A couple of years ago I did a piece about a local clothing store, The Brooklyn Circus, and its remarkable owner Ouigi, aka “The Bearded Man.” The piece never ran in the end, but I just came across a box of the incredible photographs that John Midgley took for the project, and thought it was worth putting up. The Brooklyn Circus is still going strong and as eclectic as ever: Ouigi is definitely still on track for his 100 year-plan…
SHARP-EYED flâneurs will have noticed something strange going on recently near an otherwise unremarkable Brooklyn street corner at the edge of the borough’s Boerum Hill neighborhood. Amidst the principle sartorial tribes of affluent white Banana Republicans and poor black XXL-clad denizens who inhabit either side of this urban faultline where nineteenth-century row houses meet housing projects, a third tribe can be seen; young, multi-racial, and as gaudily dressed in comparison as a hummingbird in a field of crows.
Their look is kind of tailored, kind of not; jeans rolled up to calf-length mingle with tailored suits and well-cut blazers; neckties and even a cravat are on display, though socks seem optional. Shoes are important—loafers and English lace-up brogues, and the occasional hi-tech sneaker. Hair is short and faces clean-shaven, except where they sprout unapologetic beards and sideburns; one man’s mustache droops under the weight of its Gallic insouciance. Cufflinks glint on wrists and buttonholes bloom outrageously. There are fancy vests and suspenders in various checks and patterns, even a cummerbund in shocking tartan, though some sport simply (neatly pressed) tee-shirts. Hats are big—Po’ Boys, bowlers, Panamas—and so are smart and glistening wristwatches, often anchoring well well-tattooed arms. Faces are black, Asian and white, and reveal accents as far away as Grenada, Tokyo and France. In other words, any attempt at formal description falls apart instantly under the gleeful assault of influences assembled by its dedicatees. It’s as though Ralph Lauren had been thrown in a blender with a New Orleans street band, a couple of rappers and a 1950s college frat house. Yet despite its fractured nature it holds together perfectly, forming a cohesive and absolutely original style of its own. Call it the new Urban Dandyism.
Like all movements there is a mastermind behind it, though he prefers to see himself as a “leader among leaders,” rather than anything so structured and formal. That mastermind is a warm, 34 year-old Haitian-American with Corbusier glasses and a dense jutting beard known to all as Ouigi (pronounced Wee-gee), or sometimes simply “The Bearded Man.” Ouigi is the owner and creative director of a fashion store—for want of a better term—called The Brooklyn Circus, which sells his line of men’s clothing, together with a range of sympathetic items by other designers, on the corner of Bergen and Nevins Streets. Since it opened in 2006, it has become the epicenter of a three-ring sartorial rumpus.
The store’s look is as divergent as its clientele’s, its windows containing a selection of objects and clothes that represent Ouigi’s cracked-yet-whole manifesto to the world: an ancient cricket scoreboard sits near a wooden newel post from a Brownstone; a Brooklyn Circus tee-shirt with a sailor boy motif on it is next to a book entitled Freedom: The African-American Struggle; a pair of futuristic sneakers with bright red laces sits alongside an old Singer sewing table; an old green-and-white Schwinn bike jostles a smart military-meets-country-club blazer, and in the corner lies a copy of Oscar Style: 75 Years of Glamour, Glitter and Glory. Inside, in the unlikely event you thought you’d figured out what kind of joint this was, a vast chrome Harley-Davidson chopper belonging to Ouigi—a long-time biker—awaits you, leaning nonchalantly on its kick stand surrounded by racks of shirts, shoes, books, posters and photographs.
Like all circuses, The Brooklyn Circus prefers to pitch itself on peripheral ground, belonging in no camp yet a beacon to all. “It’s just a beautiful junction,” says Ouigi of his store’s location, who fought hard against commonsense advice to locate on a more commercial thoroughfare. For Ouigi, the area is “a bridge,” a place where “middle-aged white guys, white women, black men, young black kids from the projects, Hispanics, Asians—all of them meet here, and I’m cool with all of them, you know? It’s like, my whole life has always been so many different sides and I can’t just chose one side. It’s always been: ‘How do you mesh them?’ That’s always been my story.”
Which brings us, inevitably, to race. Like Ouigi, the son of middle-class, well-traveled Haitian parents who settled in Brooklyn when he was eight, many of his troupe are of Caribbean origin (Grenadines, Bajans and Trinidadians among them, as well as Guyanese, Cubans and African-Americans), yet race, in the form of any specifically black cultural statement, seems genuinely and happily irrelevant to the whole Brooklyn Circus ethic. Despite the worship of the high Gods of European Prepsterism, Ouigi’s brand of urban dandyism is not, for example, a self-conscious appropriation of “white style,” angrily, ironically or otherwise. Nor is it about protest or dissent or deliberate provocation of any kind. As with all good circus acts, there’s simply too much joy and self-confidence for that. Ouigi and his friends are merely doing what white folk have always felt entitled to do: pluck whatever they want from wherever they want to express what is deepest within them.
In that sense, The Brooklyn Circus strikes a new and authentic note from so many other youthful style movements that have gone before. As Ouigi says, “It’s taken for granted that I’m black, and of course it’s important for us to express that. But this store is not just for brown people, it’s for everyone. Because that’s what makes it so interesting. You can slice and dice your culture and experiences into ever smaller categories: ‘It’s a Brooklyn thing! No—it’s a Boerum Hill thing!’ You can do that forever, but the reality is, it’s us as artists expressing ourselves to the world.”
Is perhaps mainstream fashion the one thing Ouigi is in revolt against? He claims not, citing Alexander McQueen and Yohji Yamamoto as two of his favorites, though he admits he sees American fashion as being “too utilitarian” and lacking its European counterparts’ sense of drama, something he tries to inject into his own brand—“I mean, it’s the circus, man. Absolutely!” What about the increasingly homogenized state of the neighborhood’s retail streets, with their proliferation of Atomic Wings, Lucky Jeans, Rite-Aides, banks and other chain stores? Ouigi sighs. “I don’t get depressed often, but the more I see that the more it encourages me to keep doing what I’m doing.” He laughs. “We’re that refresher, that lemonade stand along the dusty road!”
Nor is the whole Brooklyn Circus phenomenon neatly attributable to Obama-mania, though it fits the zeitgeist so neatly one may be forgiven for thinking so. “It’s pure coincidence,” says Ouigi, who deliberately stayed away from designing any Obama tee-shirts or other such merchandise. “A lot of things are happening in Brooklyn right now; Brooklyn arts, the Brooklyn renaissance, and people say, ‘Oh, you guys timed it right!’ and I say, ‘Believe me, I would of if I could have!’ It was just me expressing myself. It’s a feeling. You don’t do any fashion forecasting.”
Ouigi does indulge in business forecasting, though, and he has big plans for the BKc brand, as it’s termed. There are already two sister stores, one in Chicago, the other in San Francisco, and he makes no bones about his eventual desire for a global operation, with outlets in London, LA, Tokyo (where BKc is a big cult hit) and elsewhere, offering not just clothes but a whole range of home furnishings and accessories. But he’s hardly a CEO in a hurry. “The guys laugh at me because I talk about a 100 year-plan,” he says. “But it’s true. Our aim is to become one of the great American brands, not because it sounds cool, not because we want to be sitting on top of the hill—‘Security! No more autographs today!’ No, because it’s more important than that, because anything you do is about process, and enjoying the process. Ultimately, we want to build a tradition that our grandchildren can eat off.”