How did Antwerp become Belgium’s fashion capital? It began in the 1980s with a group of risk-taking, avant-garde fashion designers.
The antwerp six: the origins
Walter Van Beirendonck, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee became known as the Antwerp Six, with unofficial member Martin Margiela. Margiela was more loosely tied to the London-bound group, opting to work for Jean Paul Gaultier in Paris. All seven were students of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, and some went on to achieve global fame.
“In Belgium, we only had the Japanese, French and Italian designers. I really felt that there must be something else, for younger people – and more to the Belgian taste,” said Sonja Noel, supporter of the Antwerp Six and founder of the avant-garde fashion store Stijl in Brussels, in an interview with Another Magazine.
A new wave of edgy
The timing was right for a new wave of edgy ready-to-wear, which put Antwerp on the fashion map and defined Belgium as a destination of style. The Antwerp Six built their reputations not only through their designs but by their way of working: at their own pace with sustainability in mind, using a less-is-more approach, and avoiding major advertising campaigns.
Creativity took precedence over commercial acumen.ries Van Noten, one of the most internationally recognised of the collective, exhibits his wares at his Nationalestraat boutique in Antwerp, and cities around the world.
His signature designs include mixing Eastern and Western styles and using folkloric fabrics. “I have a lot of respect for the past and for the tradition and the skills, ” says Van Noten. Van Noten says he takes inspiration from fashion sense of the people walking the streets of Antwerp, his home. “For me, Antwerp is a very good base to work, to live. It’s a very easy, comfortable city,” he says.
Another internationally renowned designer, Ann Demeulemeester, who still lives in her hometown of Antwerp, is known for her deconstruction of brown, black and grey fabrics. Her fashion sense is often considered traditionally ‘masculine’ in style, with a hint of femininity: an ode to her muse, singer Patti Smith. After the debut of her menswear line in Paris, Demeulemeester became one of the first designers to feature both men’s and women’s collections in the same show, in 1996.
Success begets success for Belgium
Since then, a new generation of Belgian fashion designers has been inspired by the success of the Antwerp Six, achieved by staying true to their own design values. Notable newcomers in the Belgian fashion scene include designers Kaat Tilley, Veronique Branquinho and most notably Olivier Theyskens and Raf Simons.
Together these risk-taking designers charted a new path in the history of European fashion, claiming for Antwerp a brand new identity as an avant-garde fashion hub.