Fashion from the Dirt — BEAUGAN by Christopher Hancy
Christopher Hancy is uninterested in the current fashion landscape’s two extremes: fast fashion and spectacle. The Tokyo-based fashion-designer is instead choosing to create work slowly, launch seasons quietly, and leave room in his life for thinking things through. Hancy’s young brand BEAUGAN suggests looking closely at the origins of things—the beauty in the natural world and the foundation of self-identity.
Text by Charis Poon
Photos by Stanley Cheng
I can easily imagine living in Japan. To an outsider like me, the culture has vast creative depths and seems to encourage a quiet dedication to exploring them. Each visit to Tokyo re-awakens my plans to move there. So even before meeting Christopher Hancy, the 31-year-old Tokyo-based fashion designer and Australian transplant by way of Antwerp, I felt I could understand why he would choose to make his home here.
Hancy’s family arrived on one of the first boats to land on the continent of Australia at the start of the 19th century. Still, while growing up, Hancy was often asked where he was from. He looks nothing like the prototypical light-skinned blonde Aussie surfer. “That’s where my identity problem comes from, I guess.” For him, his inability to fit in as a kid partially explains his interest in creating culture and how individuals define themselves through fashion, art, and music.
As a high schooler, Hancy wanted to become a doctor, but failed the necessary exam. His backup plan was becoming a lawyer, but he found solving other people’s disputes over accidents and money to be boring. He then tried his hand at something completely different by studying fine art at a school taught completely by practicing artists. However, at the time, he saw the life of an artist as full of struggle and unhappiness. He then happened on modeling, which introduced him to the fashion world. Hancy was drawn to fashion because he saw it as having “this commercial aspect where everything is deadlines and crunch times to make some kind of product which then they want to sell, but at the same time they’re creating a fantasy, so it has the same aspirations as art.” After ten years of experience in fashion, Hancy remains drawn to creating both desirable apparel and beautiful things, but not mere fantasies.
Hancy tells me, “there’s so many young brands and everyone is trying to outdo each other, smashing out over-the-top stuff.” He admits he’s also a young designer and that, although there is a place for spectacle-like work, he wants no part of the competitive aspect of fashion or its over-the-top style. “It’s boring to be doing that. For me, that’s the easy route. That’s the easy way to go, creating this extravagant showpiece stuff, because that’s my background.”
To him, contemporary fashion is intent on “selling a fantasy, selling a dream that doesn’t exist.” He goes on to say, “I want to show something that’s more difficult, which is showing beautiful things in everyday life.” This is why Hancy created his brand BEAUGAN in early 2017. He seeks to reveal the extant beauty in the natural world and everyday life, and hopes this concept will grow and spread to other designers and creative people.
I want to show something that’s more difficult, which is showing beautiful things in everyday life.
— Hancy on the original thinking behind BEAUGAN
BEAUGAN is Hancy’s vision of “clothing that’s very normal.” “Normal” to Hancy does not mean simple, both in terms of concept and manufacturing. The first collection, Fall/Winter 2017, consisted of forty-two separate brown and black variants of 22 designs. Each article’s unique color is produced through dorozome, a mud-dying technique from Japan’s Amami island. The 1,300-year-old art has remained largely unchanged thanks to the island’s distance from the mainland and the Amami artisans’ dedication to sustainability. Tree bark, dried coral, mud, and clay found on the island are used in the different steps of the dying process. Much like denim, Hancy’s dorozome clothing will develop character over time, changing in color and patina depending on the wearer.
Dorozome artisans labor over their materials and garments by hand, and the process has a built-in timeline that cannot be rushed. Hancy wants BEAUGAN to represent an alternative to the fast-paced cycles of flashy contemporary fashion introduced to him during his studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. His graduate collection in 2012 consisted of dramatic streetwear-inspired pieces with big silhouettes. It was so well received that each item from the collection was snatched up by different members of the fashion industry, who bought them privately from Hancy. When he launched BEAUGAN, these same supporters were confused. “Because when you compare it to my previous work, it’s much more toned down and keyed in.” After graduation, Hancy became disillusioned by the excessive way fashion designers create and the excessive way people consume. He needed to take a step back and rethink what he wanted to achieve. “I didn’t want to become a particular kind of person. I knew how to make all these showpieces, but I didn’t know how to make clothing. I knew fashion, but I didn’t know what goes into fashion.”
The BEAUGAN studio in Tokyo is located in a small upstairs apartment across from a junior high school on a quiet street in Yoyogi, a district sandwiched between the bustling hubs of Shinjuku and Shibuya. The name BEAUGAN is a portmanteau of ‘beautiful’ and ‘bogan,’ Australian slang for someone who’s rough around the edges, or as Hancy defines it, “an uncouth or unsophisticated person regarded as being of low social status.” The term used to have a stronger negative connotation and was intended as a put-down, but has since evolved into a term that can be used light-heartedly between friends.
I connect Hancy’s choice of the word ‘bogan’ to the interest he has in the Japanese dance form ankoku butoh. Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, the country’s general consciousness once again shifted to following the West and modernizing (as it did with the Meiji Restoration in 1868). In terms of dance, this meant that ballet was considered the most beautiful dance form. Ankoku butoh (“dance of darkness”) was created by Tatsumi Hijikata in the late 1950s as a reaction against the adoration of European culture over Japanese culture. Hijikata wanted to resurrect the idea behind kabuki theater, which traditionally was entertainment for everyday people and similar to television soap operas. Noh theater was for the elite in Japanese society, and kabuki was for everyone. “Hijikata wanted to recreate that spirit of the man and woman on the street,” Hancy tells me, “he was inspired by his grandmother walking through the mud when she was planting rice, working the rice field hunched over. He saw this kind of movement, this painful, slow, struggling movement, as something that’s beautiful.”
