Following his departure from the agency space, the creative multihyphenate resurrects his digital platform in podcast form
For Christopher Michael, demystifying the sociology of creative industries is a lifelong pursuit. If fashion, design, and art are essential symptoms of cultural shifts and clear gauges of the aesthetics of the times, then the minds of aesthetes, thinkers, and industry leaders are ripe grounds to examine. He believes their personal narratives, brimming with unique perceptions and anxieties, can unveil the necessary elements of contemporary life.
Hailing from Vancouver, Canada, Michael set out for New York in his early-20s, where he kickstarted a career as a modeling agent, diving head-first into the cutthroat and fast-paced industry. With fashion as his first love and work as his obsession, he moved into the agency world’s upper echelons, ultimately earning the position of chief creative officer at prestigious companies like Ford Models and The Society Management.
Wholly immersed in the industry’s turbulent trends and hectic pace, he began to question what was considered contemporary: What do we define as modern, and how long does it keep that qualifier?
In 2011, Michael launched the digital platform What’s Contemporary with a series of conversations—presented in the form of essays, videos, interviews, and collages—which ran biweekly until 2014. Thriving on instinct, a love of knowledge, and an intuitive understanding of personality, he probed the ingredients integral to the modern-day experience. Given the carefully constructed glamor of the fashion world, one can easily forget that real people exist behind its alluring conceit. Michael’s exchanges with various thought leaders present genuine, intriguing ideas, beyond those commonly accepted in the creative industries. To the titular question, guests—such as Willy Vanderperre, Jamie Hawkesworth, Melanie Ward, and Tyrone Lebon—share their own visions of the present moment: personal, measured, thoughtful, and always relatable.
In 2020, creative and cultural industries became aware of a drastic shift in priorities amid a global health crisis and dire economic state. Michael chose to slow down, to dwell, to seek understanding. The sociological metamorphoses of the times were significant and eye-opening, beckoning to be canvassed. In turn, What’s Contemporary returned in 2022 as What’s Contemporary Now? with a new round of conversations. Ten years after its inception, this second chapter sees returning guests, alongside new voices pondering that same original question. The platform’s much-awaited renaissance is presented as a podcast—produced by Shayan Asadi—with its first season featuring industry heavyweights including Amber Valletta, Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, Ferdinando Verderi, and Lucien Pagès, who weigh in on compelling topics from the pressures of sustaining creativity and technological advances in fashion, to environmental issues and ever-present imposter syndrome. The episodes are straightforward and swift-moving, providing a candid snapshot of our times.
Christopher Michael joined Document to discuss his own creative arc, the ethos behind What’s Contemporary, and the podcast’s second season, which launched in March 2023.
Maya Assouad: I’ve always wondered what led you to New York.
Christopher Michael: As a teenager, I had it in my mind that New York was the end-all-be-all. I started looking at flights when I was 16, because I naively assumed that one could hop on a plane and move to New York while in the middle of high school. Over time, I realized it wasn’t possible, given requirements such as visas. A few years later, I traveled from Vancouver to Montreal to attend a party, and I decided to move there. I lived in Montreal for three years, and moved to Toronto briefly before ending up in New York. I decided to come here with no visa and figure it out along the way. Luckily for me, my very dear friend, the makeup artist Hung Vanngo, reprimanded me for being so foolish. He told me I had to do it right and introduced me to his then-friend, who owned a small agency. She gave me my first chance and sponsored me.
Maya: When you planned your move to New York, did you go there thinking you would be a modeling agent?
Christopher: Initially, I did not. My meal ticket was that introduction, so it was a chance for me to stay in New York and work in an industry I had been a fan of for so long. I mean, I grew up watching Tim Blanks on Fashion File while eating Cheerios on my couch. It was a welcome career path.
Maya: Would you say this was your first spark of inspiration around the industry—watching Tim Blanks on your couch?
Christopher: Oh, a hundred percent. I would sit there watching the show with a dictionary, so I could look up the words—and the dramatic statements—that André Leon Talley and Polly Mellen would say about the collections. Seeing models on a runway was such an incredible, otherworldly thing to me. They seemed to be divine, in the way they wielded such force by moving on that catwalk. They really gave life to all of these looks. It developed this very early obsession for me that never really subsided. This led to me becoming a hairstylist, so that I could work Montreal Fashion Week shows.
“Over time, and with the subjectivity of people’s responses, I realized that a definable contemporary didn’t necessarily exist.”
Maya: I have special memories of visiting you in New York then. I vividly remember you pulling this impressive juggling act: balancing a busy social life, an unstoppable career, and a quest for knowledge. I’d find you reading, researching, watching—constantly feeding yourself. It came as no surprise when you launched What’s Contemporary: It was an extension of your curiosity.
