Saturday, January 10, 2009


Until recently, it seemed there was better chance to find a good bottle of icelandic Merlot in your local liquor store than some belgian designer dress or jacket in the racks of Bergdorf or Barneys. Not anymore. Since the beginning of the nineties Belgium has become a highly visible part of the fashion map along with New York, Paris, London, Milan and Tokio. Names like Dries Van Noten or Ann Demeulemeester are mentioned every time some editor talks about the future, and anyone who boasts to know something about style has not only to know how to pronounce names like Van Beirendock or Theyskens, but to spell them correctly. Not an easy task, since however big their success, Belgian designers continue to be in great extent a secret, a loud and very publicized secret. And in Antwerp, apparently, they like just like that.

The Antwerp Six, the best known generation of fashion designers graduated from the Antwerp Academy of Fashion in the eighties and formed by Demeulemeester, Van Noten, Van Beirendock, Van Saensen, Dirk Bikkembergs and Martin Margiela, have made a strong point in refusing to play by the rules of international fashion. It was a risky movement from the beginning, but also a successful one. From all of them only one, Martin Margiela, probably the most reclusive designer after Ray Kuwakubo of Comme des Garcons, has accepted a position as designer director for a major house, Hermes. But even under the spotlight of one of the most recognizable French labels, Margiela has continued without giving personal interviews -he only answers questions from the press via fax- or posing for photo sessions. He lets his work talk by itself. Image is a key word for this group, and theirs is an image of mystery, seriousness and devotion to their craft.

Ann Demeulemeester, after refusing a tempting offer by Givenchy, opened her own shop in Antwerp in a breathtaking 19th century building that once housed the agricultural ministry laboratory. "The only tool I have to present my world is my own shop", she says. There, customers who can't afford to be in the front rows at fashion shows in Paris, can, however, see and buy the oversize white shirts and sleek black suits that have become her signature pieces, all reminiscent of the look of Patti Smith, an idol of the designer.

The inevitable relationship between fashion and art, so clear since the days when Andy Warhol started painting portraits of designers like Carolina Herrera, Saint Laurent or Diane Von Furstemberg and showing their collections in his "Interview" magazine, has never been as strong as in the case of the Antwerp Six. Their work is treated with a reverence that sounds more Pollock than Versace, and though their clothes hang in the designers' floors of Harvey Nichols in London and Barneys in New York, no one would ever refer to them in the same way they do, for instance, to Calvin Klein. There is, in their case, a wide recognition to their efforts to keep some dignity in a universe where a fragrance or a jeans license could mean, for a designer, the difference between life and death. That doesn't mean, by any standards, that their work is not big business.

Dries Van Noten had sales of almost 20 million dollars in 1998. The same year Demeulemeester, who sells in around 200 hundred shops world wide, had profits for almost 10 million dollars. But they had done so, unlike most designers, without losing one bit of control in hands of financial backers or store buyers. Their references don't go back to the usual suspects either. They don't design thinking about Dior's New Look or Carnaby Street circa 1968. As Demeulemeester seems to be always thinking about rock and the clergy, Dries Van Noten has in his collections a refined and subtle orientalism. Seeing the clothes of Dirk Bikkembergs, with his shrunk leather pants and jackets, his knee high boots and bulky strap bags, is impossible not to think about some hidden sexual fetish. And Martin Margiela was experimenting with fashion deconstructivism much before Barneys shoppers even knew the mean of the word.

Though Olivier Strelli, whose real name is Israel Nissim, has been succesfully in business since the mid-seventies, not many people considered him a Belgian. Much less a Belgian designer, a concept that caused more than one laugh among the fashion press in Paris at the time. "They just did not believe that Belgium existed in the fashion Map", recalls the designer. "Twenty Years ago top designers mostly worked for people like Kenzo or Yves Saint Laurent. But a real Belgian fashion industry just did not exist when I graduated from the Academy in 1971", agrees Linda Loppa, driving force behind the Antwerp Academy of Fashion and the Flemish Fashion Institute.

Today Antwerp receives near 100,000 'fashion tourists' a year, a stylish crowd who enjoys walking through the designers shops and, in most cases, doesn't have problems taking out their Amex from their Vuitton wallets. The future looks as bright as the present. A new generation is already getting attention with names like Veronique Branquihno, Raf Simmons and Bernard Willhelm. And it took just two collections to Olivier Theyskens, who at 23 is often cited as the next wonder boy of fashion, to seduce Paris and the heart of the most desired client in the world: Madonna.

Like the Japanese in the seventies and early eighties, the Belgians attack to styleland is strong and irresistible, and like Yamamoto or Kawakubo before them, Margiela, Demeulemeester and the rest of their group seem to be here to stay.

NY Arts Magazine, 1999


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