Antwerp is known to deliver great talent, especially when it comes to fashion. The era and influence of the avant-garde Antwerp 6 is still a story that captivates experts and students all over the world. This article hopes to provide a better view on Antwerp’s fashion and the influence of the Antwerp Fashion Academy on Antwerp itself and on the world as well.
Above: The ready to wear Spring 2013 collection by some of Antwerp’s former fashion students.
Romain Brau, fashion designer and owner of concept store RA (Antwerp & Paris), knows both fashion and Antwerp due to his studies at the Antwerp Fashion Academy (part of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts). “I chose to study at the Antwerp Academy, because it’s an Art School before everything else and I like the freedom that art holds. I wanted to feel at home and relax. I knew I would be happy in Antwerp. I am Parisian so when you have to choose between a city where you can get a flat of 200 m2 for the price of a 10 m2 in Paris you don’t think twice, especially when the international press tells you the Antwerp Academy is the best school of the world! When I started studying it all made sense to me. The Academy taught me to mix art and fashion. I just loved it!”
The less technical, more artful approach of the Academy is probably one of the biggest reasons of its success. “A lot of international students come to study at the Antwerp Academy, often after finishing a more technical Fashion design course. The fact that the Antwerp Academy offers the freedom to express your individuality through design and really treat your work as an art form makes the Academy a magnet for fashion students everywhere. Last year we had 40 nationalities in a class of 200”, explains Karen Van Godtsenhoven. Since 2009 she has been working as curator at the Antwerp Fashion Museum, which resides in the same building as the Antwerp Academy.
Where did all this success come from? “Since 1960 Antwerp offers a department in fashion. Back then it was very amateurish. During the 1980’s the Academy presented 6 designers with a distinct radical vision for fashion. They established Antwerp as a notable location for fashion design. The breakthrough occurred when the Antwerp 6 set out for the London fashion fair with their collections. They have put this city on the fashion map ever since.” The Antwerp 6 (Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Bikkembergs, Walter van Beirendonck, Dirk van Saene and Marina Yee) all own their very distinct style and trademark. Note: Martin Margiela was also a student at the Antwerp Academy at the time of Antwerp 6. However, he did not join them to the London show and is therefore not part of the original group.
The Antwerp 6 have set an example for their continuators at the Flemish academies, such as Raf Simons, Veronique Branquinho, Haider Ackermann, etc., and they have set a solid ground for fashion in Antwerp. “Individuality is the most important trademark for the Antwerp Academy. Designers that graduate from the Antwerp Academy are known to create collections in which the wearer becomes part of the designer’s world,” Karen explains. The minimalism of Demeulemeester, the drama in Dries Van Noten, even the theatrical in Romain Brau: each designer has their own signature. Romain agrees: “it’s true that individuality is an important factor that is being emphasized. My personal style is more dandy and opulent in a contemporary way. I love the 1920ies and I love luxurious material. I never had the feeling that I had to restrain my own style while studying at the Academy. Au contraire, I feel that the Academy helped me develop my style even further! It’s when I saw the work of Angelo Figus and Cristopher Devos (half of the duo behind Peter Pilotto), both also Antwerp Academy alumni, that I felt less alone in my way to create.”
How about the future? “It’s very striking that most students nowadays choose security by choosing to work for a designer. The current financial crisis is probably the main reason for this shift. That’s why we are working on new initiatives to offer fashion students the possibility to present their collections worldwide without having to spend a lot of money. We are working on a digital platform for example, through which we encourage students to film their collections, we also present the best collections in the Museum,” Karen continues.
And how about the influence of all this high fashion on Antwerp itself? Helen and Tine are 19-year-old twin sisters that have a blog about Antwerp street style. Their blog was nominated for the 2012 Blog Awards. Almost everyday they hit the streets of Antwerp, armed with a camera, to document the fashion this city oozes. “Antwerp fashion is very obstinate and careless. People in Antwerp have a very distinctive style and know very well what pieces to combine to get the best result. They play with details, like sneakers or colored lipsticks,” states Helen. Tine agrees: “In general, Antwerp street style contains a good mix of trends and own style. People in Antwerp are very realistic. They want to look good for their own pleasure and not to impress others. This sometimes leads to extravagant looks, especially with the students of the Fashion Academy.”
Antwerp fashion students are welcome features in the Antwerp Street style blog. “Their presence in Antwerp often serves as an example for others, like some sort of living trend-guide. People here are very proud of ‘their’ Academy. It determines the Antwerp identity and has turned a lot of us into chauvinistic fashionlovers.” On the question which Antwerp designer is their favorite, both girls choose Dries Van Noten. “His new collection is so beautiful. Dries has developed his very own style throughout the years, but his collections are always innovative.”
And my personal favorite? Even though I’m not that big of a fashion junk, I have to admit that both Ann Demeulemeester en Haider Ackermann are on my list of favorite designers. Both Haiders en Anns cuts are simple, but their creations are often asymmetric and sewn of different materials, which gives them not only a resolutely modern and dynamic feel, but also makes them more urban, without losing anything on the sophistication of the feminine silhouette.
Special thanks to Karen and Romain for their time and devotion and to Tine and Helen for getting back to my emails faster than bullets 😉