Society’s relationship with masculinity has always been a contentious one. Men are often represented as the caretakers, the goal-setters, the providers, and the protectors. However, with so many roles to fulfil, men never have the opportunity to explore their own identity outside the identity given to them by society.
The menswear brand Danshan, founded by Danxia Liu and Shan Peng Wong, is aiming to challenge those perceptions by creating pieces that allow men to fully explore their masculinity without adhering to the rigid societal expectations of what it means to be a man. Their aim is to show the world that men can be the providers and the protectors but also, emotional and sensitive as well. Because for Danshan, masculinity is not defined by what you wear but how you wear it. 
How did your genderbending menswear brand Danshan come about?
We wanted to talk about the masculinity of men in general instead of talking about or designing for both sexes. I understand that everyone perceives it from a different perspective, which I totally respect. It does seem like some pieces come across as a bit feminine but then, our inspirations always come from how we see masculinity in the modern age, which at least for men has not progressed much.
Women are accepted by society for who they are, whether they’re tough, strong, and powerful, or vulnerable, soft, or emotional. All are acceptable for the people from our generation. What we think is that men still lack society’s acceptance to be gentler and more emotional at times. That’s why we try to enhance and embrace that, and show people how men can be emotional and vulnerable as well. So it’s not really about trying to blend men and women together, but about showing the other side of how men can be and what we think would be nice for men as well.
Dan, as a girl, you essentially had to grow up as a boy due to Chinese society’s preference for males as an indirect result of China’s one-child policy. How did your surreal childhood experience as having to grow up as a boy influence your desire to start Danshan?
I was born a girl but my grandmother preferred to have a grandson, so she asked my dad to divorce my mom, and ever since, it’s just created quite a lot of hostility in the family. When I was little, my dad usually took me to the barbers to cut my hair really short, and I was taken to play football, basketball, martial arts, or other really boyish sports. I actually really didn’t have many memories from those times until I was only sort of finding out how I was growing up. I didn’t even have many pictures. Growing up was just a really weird experience; it wasn’t until a school project in which we had to look back on our past and on how we grew up when I started thinking about it.
When I and Shan were talking about masculinity, we sort of had this point of view of the way men were growing up. They were not nurtured enough. With the way they grew up, they were always almost trained to be the breadwinner, and in terms of emotional development, they were not as nurtured as girls. That really resonated with my experience.
When I was little, people thought that I was a boy and my parents were really strict. The way I grew up wasn’t like that of any normal girl. All of these experiences came together and we formed this brand with a message to celebrate male vulnerability. We would like to give men the freedom to express and to nurture themselves emotionally. Hopefully one day, men can flourish through a very emotional education.
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And for you, Shan, were there strict expectations for being a boy growing up in Hong Kong? If so, how did they play a part in your upbringing and your desire to start the eponymous brand with Dan?
When I was growing up, Hong Kong was actually a very traditional Chinese place as well, so we had a double culture. Boys should play the masculine role and girls should play the feminine role, although it was sort of more open in a way. But the rules and restrictions of what boys could do and what girls could do still applied. Hong Kong had been under British ruling since 1841, but during WWII, the Japanese took over for a period of time before returning back to the British after the war was over.
Over time, it turned into a very commercialized place, and I would say that if you’re talking about commercialism or materialism, that is the place to be. It grows really fast and competition is always there, especially with the Chinese background, culture and history; all boys are extremely competitive. It’s all about money – who earns the most, who’s got a better car, who’s got a bigger house, etc., and that goes all the way down to education.
Everybody strives to be the best, but in a way, that has nothing to do with your emotions. It’s all about which school you go to and what successful people (financially speaking) are from that school. That status, which is really superficial, plays a huge part in everyone’s childhood. So boys learn how to play a musical instrument, to play sports, etc. Boys excel at everything that boys are supposed to excel at, so the pressure is really, really high. And even to this day, it’s still the same.
Based in the United Kingdom but founded by two Chinese fashion designers, how has the intersection of Chinese and European cultures influence the style and work of Danshan?
We both went to Central Saint Martins, and I think it (or any art school in general) is a very different place. We met all kinds of people and realized that there are so many possibilities. Everyone wants to express him or herself; everyone has got a message they truly believe in, which they are happy and proud to express through media, whether it’s fashion, art, photography or sculpture. So I think it changed us a lot and we grew a lot out of it. There are so many places for us to experiment, to find who we truly are instead of believing what the system has told us about who we should be.
Speaking of style, how has yours evolved from your first Spring/Summer 2017 collection to your most recent one? The Spring/Summer 2017 collection seemed more feminine with its lack of structure and lines, unlike the Spring/Summer 2019 collection, which has more definitive structure and shape.
When we first started the Spring/Summer 2017 collection, we sort of built this character. We didn’t design with a super solid character that was already there; we built it bit by bit and explored different areas. What we were looking into was this man exploring his identity in his own space, so it was like an experimental collection. It was like trying out. It’s almost like playing dress up at home, to see and feel the fabric.
