Antwerp, Belgium is known for producing new and upcoming fashion designers from Dries van Noten to Martin Margiela and Raf Simons. Antwerp was never known as one of the traditional fashion capitals though and has only made its way to the global fashion stage through the efforts of the so-called “Antwerp Six”
In 1986 a group of six graduates from the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts loaded their collections into a van and drove to London Fashion Week to show off their avant-garde creations. The group included Walter van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee. As buyers passed their collections in one of the showrooms their fame exploded. Since many of the press members couldn’t pronounce all these designers’ names, they started referring to them as the Antwerp Six. Some people attribute the famed Martin Margiela to the group as well since he was from Antwerp but he ended up graduating a few years prior. Though he probably would have fit into the group quite easily.
After the boom of their presentations at London Fashion Week the designers began to part ways. Some gained more notoriety than others and others taking on menswear instead of womenswear.
Walter van Beirendonck
Van Beirendonck has continued to create new collections every season primarily for menswear. He is considered one of the biggest trendsetter in menswear today. His collection feature heavily on unusual color combinations and strong graphics. In the late 1990s he has designed the outfits for U2’s PopMart tour, and received the honorary title of Cultural Ambassador of Flanders. Beyond his own collections he also works on more artistic projects including theatre/film/ballet costumes, book illustrations, and curating art exhibits.
Demeulemeester is one of the more widely known of the Antwerp Six today. She draws a lot of influence from gothic, punk, and Japanese styles and even won the Gouden Spoel after she graduated, an annually awarded prize to the year's most promising fashion designer. Despite being approached by large fashion corporations, Demeulemeester insisted on remaining financially independent as it would always allow for more freedom in design. She grew the brand slowly up to selling in 30 countries worldwide. Though Demeulemeester retired from her eponymous brand in November 2013, the brand still regularly shows at Paris Fashion Week.
Dries van Noten
Van Noten is another currently widely known designer especially after winning the prestigious International Award of the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2008. His designs are considered some of the most eccentric of the bunch with his expertise in mixing Eastern and Western styles, and folkloric fabrics. His passion for fabrics has led him to designing the most thoughtful collections full of clothes made by hand.
Dirk Van Saene
Van Saene has maintained a small company and scale of production to ease the pressure on his chic and deconstructed vision. He has also worked as a painter and featured hand-painted garments in many of his collections. His originality has been recognized through the reception of prizes such as the Gouden Spoel like Demeulemeester. Today he continues to design clothing but also teaches fashion design at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts where the famed group graduated.
Bikkembergs has focused on menswear for his entire career. His first womenswear line was essentially a copy of his menswear line in smaller sizes. He won the Gouden Spoel (yes, three of the six designers won this prestigious award in different years) for the best young fashion designer before the fateful trip to London, which enabled him to design his men’s shoe collection. His military and sport inspirations have led him to produce clothing in tough and high-performance fabrics. After designing a line of T-shirts for the Inter Milan football team, he became the first fashion designer allowed to host a show inside the FC Barcelona stadium.
After the notorious trip to London, Yee gained her individual fame through her men’s and women’s leather collections. She also designs highly regarded theater costumes and has collaborated with the Belgian brand Lena Lena, and with Dirk Bikkembergs. In 2003 she opened a store and workshop in the center of Antwerp where she makes one-off clothes generally recreated from thrift finds as a commentary on the endless consumer cycle of fashion.
It is the very fact that the Belgian fashion businesses have remained small, focused and high-quality that makes them special. The businesses that the Antwerp Six have created show that it’s still very possible to remain relevant as a privately-owned niche fashion business that operates on a more human scale. This also enables the founding designers to never compromise on their design visions and to continue to create fashions that mean something to them.
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