WILLIAMSBURG — Cecile Goossens was fresh off the plane from Belgium on a jaunt to America last January, when the culture shock struck: furry-faced young "beardos" bombarded the streets.
"I noticed it was some kind of fashion in Brooklyn. We don't see that many 'beardos' in Brussels," Goossens, 27, said referring to secular facial hair. "I thought it was funny, all these guys my age have this ritual around beards that’s not Jewish or Islamic."
Would she find more than style when she unmasked the souls beneath the scruff?
Seeking the answer she embarked on "The Beardo Manifesto," a book-in-progress blending drawings, an imaginary tale and real men’s testimonies. The fictional narrative tells of a female protagonist who wishes she could grow a beard — and the real-life material reveals Williamsburg men’s intimate relationships with their own facial manes.
“I thought they would be little notes, like ‘does the moon have some kind of influence on your beard?’ or ‘how much would I have to pay to get you to shave it?’” she said of the men’s answers she expected. “But almost all [their answers] are so touching…It’s a style but at the same time it’s pretty personal.”
Goossens solicited “beardos” for “beardviews” with flyers around Brooklyn (but only got responses in Williamsburg, she noted) and on Facebook through the persona “Mame Barbu” (a name-play on a music club in Brussels called Madame Mustache) — and she met every one of her 18 subjects in person, to delve into their beard-life stories and to take their pictures.
"I kept getting more responses but I’d already left the country," noted Goossens, who stayed in Brooklyn for two months last year after coming to the country with the Belgian dance company Jojiinc., for which she is assistant director.
The subjects she did interview included one man who grew his hair as long as possible before entering the Marines and shaving, one who spent hours every day with lotions and products in his bathroom, and one who decided not to shave while his girlfriend was gone for six months.
One man, Christoffer Lorang Dahl, even took inspiration from his great-great grand uncle who “has the world’s record for the longest beard.”
"I enjoy reflecting on my own character, something that’s not easy for me to do without questions or feedback from other people," said Dahl, 26, a native of Oslo, Norway, of his interview with Goossens. "I felt she had a fun approach to everything, which became apparent to me from her non-standardized posters," he said of the "beardview" ad.
"No one told me, 'Oh, it’s just cool to have a beard these days,' " Goossens said. "It’s more than a look. They care about it but they all have different reasons."
So although Goossens has had to go back to Belgium for her job, she hopes to return to New York to finish the project — and perhaps to wander around the United States on her facial fur pilgrimage.
"I got responses from people all over the country," she said of men who wrote to Mame Barbu on Facebook. "This makes me want to do a beard US road trip, but we’ll see..."