Antwerp Fashion: The Power of Six and Beyond
Although their work wasn’t related, they were called the Antwerp Six, and their discovery put northern European fashion on the map. Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee, all graduates of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, rented a truck and at the last minute got their collections into the 1986 London Fashion Fair.
It was so "last-minute" the only space left in the packed show was in the bridal section. The sextet still managed to blow the show wide open with avant-garde creations never seen before and the response firmly pinned Antwerp to the world fashion map.
"It may not be a worldly city when it comes to size," Van Noten, who has since become Antwerp’s favorite sartorial son, once said of his hometown, "but it is very worldly."
London, Paris and New York reign supreme as favorite fashion go-tos, but it is among Antwerp’s labyrinthine medieval streets that some of the best designers in the world dress a more rarified, in-the-know, and no-nonsense clientele - Antverpian design often centers more on form and function than frills. In "Sex and the City 2," Kim Cattrall trekked the desert in a pair of highly-coveted Theo sunglasses designed by Tim Van Steenbergen, whose store just off the Meir, old-town Antwerp’s premier economic spine, makes a good first stop for fashionistas. For couture that covers the rest of you, two other streets loom large.
If cash is burning a hole in your pocket, Nationalestraat is the place to go to put out the fire. When it comes to its high fashion, Belgium is decidedly northern Europe, with sharp lines, impacting colors, and ranges from utter simplicity to Sci-fi experimentation. Van Noten eyed a grand but dilapidated clothing store on the Theodoor Van Ruswijckplaatz (a small plaza on Nationalestraat), and refurbished it into his shining flagship store, the Het Modepaleis.
Displaying the designer’s signature richly fabrics and designs, Het Modepaleis harkens back to the opulent Belle Epoch days of "Mr. Selfridge," when shopping was an event and the stores were event-makers. Just walking in is a case study in service and elegance that has long attracted the eyes, and credit cards, of royalty and celebrity alike - Serena Williams is a frequent customer.
Any lingering doubter of Belgium’s place in the fashion world, however, needs only be told one name to bring him or her in line. If the Antwerp 6 put the country on the map, it was the knockout women’s couture of Diane Von Fürstemberg and her wrap dress that ensured Belgian fashion as a force to be reckoned with. Although Brussels-born and US-bred, Von Fürstemberg quickly established herself in Antwerp. To shop for the latest styles and skip her own store (on Steenhouwersvest Street just behind the Het Modepaleis) is to entirely miss the point of Antverpian fashion.
Van Noten and Von Fürstemberg form the two peaks of Nationalestraat, but walking south from the Het Modepaleis showcases formidable emporiums including the ModeNatie, which also houses the Flanders Fashion Institute, the Fashion Museum, and the Fashion Department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, whose fashion show at the end of the academic year (June) is a high-profile showcase of rising talent.
From there, spaces including Thiron, Seven Rooms, and Renaissance round out Nationalestraat’s prominence in the world fashion sphere.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and with fashion reaching such heights on Nationalestraat, it is not too much of a surprise Antwerp would produce a scene that is as alternative as Nationalestraat is haute. Even less of a surprise: that scene is literally the next street over from Nationalestraat, Kammenstraat.
Interspersed by graffiti walls and assorted spaces thumbing their nose at convention, 28 stores run along the street. A few names sound familiar - American Apparel, Vans, Levi Strauss - but it would be anticlimactic to go all the way to Antwerp and buy clothing one can already get in the States.
So do as the locals do: the first stop should be the cavernous Fish & Chips. Overlooked by the work of local street artists and the DJ pumping out the latest EMD thumpa-thumpa beats, the elegantly slumming-it inventory eschews the avant-garde-ism of Nationalestraat’s designers for something unmistakably anti-establishment, but nevertheless presentable and practical. (Even in summer, Antwerp isn’t particularly warm, and much of Kammenstraat’s stores seem in perpetual Spring/Autumn mode).
Kammenstraat is the epitome of I-don’t-care joie-de-vivre. Its gleeful couture irony is palpable in other must-gos are Zappa, whose candy-colored selection of shoes span next-level Mary Janes to something only Courtney Stoddard could pull off with grace and dignity, and Fans - where costume play reaches an art form (think of catwalk versions of fashion straight out of "Lord of the Rings," "X-Men," or "Underworld").
"Antwerp is a very pleasant city to work in, it is very low key," Van Noten would go on to say. "You have all the advantages of a big city, everything is in close proximity, and while there is a healthy dose of open-mindedness, the melting pot of influences is still manageable. In Paris, the city is so big that nobody ever leaves their own quarter. Here, however, cross-pollination is a fact of life; it is a perfect breeding ground for people with a creative streak."
But move fast. In Antwerp, the fashion of last week is, well, just so last week.