In October 2003, the American newspaper Women’s Wear Daily asked, “Is Belgian Avant-Garde Out of Fashion?” Twenty years after Belgian fashion design, with Antwerp as its epicenter, had won its place on the world scene, it was time to ask how things now stood with the avant-garde character of the Belgians. The Belgian designers, who had instigated a small revolution in the early 1980s with their unexpected images and conceptual approaches, were by 2003 counted by critics among the classic designers in their field. During the intervening two decades, the perception of Belgian fashion evolved from avant-garde, edgy, and against-the-grain toward a generally accepted classic style. “Antwerp” and “Belgian” became prefixes laden with high symbolic—and in some cases financial—capital and had successfully earned themselves a secure place alongside “French,” “Italian,” “Japanese,” and “American.”
Writing about Belgian fashion in terms of nationality is, however, not without its problems. Where the firstgeneration designers were still quite literally “Belgian,” younger generations have taken on an increasingly international character; consequently the word does not refer to nationality in the strict sense, but rather to a certain identity that manifests itself at different levels—varying from visual imagery and graphic design to training and corporate culture—and which is perceived as characteristically “Belgian.”
Prior to the 1980s, there was in fact no Belgian fashion. One precursor of the 1980s generation, however, was Ann Salens, an Antwerp designer who for a short time in the 1960s generated international furor and is an important point of reference for Belgian designers. Her extravagant, brilliantly colored dresses and wigs in artificial silk, her flamboyant lifestyle, risqué fashion shows, and happenings at unusual locations earned her the title of “Belgian Fashion’s Bird of Paradise.”
During the first half of the twentieth century, fashion in Belgium had primarily reflected what was taking place on the Paris runways. Parisian chic also dominated the Belgian image of fashion. Until 1950, creativity was restricted to the realm of interpretation, which frequently amounted to all but literal copying of the creations from the great French houses, which were in fact geared to this form of commercial reproduction. Smaller and less resounding names outside France could select from among various formulas with associated price tags, beginning with attending the presentation of the collection—where it was strictly forbidden to take notes—up to the purchase of the patterns and original fabrics. If desired, the purchased design could be further sold under the new name. Even after the 1950s, however, it remained commercially uninteresting to advertise Belgian origins. In the early 1980s, established Belgian brands, such as Olivier Strelli, Cortina, and Scapa of Scotland, were choosing more exotic names that sooner disguised rather than emphasized their Belgian roots.
The Golden 1980s
At the beginning of the 1980s, the Belgian government launched a plan to give new incentives to the stagnating textiles industry. On 1 January 1981, the Instituut voor Textiel en Confectie van België (ITCB, Institute for Belgian Textiles and Fashion) was established to provide constructive guidance for the various economic, commercial, and creative initiatives of the government’s textiles plan. On the one hand, the Belgian textiles and apparel industry could call on government support in order to modernize and introduce new technology. On the other hand, a wide-ranging commercial campaign was begun, under the motto, “Fashion: It’s Belgian.” Its purpose was to provide Belgian fashion with a new and convincing image. At the same time, there was growing awareness that such a campaign had to be supported by a creative substructure, in which young talent was given every possible opportunity. In 1982, this led to the establishment of the annual Golden Spindle competition, the first of which was won by Ann Demeulemeester. Other laureates of that first edition were Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten, Walter Van Beirendonck, Marina Yee, Dirk Van Saene, and Dirk Bikkembergs. Along with the requisite attention from the press and an article in the Fashion: It’s Belgian magazine, the laureates were given the opportunity to collaborate with manufacturers to produce their collections, resulting in the first important reciprocal overtures between Belgian manufacturers and the new avant-garde designers.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Paris reached an apex with spectacular shows by Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler, among others, and with creations by Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto, which were lauded as works of art. Italy also brought innovation, with Gianni Versace and Romeo Gigli. In both ladies’ and men’s apparel, Italy established itself as a trendsetter, and Italian men’s collections presented a new, nonchalant man, designed by Romeo Gigli or Dolce & Gabbana. This passion for pushing fashion to its peak and the exuberance of these collections in turn stimulated academy graduates and young designers in Antwerp.