Christopher: In 2008, I was working at an agency with an outstanding art department, and it had built out its blog—which, at that time, was a new, cool element for agencies to have on their websites. We had such a well-designed blog, and I wanted to create original content for it that would give people a reason to visit the site every day. I started interviewing different people, and one of the first was with Patti Wilson. Within a week or two of starting that series, Stephan Moskovic, founder and owner of Models.com, asked me if they could run exclusive previews of the interviews, because he loved the content. This led to an even larger series that brought me to the homes of people like Franca Sozzani and other icons.
Over time, and with the subjectivity of people’s responses, I realized that a definable contemporary didn’t necessarily exist. That fascinated me, and made me want to lean into these nuances—those unique perspectives. I had the idea to create a standalone platform that posed the open question, ‘What’s contemporary?’ The first issue was with Katie Grand, the second was with Glen Luchford, and the third was with Joan Juliet Buck. We went on to feature incredible creatives like Ezra Petronio and Alastair McKimm, and we had Patrick Demarchelier shoot for us. It was an exciting time to be an early adopter of digital publishing, working with such incredible people through a standalone platform—one I created without necessarily having to do it under the banner of an agency, or through the booking of a talent.
Maya: Simply put, ‘contemporary’ is ‘current.’ And in the creative fields, strictly speaking, it is design, art, and fashion of the present day. However, the definition of contemporary for you is more fluid, and reflects more complex matters.
Christopher: I think 50 percent of the reason I work in creative and cultural industries is my fascination with sociology. The other 50 percent is, of course, the evolution of how cultures are reflected in the media. It introduced me to that magical intersection between aspiration and relatability. One of the things I’ve always been captivated with is the notion that—no matter how accomplished some of these people are—almost every single one of them, without fail, admits to feeling as though any minute on set, everyone will realize they don’t know what they’re doing.
Maya: Did you feel you had no idea what you were doing at certain moments in your career?
Christopher: I think we all do. If anyone were to tell you they don’t, they would be lying. It’s just a huge part of the human experience. It’s universal for people to feel as though what’s happening to them is unique to their experience. When we have these conversations with inspiring creatives about their journeys and life stories, there’s value in that relatability—fueling the stirring aspect of these exchanges.
“One of the things I’ve always been captivated with is the notion that—no matter how accomplished some of these people are—almost every single one of them, without fail, admits to feeling as though any minute on set, everyone will realize they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Maya: In 2020, the world hit the brakes, practically coming to a halt. The fashion industry was shaken considerably by the pandemic, and whispers of the demise of its current system were getting louder. Did your priorities change during that time?
Christopher: Like most people living through unprecedented times, I was forced to take a different look at life. What’s Contemporary was constantly brought up by creatives and clients in the industry over the years, asking me why it stopped, and whether I would bring it back. At the time of the last issue in 2014, I felt that the question was answered—because the times we were living in had become somewhat definable, a knowable present.
Over time, that unyielding question knocked on my proverbial door again. You and I actually spoke about it multiple times over the years—about resuscitating it, and what form it would take. Sometime around the end of 2021, there was a concrete decision to bring it back as a podcast—a modern medium. As a population, we were suddenly looking at the world differently. In a time of crisis and new realities, that question once again became insistent and pertinent.
Maya: So eight years after the end of its first chapter, What’s Contemporary is back with a creative reorientation. What narratives does this second chapter explore?
Christopher: More than anything, it’s no longer exclusively addressing shifts within the media and creative landscapes. It’s also deep-diving into the modern-day human experience. We touch on a range of topics that impact culture worldwide, such as sustainability, mental health, work-life balance, as well as meditation and manifesting. We speak to people of different generations, aiming to analyze and understand their points of view. And again, trying to find the golden threads in those human experiences, despite diverse aesthetics and roles.
“It’s no longer exclusively addressing shifts within the media and creative landscapes. It’s also deep-diving into the modern-day human experience.”
Maya: I see many returning guests from the first iteration of the platform. Do you hear a considerable shift in the conversation since that first chapter of What’s Contemporary?
Christopher: Of course. While there are timeless themes and common threads, we’re having this conversation in a very different environment—in a very different cultural and media landscape. Things like Web3 and the metaverse are part of the conversation, only because we understand that they’re precursors to more significant changes. They require you to revisit your role in the world: how you contribute, and how that might look different in the not-so-distant future.
Maya: These conversations—of the often gritty, yet poetic journeys that creatives lead—are like bite-sized cultural morsels that motivate and inspire me. Is that how you always imagined them to be?
Christopher: I like to think of them as speed-dating snapshots of personal experiences. Podcasts can sometimes run quite long—well over an hour. Given the nature of the conversations we’re having, the people we have them with, and the audience I imagine will be tuning in, a 20- to 30-minute episode felt much more palatable. This shapes the conversations we’re having: extracting considerable information faster. It is pretty fulfilling, because I realize that—while attempting to satiate my own curiosity—I’m subsequently doing the same for others.