That collection was very much about men in satin – a generous amount of satin. By using this fabric and draping it on men, we hoped it could change the way they felt. In traditional menswear, men’s fabric is quite stiff and structured, and it almost forces you to have a tougher attitude in a way. We wanted to experiment with something that’s almost opposite from what people expect to put on a man traditionally, how it’s going to change them in a way, and how people would perceive it as quite feminine. But to us, it’s not feminine at all.
Every collection is often an exploration of how we put this man together bit by bit and then experiment with different areas of how we think we can look into this message of how we see modern masculinity. We grow a lot with the ideas season by season. That’s how we sort of got to the Spring/Summer 2019 collection, which looks rather different structurally, but we're still looking at the same man. It’s just that this one is more mature and more together instead of being a pure experiment or looking back into what has been done before. It’s a collection of ideas and techniques that we wanted to gather and mount into one thing.
“We formed this brand with a message to celebrate male vulnerability. We would like to give men the freedom to express and to nurture themselves emotionally.”
Where do you find your inspiration for each collection? How do you bring that inspiration to life with the materials, shapes, and designs?
We don’t really have a formula for it to be honest. We start by chatting with each other, asking what’s on each other’s mind and what we’re thinking at that time, so everything often comes together really naturally. There is a stage where we start the collection with one word related to the emotions that we want to portray that season. But it always sort of becomes and grows into something else because there is two of us. It’s not like we have this idea and we just focus on it and execute it. It’s more natural than that, so it’s hard to put into words.
But since there are two of us, conversation is really important. I think that is what we are trying to encourage people to do as well with our collections. Not just to look at the clothes or the presentation but to actually talk about what’s behind it; to just get people talking because communication and conversation are how we’re going to evolve and try to make the place more interesting and better in the end. Without conversation, it’s just one man’s idea, and we don’t think it’s going to go anywhere.
You’ve recently participated in Shanghai Fashion Week, which is starting to gain more international appeal. What was the experience like for you two, and did the event help garner the brand more attention?
Because of the story we were trying to tell (although they were the same clothes we had shown previously in London), it actually didn’t change much the way we presented it, at least for us creatively. Culturally, on the topic that we’re trying to discuss, there is a very different view and understanding and we wanted to make the show relatable to the audience.
For example, for our Fall/Winter 2017 collection in Shanghai, we actually built a fake office space because China is very commercialized and people are working 24/7. Men are supposed to be the breadwinners, and the pressure of working hard and making more money is really mounting up. There’s a key problem: the pressure and emotional strain comes mostly from that, so we tried to change the show quite a bit so people could relate to it. That was the biggest difference.
Danshan could be seen as a social project in its approach to the complex nature of gender and the representation of masculinity in society. What conversation do you hope to have on gender and masculinity in both society and fashion?
I think that the fashion industry is a good place for everyone to have a voice, and that’s why it’s interesting for each brand to show its opinion. And for us, it’s still going to be about masculinity and how we see this alternative flourish and get people to talk about it. It’s not about men becoming women or about gender in general. I think that what we are trying to talk about might be a bit different. From our starting point, it’s about supporting and encouraging men mentally and spiritually, in a way that frees them from feeling restricted. We all have emotions, and they are not restricted to a few. I don’t think that emotions should be gendered in a way. It wouldn’t help to achieve happiness if there was only one side to one’s emotions.
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Since the end of China’s one-child policy, families are now allowed to have two children. As such, do you believe that contemporary Chinese society is slowly starting to change the way it approaches the topic of gender? Or do you think the traditional beliefs of gender are far too entrenched in China to be changed currently?
Weirdly enough, I think it’s the opposite. China has just opened up after a very long time, so people are still used to taking on new ideas, especially the younger generations. Vice versa, the Western world has evolved so much that it has sort of slowed down; with the idea of masculinity, people think that it has got to a place where it’s comfortable and have stopped making changes or talking about it. I think that men’s mental health has been a big topic these days, which is a really good thing, but I still feel like it’s taking longer for the Western world to make changes – unlike China or Asia in general.
For example, the Korean pop culture of men wearing makeup or the extravagant outfits is an accepting place for youngsters. It’s like the glam rock period of the ‘70s and the ‘80s, when people were alright with male pop stars being flamboyant or being different and embraced it. But now, people have actually drawn back a bit and they don’t want to be outward in a way with their identity. Look at Western culture and their pop stars and celebrities. They look more similar and play safer.
Despite being a young brand, Danshan has already caught some major attention from publications and stockists. What’s next for the two of you and the future of your brand?
I think aesthetic wise, we’re pretty much going to carry on exploring this idea of masculinity and how we see and feel about it. Things change and, generally, evolve. We are growing with our ideas and we’ll change accordingly, but it’s just hard to say. We plan to show in different places and carry on the message and inspire people to talk about this issue that we believe in. Hopefully, there will be changes, and how people wear clothes will change, which would then change the mentality and open up people to be more emotional. To be honest, we’re not the only designers talking about male vulnerability these days. When it comes to menswear designers, there are many of them that have the same interest. I think it’s a really good thing that everyone is trying to express it in their way, and we are just a small puzzle in this big picture.
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