This weekend you might bump into Hogwarts students, Dr Who companions and anime characters trekking from Gent-Sint-Pieters towards the Flanders Expo. If you are wondering where they are going and what they are doing, read on. FACTS, the largest Belgian comic con, happens twice a year, in October and April in Ghent. TheSquare.Gent talked to our local expat expert, Gabriela, to learn more about the world of cosplay.
In 2010, Gabriela found herself in Ghent lonely and without a job. Having left Romania to pursue studies in Brussels, she met a Flemish guy and ended up living in Ghent. However, soon after her boyfriend had to go abroad for an internship for a few months. So there she was, all alone in a new city with no friends, looking for a job and not speaking the language.
Luckily, the local comic con scene is quite lively and since Gabriela already took part in several of them while still in Brussels, she started exploring the Flemish world of fan conventions. After a slow start in the world of cosplay, she met a group of cosplayers from BeCosplay and in no time she found herself sewing up costumes for the shows with her new crowd! “I didn’t even own a sewing machine when I started!” she remembers those early days.
What is cosplay
But what is cosplay anyway? Cosplay, an abbreviation of costume and play, means dressing up as a favourite character from a popular TV show, book series, anime, manga or video game. At comic cons or fan conventions people often show up dressed as their favourite character to show their affiliation with a certain fandom (a group of fans of a certain work of art). While dressing up as fantasy characters has been around for as long as we have had popular culture and had started in the US, it comes as no surprise that the word for this comes from Japan.
Cosplayers can assemble costumes or buy them ready-made online, but the most beautiful costumes are hand-made. Many cosplayers, like Gabriela, even learn crafts, such as sewing, woodwork or jewelry making, just to be able to create their outfits and accessories! Some people then chose to use their skills to forge a successful career in design of all sorts.
Everything is more fun with friends
What attracted Gabriela, whose cosplay name is Violet Gray, to the world of cosplay? Apart from being able to dress up in fabulous, out-of-this-world costumes (and who doesn’t love that!), Gabriela found out that this hobby was an excellent way of making friends.
“This is a very open community, people are really friendly. And because many TV shows and other cosplay sources are actually in English, the language barrier is really low. I went from knowing no-one, to having a great group of friends.”
She admits that the cosplay crowd saved her from loneliness, “I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t get into cosplay. This is definitely the type of hobby that you cannot do at home alone, so you are forced to go out and interact with people. You really develop your social skills!” Not to mention catching the travel bug as you get to attend conventions abroad and bond with your teammates over the thrill of performing on stage together.
Cosplayers don’t just walk around at the conventions, they can also show off their outfits at parades (sort of cosplay fashion shows) and competitions. They can enter the latter as individuals or as a group. In a competition, a cosplayer, or a group of cosplayers, perform a short act of something typical for their character, for example a title song or an introduction speech of their character. The cosplayers don’t actually speak on the stage, but they do perform. The juries are quite strict, but the atmosphere is supportive and enthusiastic.
Nonetheless, getting on a stage in front of a large group of people to show your creation and perform can be quite a stressful event. “I can still remember my first performance. We did a K-pop [Korean pop] dance as a group. I remember going on the stage and after that it all goes blank. I don’t remember at all how I got through the performance!”
From full-time volunteer to new challenges
Gabriela became seriously involved with the Be Cosplay organisation, helping to organise cosplay events all around Belgium, selecting cosplayers for the competitions, inviting international guests and sitting on the jury of more than one competition. All that while also creating her own (and group) costumes for the events! At one point she was even thinking of making cosplay event organisation her career. But life took her elsewhere.
“It was really difficult to break into event management in Belgium, so I decided to look for work elsewhere. Also, after so many active years in the cosplay world, I was ready to slow down. Cosplay can really take up a lot of your time, money and even space at home!” Now she works in Mechelen as an integration counsellor, helping newcomers to settle in Flanders.
But this was not the end of the dynamic Romanian’s adventures. With a bit more time on her hands, she decided that learning to ride a bicycle was the final step to becoming a true Gentenaar. Luckily, the city of Ghent offers free cycling courses, run by local volunteers. They will have you up and cycling around Ghent like a pro in only 10 sessions. If you think that being taught by a volunteer means they’ll go easy on you, you are wrong. “The lessons went on even in the rain,” Gabriela laughs.
So what is the next challenge for this energetic cosplayer-on-pause? “How to raise a bilingual child in Ghent,” she says. Something that Gentse Spruiten and the expat community here will surely be able to help her with!
FACTS for other fans
FACTS is more than just cosplay. Dilay from Turkey is a regular, as she enjoys video games, anime and sci-fi. All topics that you can explore with like-minded people at the Ghent event. “I also like shopping at FACTS since I can find things that I cannot find at regular shops,” she says.
Dilay usually goes there with her teenage son and his friends, trying out new releases of video games or even playing some old favourites. The boys like to enter gaming competitions, but she prefers to watch from the sides, as “you don’t see many women over 30 playing”.
Nonetheless, at home she enjoys entering the new worlds, created by the games, and explore them with her friends. “It’s a great way to relax, much more active than just passively watching TV,” she enthuses.
FACTS always provides a nice atmosphere and Dilay prefers not to plan too much in advance, but just enjoy whatever tickles her fancy. Her tip is to arrive early to avoid the crowds.
There is one drawback to the event though: it is too popular, which means a lot of crowds. This is a problem for Dilay’s younger son who is autistic and doesn’t deal with crowds so well. The only way to avoid them is to buy the expensive VIP tickets, so she wishes there was another solution for this.
Want to know more about cosplay?
If you are looking to get into the world of cosplay in Belgium, there’s no better way to start than FACTS. Have a look at the Cosplay Village where you can admire the cosplayers’ parade, the competition or attend a workshop. Or get in touch with BeCosplay to hear about volunteering opportunities with them or find your local cosplay group.
Another great event nearby is the Japan Expo in Paris. If that’s too far or too big for you, or you just want a regular dose of geekdom, have a look at two film festivals in Brussels: Anima (animated film festival in winter) and Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFF in spring). And for the diehard fans there is the European Cosplay Gathering with pre-selection rounds going on all around Europe. Have a look at their YouTube channel for some inspiration!
What else can I do at FACTS?
If cosplay and video games are not your thing, you might want to sign up for sessions with the guests, which include actors and comic book artists (international and local). Single fans of all things geeky can try out the FACTS speed dating sessions.
FACTS happens twice a year at Flanders Expo in Ghent. Have a look at their website for details on programme and tickets.