. I first began to consider the power of the contrarian as I watched a string of young, black actresses such as The Hunger Games' Amandla Stenberg and Shake It Up's Zendaya Coleman speak out about a systemic lack of regard for black lives in the US at a point in their careers when most would play it safe in order to get a foot in the door. 'As culture shifts and racial tensions are tested through the vehicle of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it is important to question: Do female black lives matter too?' Stenberg wrote in a short essay published on Twitter.

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SWAAAAGGG @amandlastenberg @calvinklein #metgala

A photo posted by Adwoa Aboah (@adwoaaboah) on

Her words spread quickly and resonated strongly with young people as police officers nationwide were literally getting away with murder, and dividing the country over the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. 'It's a hard thing to be silenced and it's deeply bruising to fight against your identity and to mould yourself into a shape that you just shouldn't be in,' she later said in a Snapchat video after revealing her bisexuality.

Tellingly, the popularity of Stenberg and Coleman, who was famously criticised for wearing dreadlocks to the Oscars, has grown in direct proportion to their activism. So much so that Stenberg received a starring role in a film about the #BlackLivesMatter movement off the back of it. And perhaps the impact of their voices paved the way to Beyoncé speaking out about race and feminism in her visual album Lemonade, putting an end to years of criticism that she wasn't using her platform to speak up against race and gender inequality.  Here, the act of being a contrarian is the act of speaking out against society's celebration of all white, all heteronormative everything and the false narrative that only white lives matter. Here, the act of being contrarian is the act of speaking the plain truth when the world isn't always ready or willing to hear it.

That being said, contrarianism does come with a dark side, one that is most obvious in the world of politics and activism.

Just as the climate of socioeconomic upheaval has opened the door to bolder, radical rethinking and greater inclusivity (hello, Mayor Sadiq Khan), it's also created a climate that is ripe for those who want the opposite (cue Brexit). As Goldin put it: 'Not only good ideas travel, really bad ideas and disruptive ideas travel and that's the renaissance story as well. We're living in a time of rapid progress, growth and challenges to authority, but also rapid extremism.' He also notes: 'Individuals are becoming more and more powerful as governments become less so.'

Here, the act of being a contrarian is the act of speaking the plain truth when the world isn't always ready or willing to hear it.

But for every Khan there's a Donald Trump, a man who has built an entire presidential campaign by exploiting the kinds of unpopular opinions that fill internet forums' comments section. There's a reason he's the most popular presidential hopeful on Reddit, a site that is entirely made up of user-generated comment threads and known for its anti-establishment leanings. Earlier this year, the subreddit called r/The_Donald had 52 million page views. The bullying, hatemongering, xenophobia, sexism, racism – it's all there.

But for those of us who shudder at the thought of a Trump presidency, Kutarna is quick to point out that the issue isn't as simple as the Trumps of the world rising up and toppling the establishment. 'It's hard to look simplistically at that and say one or the other is growing steadily stronger. It's actually that the scale of conflict between them is growing,' he says.

'What we're really saying is, "Wow, reality doesn't fit my expectations anymore,"' Kutarna continues. 'Rapid change has invalidated what we think we know. And so Donald Trump, is what it is. Reality is what it is. We just didn't see it coming.'

And yet, despite the unsettling nature of the climate that has led to this wave of contrary thinking – the volatility, the uncertainty, the Trumps – I still believe the exciting possibilities of this new age outweigh the drawbacks. And let's be real, that's probably because the presence of my voice on these pages wouldn't even be possible without it (and my like-minded contrarian Editor).

Listening to Goldin and Kutarna only bolsters that feeling. 'This is actually the best time in human history to be alive,' says Goldin. 'There are just a lot more geniuses in the world, there's a lot more creativity and [our connectivity] allows these ideas to be shared. There's also more diversity and that's incredibly healthy and leads to new ideas and thinking' – unpopular opinions and all, for better and worse. And on that note, it only feels right to end with a tweet from the most notorious contrarian of our time, Mr Kanye West himself: 'I don't give opinions because they are commonly agreed upon. I say what I feel.'