There was a growing sense that Belgians could also produce fashion, and do so without the show elements so dependent on extravagant budgets. Les gens du Nord, or “the folks from the North,” presented an avant-garde reversal to fashion, or l’Anvers de la mode—as the journalist Elisabeth Paillée aptly wrote in a wordplay on the French name for Antwerp. This was the backside, the recycled, throwaway fashion, an underground phenomenon, the underdog: not so extroverted as English fashion, not so sexy as Italian fashion, not so cerebral as Japanese fashion.
As the only member of this group to do so, Martin Margiela went to Paris to apprentice with Gaultier (1984-1987) and eventually established his own Maison Martin Margiela in 1988. Maison Margiela developed an impressive oeuvre comprising differing lines, with recurring focus on such themes as tailoring, haute couture, recycling, and deconstruction. Margiela’s story is a tale about the system that underlies fashion, a journey to discover alternatives that remain economically alive and which, in the fashion world, give new substance to the supposedly unassailable notion of innovation.
The remaining six designers decided to pool their resources and in 1987, left together for London’s British Designer Show, where they were quickly noticed by the press, who referred to them as the “The Antwerp Six”— purportedly because the difficult Flemish names were such tongue-twisters. Success was not long to follow. After London, they stormed Paris. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, most had their own fashion lines and retail outlets, as well as a permanent place on the Parisian fashion week calendar, with growing numbers of international selling points as a result.
Presenting these designers as a group, as the “Antwerp Six” or the “Belgians,” indeed overlooks their individual styles and identities. Where content, form, and image are concerned, it can in fact be difficult to find something they share in common. Dries Van Noten is known for the ethnic or historic tone of his designs, with an almost naïve and at the same time touching exoticism. His flower motifs and the strong silhouette structure of his fashion shows are a trademark. In Ann Demeule-meester, there is a super-cooled romanticism, with a color palette reduced to the bare essentials: black and white. For her, the study of form is crucial, resulting in a union of such contrasts as masculine toughness and feminine elegance. Walter Van Beirendonck holds to an extreme eccentricity, with sources of inspiration ranging from science fiction to performance, comic books, and politics. From 1992 through 1999, he designed his W< line, followed by the introduction of his “Aestheticterrorists.” Dirk Van Saene seems to harbor a love-hate relationship with couture. His image of women is fickle, even cynical, yet his apparel designs demonstrate great love and attention to craftsmanship. Finally, Dirk Bikkembergs initially created a sensation with heavy men’s shoes with laces pulled through the heel. This subsequently evolved into an image that is sporty and sexy, perhaps most akin to Italian fashion.
What Is Belgian?
If Belgian fashion cannot be understood in terms of a single style and if nationality itself is not the determining factor, what do these different designers have in common that makes their work recognizably Belgian? It is not the intention here to formulate a definition as such, but rather to indicate a number of aspects that contribute to the specific identity of the Belgian designers. One important factor is undoubtedly their training at the Royal Academy in Antwerp, with “individuality” and “creativity” being the principle concepts. Personal growth and creative development of the student are fundamental at school, without this one loses sight of the link between professional life. The personal approach also extends to the various peripheral activities that come along with the presentation of a collection, ranging from exceptional attention to the graphic design for the invitations and catalogs and particular focus on the location and design of the fashion show to a warm welcome in the showroom. One need only think of the now historic presentations of Martin Margiela’s collections in an abandoned Metro station or Salvation Army depots, Dries Van Noten’s delight-to-behold, beautiful shows, or the art performance tone of the presentations by Bernhard Willhelm and Jurgi Persoons for illustrations of this approach.
