Antwerp, the economic and cultural center of the Renaissancein northern Europe, is celebrating its 50th anniversaryas a hub of cutting-edge fashion
ntwerp, Belgium, was once a quiet city known mostly for its role in the diamond trade and its dynamic ports. But in the early 1980s, a group of visionary designers known as the Antwerp Six—composed of Dirk Bikkembergs, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene and Marina Yee—met in the classrooms of the fashion department at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts and revolutionized the course of fashion. These six graduates helped to transform the Flemish city into an important fashion and culture center.
To highlight the 50th anniversary of the fashion department, in fall 2013, Antwerp’s Mode Museum will explore the department’s history and influence. The museum is nestled in the white, elongated Beaux-Arts ModeNatie building, which also houses the Royal Academy’s fashion department and the Flanders Fashion Institute. Inside, the building has been designed with an open space where a sculptural wooden staircase is brightened by daylight pouring in from the translucent ceiling. The museum is known for its conceptually driven exhibitions and often focuses on avant-garde fashion while other major institutions opt for more commercial themes.
For the retrospective, Happy Birthday Dear Academie, the exhibition’s curators tracked down rare items from the graduate collections of the Antwerp Six and Martin Margiela, who also graduated from the academy’s fashion department, as well as sketches and photographs. These historical objects are displayed next to the work of illustrious graduates from successive generations, such as Haider Ackermann, Veronique Branquinho, A.F. Vandevorst and Christian Wijnants, the winner of the 2013 International Woolmark Fashion Prize. The exhibition will highlight in particular the department’s intellectual and radical tradition and focus on major themes that designers have explored, including sex, escapism and protest.
The Six met at a time of social, political and artistic unrest. They rebelled against the fashion department’s rigid curriculum but also recognized and acknowledged its importance. Feeding on the era’s spirit of revolt and radical music, they took inspiration from designer Thierry Mugler’s exaggerated silhouettes, Jean Paul Gaultier’s gender-bending, Yohji Yamamoto’s pure minimalism and Rei Kawakubo’s anti-fashion. In 1986, the designers filled a truck with their garments and embarked upon a trip to London to show their work. In the process, they became icons of a new avant-garde sensibility. “Nothing this exciting has happened in Antwerp, a Belgian Renaissance port city, since Rubens—the painter, not the sandwich,” wrote fashion magazine Women’s Wear Daily in the summer of 1987. Margiela, who had graduated from the fashion department earlier and worked with Gaultier before launching his own line, was also associated with this new conceptual movement emerging from the then little-known city of Antwerp. Margiela became a leading figure in the deconstructionist movement in fashion and was known for exposing hemlines, tearing up fabrics and playing with juxtaposition.
While Antwerp was once an important port city, the economic and cultural center of the Renaissance in northern Europe and a trading capital rich with architectural, artistic and textile-based traditions, the young designers known as the Six felt isolated from the world during their years as students, and this clean slate allowed them to create a new aesthetic. “I came out of the middle of nowhere,” says Demeulemeester, a pale woman with flowing curls and piercing turquoise eyes who lives in a Le Corbusier house on the outskirts of the city. “We didn’t have the weight of the French or Italian traditions, and that gave us the freedom to start from zero.”
In June 2013, Demeulemeester attended the fashion department’s graduate show along with the other designers of the Six and influential journalists, including International Herald Tribune critic Suzy Menkes. As frenetic beats blasted out from the massive warehouse space where the show was being held, journalists, students and designers, hundreds of them, marched along Antwerp’s Scheldt River in the evening sun toward the show. This event was particularly meaningful; in honor of the institution’s 50th anniversary, the Six were reunited on the jury for the first time in three decades. Demeulemeester wore a razor-cut black-and-white uniform, Van Noten donned an elegant suit jacket and Van Beirendonck accessorized with his extraordinary grey beard. The designers’ presence in the front row was a reminder of the sweeping legacy of the legendary school. The graduating students, who hailed from all over the world, presented wildly imaginative looks, cutting-edge fabrics and prints inspired by Antwerp’s avant-garde culture.
Today, Van Beirendonck, a menswear designer known for creating provocative clothing that challenges established gender norms and commenting on social issues, is the fashion department’s director. Van Beirendonck has a wild, surreal imagination and a deep knowledge of fashion and costume history. Some of his most notorious designs include a T-shirt with screen-printed chest hair, leather S&M-inspired masks; neon-hued rave-inspired gear and gigantic phallic headpieces. At the academy, he emphasizes cultivating a masterful technique and extreme creativity and works with each student, pushing each to his or her limits to bring out each individual voice. “We have a very specific way of raising the students,” says Van Beirendonck, a rough-cut vintage pearl dangling from his ear and the scent of patchouli and vanilla emanating from his beard. Van Beirendonck trained some of the leading Antwerp designers of the past two decades, including Raf Simons, who interned with him but was told he was too advanced to attend the academy. “We try to tell a story, communicate through fashion and make a statement,” says Van Beirendonck. “You can see that in Raf Simons’ work, in Christian Wijnants’ work, in Haider Ackermann’s work. We are creating a new vision.”
ANTWERP’S FASHION ICONS
WHERE TO GO IN ANTWERP
This charming boutique hotel is where some of the trendiest designers, buyers and art collectors stay. Pieces of fine art photography adorn the walls of each room and the hallways. Come cocktail hour, the hushed bar is a private and elegant meeting spot.
With two central locations, one near the Cathedral of Our Lady and another in the southern part of the city, Hotel O is ideal for young, trendy travelers. Each room has a unique theme and features local art, designer furniture and lovely views.
Demeulemeester fanatics flock to her minimalist boutique facing the majestic Royal Museum of Fine Arts in the hip Zuid (south) area.
Dries Van Noten
The designer’s stunning boutique sits in an art nouveau space a block away from art collective ModeNatie and is a must-see.
The first boutique to carry Belgian designers exclusively, Louis offers a curated selection of high-end couturiers, including Maison Martin Margiela and Haider Ackermann.
Lombardenvest 2, Antwerp, Belgium
Fashion in Antwerp
The city has just launched a website and app that offer comprehensive resources on fashion, including history, insider tips on shopping and interactive maps.
Mode Museum Provincie Antwerpen(Fashion Museum of the Province of Antwerp)
Nestled in the ModeNatie building along with the fashion department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the Mode Museum hosts imaginative exhibitions featuring local and international designers. Its major exhibition Happy Birthday Dear Academie runs from September 2013 to February 2014.
Museum aan de Stroom(Museum at the Current)
The newly inaugurated Museum aan de Stroom is home to paintings by Flemish masters and contemporary artists and offers splendid views of the Scheldt River. Try to book a table at the gastronomic ’t Zilte restaurant towering over the city, where chef Viki Geunes reinvents Flemish classics with a molecular twist.
Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen(Museum of Modern Art, Antwerp)
Antwerp is a notable center for contemporary art, and the exhibitions and events at Museum van Hedendaagse reflect the city’s dynamic culture.
This is undoubtedly the best address for an indulgent dinner in Antwerp. In a stunning art nouveau building, Michelin-starred chef Julien Burlat serves delicate dishes and fine wines.
At Graanmarkt, a sprawling store and restaurant, Michelin-starred chef Seppe Nobels whips up inventive dishes using seasonal ingredients and plays with subtle contrasts in textures and flavors.
Arts and lifestyle writer SHIRINE SAAD has contributed to The New York Times, MTV, Nowness and Surface, among others. She has recently published Boho Beirut: A Guide to the Middle East’s Most Sophisticated City and is now working on a Brooklyn guidebook.