“Beauty may be attractive, but ugliness is more fun,” said a New York Times critic after reading Umberto Eco’s book ‘On Ugliness’. Creative director Javier Lourenço agrees wholeheartedly. His website, The UncoolHunter, turns its back on the alluring and the beautiful in favour of the freakish, the pretentious, the cheap and the ridiculous.
While Eco’s book, one of Javier’s favourites, takes its readers on an historical tour of all that was nauseating and repulsive from Classical times to Modernism, Javier’s own bible of ugliness plumbs recent epochs of bad taste and misguided fashion.
Fresh additions to the site include photos of beefy male strippers from the 80s, designer gold weapons adorned with Prada and Versace logos, coverage of the world beard championships, and pornographic origami.
The pleasure in looking at these posts comes not from the items’ inherent unattractiveness but from the fact that the best of them were borne from misguided attempts to create something genuinely cool, stylish and inspiring.
Take the array of eyebrow tattoos, pencil moustaches, Super-Mario fake nails and man-boob bras of the style section. Or the culinary page, celebrating the ill-advised novelty of the biggest hamburger in the world, and a penis themed restaurant, in which a platter of dog willies is served on an attractive bed of lettuce.
It is no accident that The UncoolHunter follows the format of conventional trend-finding websites. Javier, now director of Amautalab Creative Studios, has himself worked as a ‘trend finder’ for art agencies. “There are lots of online sites looking for trends,” says Javier, “However, these are always for the elite consumer and the ‘in’ culture.
“We thought they were missing a lot of interesting, fun things. We wanted to find things that were good but uncool.” Javier and his friends set about searching for all that was bizarre, camp, kitsch, extravagant, eccentric and pretentious. “We launched the site in 2006 and now 2,000 people a day visit it,” he proudly states.
From Argentina, the website’s founding country, a steady stream of uncoolness abounds, from zombie walkers to fake medieval castles. But the site now boasts uncoolness ‘correspondents’ on every continent, who post pictures of fluffy jumpers from India, badly painted shop signs from Africa and disturbing theme parks in Eastern Europe.
Have the team found some places to be more predisposed to uncoolness than others? “In Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe there are lots of uncool things, perhaps more than in more developed places,” says Javier. “Things are less publicised, less ordered and more marginalised.”
He shows me a video from India in which hundreds of fluffy chicks, dyed in florescent colours, run around a small enclosure. “This would never be allowed in London, for example. But then again you can find uncool things in all corners of the world,” he says.
While some entries are fascinating for their exoticism or ‘marginal’ weirdness, others, such as teenage style disasters, awkward family photographs and school yearbooks featuring badly coiffed hair and novelty sweaters, seem to touch on universal embarrassing memories. “We can all relate to ‘bad taste’,” says alternative fashion guru Tranqui Yanqui, in his interview featured on the site. “Good taste is another story.”
Feeding off the success of the website’s style section, Javier and his team are creating another webpage solely dedicated to street fashion, Unstyle, in which people snap style no-nos on the streets. He shows me an array of terrible tie dye, tragic hippy paraphernalia, boldly patterned shirts, and floral leotards, originating from fashion epochs we thought had safely passed into memory.
Unstyle and The UncoolHunter’s celebration of ‘passionate failures’ reminds me of Susan Sontag’s 1964 definition of ‘camp’. “…things are campy, not when they become old,” she said, “but when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of be frustrated by, the failure of the attempt.”
But presumably we can only enjoy the style catastrophes if it is not us that has been recently snapped, wearing what we thought was our sharpest garb? Has anyone ever got offended about appearing on the UncoolHunter or Unstyle? “No, never,” says Javier. “These are good things, not bad – we love these things.”
And this brings us on to the grand irony behind the uncool: many of these ‘style failures’ are downright fashionable. The 80s pink metallic leggings and shutter shades* that appear on the site are, in truth, desirable items and hipster bars are full of those pencil moustaches and mullets.
Javier and his team declared that “Uncool is the new Cool”, at a talk in a recent design conference, which was followed by a discussion by the editor of Argentine style bible Catalogue on fashion’s ‘new ugly’. Susan Sontag defined kitsch as the opposite of the avant-garde. “Now it’s gone in a circle,” says Javier. “Kitsch is in fashion.”
Perhaps it is inevitable that fashion, with its insatiable need to reinvent itself, might come to delve into the less beautiful epochs of history and style, like the worst of the 80s. “It’s a cycle,” says Tranqui Yanqui. “Something stops being fashionable as soon as it reaches the ‘mass media’. Prices go up and you see the same everywhere and it is time to look for other things “not related to fashion” and start all over again.”
But does hipsters’ and fashionistas’ embrace of the uncool not bring it back into the realm of good taste and elitism, the very things it claims to kick off against?
Inevitably, too much critical thinking would begin to run the risk of itself being terribly uncool. I think back to Susan Sontag’s writing on camp: “It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp,” she says. “One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp.”
Javier ends our chat by showing me a video of an Italian Franciscan monk, known as Fratello Metallo, who sings in a heavy metal band. “What’s important is to be unique, not to be a patron of fashion,” he says, as we chuckle at the deeply uncool spectacle.
Rocking out in his habit and long grey beard, it strikes me that this monk represents uncoolness in one of its purest, and therefore best, forms. Unburdened by the nuances and painful self-consciousness of being fashionable, Fratello Metallo seems to be having a lot of heartfelt fun.