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Belgium is stylish

When many designers were coming out with shoulder pads and pencil skirts, Belgians were showing designs in raw materials with unusual proportions

For many decades, Belgian fashion did not make any waves. There were decent designers and nice brands, but they didn’t make a mark internationally. Until, in 1986, six young designers took their collections to London. They were Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs, Dirk Van Saene and Marina Yee. They had met at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where they studied fashion. The talented sextet attracted the attention of the press in London, although reporters found it difficult to remember their strange, Flemish names. To make it easier, the group was dubbed “the Antwerp Six”. There was an immediate buzz around them from the international fashion community. Who were these young guns who had little to do with the glamour and power clothing of the ‘80s and instead were producing innovative, conceptual designs?

Creative stimulus

Alongside these designers there is another of their peers who has left a profound mark on fashion: Martin Margiela. He studied together with the Six, but when they went to London he was already working for Jean-Paul Gaultier in Paris. In 1989, Margiela established his own label, Maison Martin Margiela. He also took a very different route than most of the luxury brands. Margiela designed unisex fashion, deconstructed clothing and recycled a variety of materials. For example, he made wide tailored coats, jackets with seams on the outside and sweaters made from socks. But he also created chic, luxury pieces, as can be seen in the collections that he designed for Hermès between 1997 and 2003. After a great career, in 2009 he left his label, which is now headed by the British designer John Galliano.

International success

With so many strong designers, it’s not surprising that the Academy is attracting increasing numbers of international students who will go on to become just as successful. The Colombian born Haider Ackermann has Tilda Swinton and Kanye West as fans and was approached to lead Dior and Maison Margiela. He turned down the offers, preferring to run his own label. Heading up the hottest label of the moment, Vetements, is the Georgian Demna Gvasalia and he also trained at the Academy. Gvasalia worked for Maison Margiela for a while and the influence can be seen: his designs include lots of oversized and deconstructed garments.

Then there is a designer who did not train at either institution. Raf Simons is probably the most important Belgian designer of the moment. He studied industrial design and only learned the fashion trade later, from an Antwerp tailor. Simons currently helms Calvin Klein, which he is breathing new life into with his surprising and ingenious designs. He did the same successfully at Jil Sander and Dior. From Antwerp to Milan, Paris and New York – it’s time that the Belgian city followed in Simons’ footsteps and took its place among the iconic fashion metropolises.

 

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