To Hijikata, ankoku butoh was the opposite of the ethereal lightness idealized by ballet. Ankoku butoh is about human struggle on Earth depicted as a beautiful thing. “It sounds horrible, but the world is a struggle. We have to live through the world somehow, through the struggle. He was being pure to that in a way.” Hancy talks about what he finds so inspiring about Hijikata’s vision, “it’s born from the dirt. It comes from people themselves and their ingenuity.”
“Born from the dirt” is a useful way to understand BEAUGAN. With BEAUGAN, Hancy wants to put something out in the world that is beautiful and desirable in a way that isn’t gimmicky or excessive. “I want all the design processes to be there for a reason. There’s a reason why the shape is cut like this or the pocket is assembled like that. Everything is really thought about.” The process of dorozome means the garments are literally transformed by mud, but the choices Hancy makes are also intentionally focused, as much as possible, on origins. Hancy starts his design process by thinking about the needs and life of the wearer, rather than envisioning a final surreal photo campaign or fashion week presentation.“I really think about the person that’s going to wear it. I think that’s something that fashion has kind of lost.”
It sounds horrible, but the world is struggle. We have to live through the world somehow, through the struggle. He was being pure to that in a way.
— Hancy on Hijikata Tatsumi’s inspiration for the dance form he created, ankoku butoh
Hancy has philosophized extensively about identity. He sees human identity as beginning with the mind and then progressing outwardly from there. He tells me that identity begins with the way a person thinks; next if you’re religious, it’s a person’s spirit. After that is the way we perceive ourselves physically. Lastly, what comes next, between our physical perception of our self and the rest of society, is clothing. Hancy observes that individuals will think a great deal about the way they interact with others.
“We always actively engage with, ‘who am I hanging out with? Is this person a good person or a bad person? Am I being a good person? What’s my relationship? How’s it working out?’ We stress about that.” Clothing is the layer that comes between ourselves and other people. “It’s like an amoeba. This kind of cellular organism has a cellular wall which allows things to go in or out. The way we dress ourselves is like how we define that cellular wall.”
BEAUGAN is his expression of this philosophy. “I feel that if we can be responsible for who we are internally, then we can be responsible for who we are externally. Why don’t we think about clothes in the same way?”
This thoughtful consideration of clothing as a part of how we identify ourselves has resonated the strongest with people from professional industries that are adjacent to fashion: writers, graphic designers, architects, photographers, artists, and small business owners. Hancy wanted to create fashion for a new market that isn’t the group of people who are already consuming fashion and are targeted by much of the fashion industry. Fashion, as he sees it, has a long history of telling people that they can’t be themselves and now, people are pushing back. “Why can’t I just be me? Why do I have to be this pop star or have to look like this magazine image? Why is it valuable to be someone else?” About what he hopes fashion can actually accomplish for individuals he says, “You can really bring the most out of yourself. You can create yourself visually, which is a beautiful thing.”
Why can’t I just be me? Why do I have to be this pop star or have to look like this magazine image? Why is it valuable to be someone else?
— Hancy on consumers pushing back against fashion’s predominant messaging
To this end, Hancy has recreated himself in Japan. He tells me that he thinks he could live anywhere, but he sees Japan as having an abundance of history and philosophy that’s beautiful and interesting. “What I feel like is through investigating things historically here or Europe or wherever, I can start to realize or work out how I can do the same in regards to Australian history, or my own history. It’s learning techniques. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to learn about myself through learning about other: other cultures, other people, other groups of people, what other people are doing.” Being based in Japan, Hancy is figuring himself out first—away from places that would, according to him, have more expectations on his behavior. “I’m kind of glad to be in this situation because it gives me so much fluidity and the possibility to move in different groups. I can be whoever I am. There is a freedom of not being burdened.”
This desire to be free to form your own identity independent from the expectations of history or the fashion world is an idea that Hancy wants to unite other people under. “It’s building a community, really; that’s the dream of every person. Every group that creates some culture, they want that. If you don’t have an identity, you want to find your global family.” As an Australian who chose to leave home and a fashion designer bored with what he observes in fashion, Hancy seeks people who think the same way he does, rather than look similar or work in the same profession. “I’ve had, since the beginning, this desire to create a global tribe of people who are like-minded and share the same ideas, this same way of thinking. I want to make a base for that. And then, this base, I really want it to be a space to encourage creativity, encourage collaboration, and have the idea of exchange.”
BEAUGAN as a “counter-reaction to fashion” is apparel imbued with the creator’s intention to allow individuals to create their own identity. It is also, as a personal way of thinking and living, the embodiment of Hancy’s pursuit to reveal beauty in the natural world. BEAUGAN in the future, as he intends, will be a community exchanging ideas to create culture in a way they can’t find elsewhere. In our conversation, Hancy made clear what he has put behind him and what he stands for now, even while his message to the world is still taking shape. “I want substance and I want quality. I created a brand to achieve that. Hopefully I’m getting there.”