Nonetheless, the collection and the love and passion for clothing always take first place. With the Belgians, there is no superstar allure, or coquetry, but a healthy mix of humility, sobriety, and daring, and this translates first and foremost in the apparel itself. There is no blinding haute couture for the Belgians, but there is attention to professional craftsmanship, the study of form and concept; no out-of-control profits in the wake of the luxury houses, but a self-sufficiently structured enterprise in which as many factors as possible are kept under the designers’ own control; no top models whose star status relegates the clothes to subservient status, but real girls with character.
The Next Generation
The generation following the “Belgian Six” found themselves faced with a very difficult challenge: how to create a profile and where to position oneself in the presence of such a strong avant-garde. Several responded by choosing not to present collections of their own. Perhaps the first to prove that there really was life after the Six was Raf Simons, who set his aims high with collections that indeed generated long-term changes in men’s fashion. With images based on youth culture, the influence his work has had on the fashion field must not be underestimated.
In 1997, Véronique Branquinho presented a new woman: dreamy, young, mysterious, fascinating, and pure. Branquinho appeared on the scene as a young businesswoman with talent, and has been a pleasure to watch as her collections have grown together with their maker. Her collections are unpretentious and refined. Her label, James, refers to class—class without the glamour.
The A. F. Vandevorst designer team of An Vande-vorst and Filip Arickx drew considerable press attention with the presentation of their second collection, in which girls slumbered and awoke in hospital beds. When the girls woke, their clothes still had the same pleats they had had when they lay down. It was an endearing and human image.
Bernhard Willhelm did not hesitate to begin by infusing his collection with humor. It was intended to provoke thought and balanced at the edge of cynicism, using new shapes and colors, and not be categorized in any single style. After only a few seasons, Willhelm was designing for the Italian house, Capucci, in addition to producing his own line.
Among the youngest designers, Haider Ackermann, of Colombian-French origins, has attracted particular attention. In 2002, he showed his first women’s collection on the Paris catwalk. In 2003, he designed a collection for the Italian leather designers, Ruffo Research. His experiments with leather were astonishing, combining superb knowledge of material and form, along with the necessary dose of elegance and craftsmanship.
Brussels, too, is making itself heard. The super-talent Olivier Theyskens, who was designing for Rochas, prematurely broke off his training at the La Cambre School for Fashion in Brussels and almost immediately became a center of attention when the pop icon Madonna appeared in one of his creations. Theyskens achieved wonders in linking Parisian elegance to a certain Belgian conceptuality and sobriety. His designs are exquisitely beautiful, approaching perfection, yet at the same time possessing a dark underside, a gothic edge.
The Fashion Nation
With the achievements of the 1980s generation in mind, Antwerp became increasingly conscious of the fact that a number of structures had to be brought into play if the unique position that the city enjoyed in the fashion world were to be maintained. The starting bell rang in 2001, during Antwerp’s “Year of Fashion,” with the hosting of a broad-ranged series of artistic events curated by Walter Van Beirendonck. At the same time, the “Fashion Nation” opened its doors in the heart of Antwerp. By way of three different organizations, the Fashion Nation unites three influences on fashion: education, culture, and economics. The fashion department of the Royal Academy is located on the top floor and also symbolically stands for “top floor” and creative input. The next story down is home to the MoMu Museum of Fashion and the Flanders Fashion Institute (FFI). The MoMu unites heritage and tradition with an innovative approach, while the FFI has the task of bridging a link with the financial world, by way of a production fund for starting designers and countless other activities to help Belgian designers achieve the aura they need at both national and international levels.
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Weekend Knack 20 Years Fashion It’s Belgian. Issue 37. Roese-laere: Roularta Media Group, 2003. Jubilee issue with an excellent overview of who’s who in Belgian fashion.
Windels, Veerle. Jonge Belgische Mode [Young Belgian Fashion]. Ghent, Belgium, and Amsterdam: Ludion, 2001.