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Splitting hair clubs: Schism roils competitive facial hair world

Splitting hair clubs: Schism roils competitive facial hair world
A flier opposing the use of the name "world beard and moustache championships" for an upcoming facial hair competition. (Chad Roberts)

There's a bitter battle of the beardsmen brewing‎ in the run-up to a high-profile facial-hair face-off scheduled to take place Oct. 25 in Portland, Ore.

At issue is the right, in the eyes of the global community of beard- and mustache-growing enthusiasts, of the event to bill itself the "World Beard and Moustache Championships," a term that has long referred to a biennial international conclave long organized under the auspices of the World Beard and Moustache Assn. (WBMA). That group staged its most recent world championship event in 2013 in Leinfelden-Echterdingen, Germany, with the next one scheduled for Leogang, Austria, in 2015.

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The group staging the upcoming Portland event has held similar competitions, known as the "National Beard & Moustache Championships," around the country since 2010, switching up the title for 2014.

A description at the event's website doesn't say outright – but seems to imply – the events are related. "The 2014 World Beard and Moustache Championships® will take place in Portland, Oregon on October 25. The Portland event marks a break from the tradition of holding a world championship only biennially," it reads. "The event will give Americans unable to travel to Europe an opportunity to compete on the world stage for the first time since 2009 and is the first time the event has been held in an even-numbered year."

Use of the name did not sit well with many in the international brotherhood of beardsmen and 'stachethletes who feel that use of "world championships" is misleading and disingenuous and that the WBMA is the only group legitimately entitled to bestow titles and awards under the name. Over the last month, that contingent has taken to social media, laying out their case via Facebook and Twitter and asking sponsors and attendees to boycott what they've dubbed the "Fake Worlds." To date, three sponsors have pulled their support and 103 facial hair clubs worldwide have signed on in opposition.

But here's the wrinkle: The man orchestrating the Portland event, Phil Olsen, applied for – and recieved in 2012 – U.S. Patent and Trademark Office protection for the phrase "world beard and moustache championships" in the U.S. And, earlier this week, enforcing that servicemark resulted in the shutdown Wednesday of the WBMA's own Facebook page – a development that pushed the follicular free-for-all to a fever pitch. Some people posted photos of themselves setting on fire tickets to the Portland event, others offered to accommodate boycotting participants at other facial hair competitions and others responded with all manner of hashtags that common decency prevents us from reprinting here.

(In full disclosure, at Olsen's invitation I was a volunteer judge at the 2012 National Beard and Moustache Championships in Las Vegas, and had been asked to reprise that role for the upcoming event, an invitation I declined weeks ago for reasons wholly unrelated to the current situation.)

According to Olsen, he hadn't expected Facebook to shutter the group's entire Facebook page. "I reported to Facebook content that was false and in violation of my company's trademark rights," he told us. "The [posted] content said that they owned the exclusive right worldwide to use the name and to determine when and where a world beard and moustache championship could take place. It actually surprised me that I reported specifc content on their page and they took the whole page down -- I thought they might just take the content off. I didn't say they can't call themselves the World Beard and Moustache Association. "

In a phone interview from Sweden on Friday, WBMA President Hans Hamrin described a similar version of events. "What happened was, someone – I think it was one of the German [beard club] guys -- posted something in the comments there that said [the Portland event] was an illegal competition and Phil Olsen then did something so that it was closed down," Hamrin said. "That's all I know right now."

"I don't think Phil was being very intelligent when he chose to use that name in Portland," Hamrin told us. "Because he has made a lot of enemies now, especially among the Germans since they started this whole [facial-hair competition] thing back in 1990 and 1995. They are very angry."

Olsen is a well-known -- and often divisive -- figure on the world competitive facial hair circuit. After discovering the niche, he has spent the last decade-plus trying to turn a small, obscure Northern European pastime -- the competitive growing, grooming and shaping of beards and mustaches -- into an Olympic-level international spectacle complete with big-name sponsors and judges, and lots and lots of media coverage.

A resident of Tahoe City, Calif., Olsen worked with the WBMA to bring that group's 2003 world competition to Carson City, Nev. (the first time the event had been held on U.S. soil and the year Olsen says he first began using the title), and then Anchorage, Alaska, in 2009, both efforts that helped stoke the current stateside enthusiasm for competitive beardsmanship.

Although surprised by the level of backlash to labeling next Saturday's event a world championship, Olsen disagrees with the notion that the name of his upcoming event is either disingenuous or misleading.

"I registered it in the U.S. and I put years of effort into publicizing, promoting and developing interest in it," he said. "So I don't feel that I'm infringing on their rights at all.... What it really comes down to is that I want to see the event become a world-class event, and it's not going to be a world-class event under the stewardship of that organization primarily because they are so oriented toward these small local clubs that don't have the financial wherewithal to put on a world-class event."

And the instant trademark issue and social media campaign aside, that's the real heart of the issue: Olsen has long bristled at the structure of the WBMA (specifically its rules for voting and the way it defined member clubs), which he feels makes it difficult to realize a competition with the size, scope and pop-culture cachet he thinks it can achieve, and having legal control of the name "world beard and moustache championships" affords him some leverage – at least here in the U.S.

"We want to make [the competition] larger," says the WBMA's Hamrin. "But this is up to every [host] club who arranges the competition. They can do what they want. If they want to earn [sponsorship] money on it, that's OK with us." (Hamrin points out that the WBMA exists to do just two things: meet every two years to vote on a future host club for four years hence and make sure judging criteria for each type of facial hair are uniform.)

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If not resolved sooner, the world beard and mustache championships rivalry probably will come to a head in 2017. That's when the WBMA-sanctioned event is scheduled to return to the U.S., hosted by the Austin Facial Hair Club in Austin, Texas.

Olsen said he was still undecided about taking legal action over use of the phrase. "It's a long way away," Olsen said, "and I haven't made the final decision on that. But what I'd really like to do is cooperate with that [Austin] group in a way that ensures the quality of the event is other than damaging to the name."

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Will it be possible for the battling beardsmen to pound their mustache combs into plowshares at some point in the future?

"Are you asking me if there's a way to make peace? Yes, there is," Olsen says. "It's to form an organization that's truly democratic -- where all the competitors have a right to vote."

"I just want things to go on normally," Hamrin said. "And be able to use our own [competition's] name without having to engage a number of lawyers to clear this up. The WBMA doesn't even have petty cash. I just want peace."

For the latest in fashion and style news, follow me @ARTschorn

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