Back in the 1980s, a small group of designers put the Belgium city of Antwerp on the fashion map. Now, two decades later, Antwerp is a cutting-edge global fashion capital.
WHEN JENNIFER LOPEZ pulled together her outfit for her December 2007 album release, she chose a beautifully hand-stitched white vest by one of Antwerp’s rising-star designers, Tim Van Steenbergen. But at his atelier, just outside the center of Flanders’s biggest city, the unassuming fashion- world darling was totally oblivious to Lopez’s selection. Then, a few weeks later, while flipping through the Belgian equivalent of US Weekly, Van Steenbergen saw it. “I stopped on a picture of her and thought, ‘Well, that’s funny. That looks a lot like a piece of mine,’ ” he says. While many designers desperately try to curry favor with celebrity stylists and their clients, Van Steenbergen, age 30, and the other fashion stars of Antwerp quietly go about the business of making one-of-a-kind artisanal fashion. He’s not living in a dreamworld -- Van Steenbergen knows that when paparazzi-stalked fans of his clothing, like Lopez, Cameron Diaz, and Hillary Duff, wear his pieces, it’s great news for the visibility of his brand. But he’s just not the type to chase the celebs down and beg; that’s not the way things work in this flashbulbless new style capital of Europe. And that is exactly the reason why only the true fashionistas have ever even heard of Antwerp.
TWO HOURS NORTH of Paris by high-speed train, and just 45 minutes north of the Belgian capital, Brussels, the gritty yet charming medieval port city of Antwerp does not, at first glance, come across as an emerging global fashion capital. It seems quiet and not the least bit flashy. But once the aggressively hip, fun details come into view, the true image of Antwerp emerges.
At the heart of this walkable and extremely bikeable city is the stunning main square, called the Grote Markt. Surrounding the famed Brabo Fountain -- which depicts the Roman soldier Silvius Brabo tossing the severed hand of the giant Druon Antigoon into the Schelde River -- stands the city’s ornate guildhalls and the Renaissance town hall. Looming nearby is the Brabant Gothic masterpiece Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal Antwerpen (Our Lady’s Cathedral of Antwerp), the largest church in Belgium. All of it exudes old-world charm, but wander in any direction and you’ll spy hints of superstylishness peeking out.
3 Grote Markt
4 Tim Van Steenbergen’s drawings on the wall of his atelier
5 North Antwerp
6 Dôme Sur Mer restaurant
7 Tim Van Steenbergen with a trainee
8 De Vagant bar
9 Ann Demeulemeester shop
Almost every one of the winding warren’s cobblestoned streets fanning out from the center of town leads immediately to a little square filled with hip restaurants and cool shops. In the city center and to the north are a handful of churches with works by Antwerp’s most famous artist, Peter Paul Rubens, and some of the city’s hottest restaurants in the docklands district. To the east of the city center is the train station, a popular pedestrian shopping area with all the international big names (H&M, Zara, etc.), and the diamond district, where 85 percent of the world’s rough diamonds are traded. To the north is the world’s fourth-busiest port. And to the south lies Het Zuid and Nationalestraat, the heart of this city’s burgeoning fashion district.
The storefronts on Nationalestraat, Volkstraat, and Leopold de Waelplaats read like a who’s who of the Flemish fashion world. Dries Van Noten has his flagship store right across from the ModeNatie -- a building that houses the ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen, the world-renowned fashion department of the Artesis Hogeschool Antwerpen, and the Flanders Fashion Institute. Then, further south, another of the city’s most celebrated designers, Ann Demeulemeester, has a shop that appears at first to be an art gallery -- which is fitting, given that her pieces are often compared to works of art by her artist friends/collaborators Jim Dine and Patti Smith.
The neighborhoods around ModeNatie have become such mainstays of the fashion world that even major designers based outside Belgium are opening shops here. Yohji Yamamoto -- whose only other European locations are in London and Paris -- just built his biggest flagship store in the world, a10,000-square-foot palace, on Nationalestraat. When Belgian-born, New York–based Diane Von Furstenberg visited Antwerp recently for the grand opening of her DVF boutique, which is just around the corner from Van Noten’s store, she was taken aback by the city. “Walking the Nationalestraat and visiting all the designers’ shops, including Dries Van Noten, Veronique Branquinho, Ann Demeulemeester, and the multibrand Walter Van Beirendonck…you are very quickly made aware that even if Antwerp is a small city, it has become a very important fashion capital,” she says.
Antwerp first came to fashion attention in the mid-1980s, when a group of ambitious designers known as the Antwerp Six--Demeulemeester, Van Noten, Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee, and Dirk Van Saene--swept on to the scene after studying at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Quickly becoming darlings of the fashion world, they put this city of only 473,000 on the style map. Today, the flock of talented young designers graduating each year from the famed Royal Academy, along with the nurturing nature of this intimate fashioncentric city, keep Antwerp on the cutting edge. Tim Van Steenbergen, a driven yet sweet designer who graduated at the top of his class and interned with Van Noten and Olivier Theyskens, is one of the city’s greatest recent success stories.
ON A NONDESCRIPT BLOCK just outside the city center, Van Steenbergen’s design studio is almost surprisingly grim and unimpressive -- quite unlike his beautiful clothes. An old sewing factory with Brady Bunch–style fake-wood paneling on the walls, fluorescent lights, and card tables everywhere belies his Flemish practicality. He focuses on the clothes, not the trappings around the clothes. Designers of his caliber in New York or Paris would spend (possibly waste) time and money on the appearance of their studio, but not Van Steenbergen. Take just one glance at the stunningly dressed mannequins and the racks of handmade clothes, and it’s obvious what he spends all his time on.
“Nowadays, you have to decide where you want to be: making cheaper clothes for the masses or making something really exclusive and special. Because there’s no in-between anymore,” Van Steenbergen says. The work he has put into his new collection is evidence enough that his pieces are not Project Runway items -- they cannot be made in 12 hours or less. “I believe in true craftsmanship and artisanship of clothes,” he continues. “Every garment is created by hand on the dummy, layer by layer, to develop its characteristic shape and to give it the highest quality.”
In an age of mass-produced designer-label garments, pieces by Van Steenbergen are coveted -- not only because of their quality but also because there are very few made. “You will never see another person wearing a piece of mine,” he says. He laughs and shakes his head at the idea of something of his appearing in a magazine feature such as “Who Wore It Best.” That is another reason his stylish celebrity fans, including Selma Blair, Jewel, and Kelly Wearstler, love his clothing.
At New York’s Curve boutique, a high-end all-designer shop and the exclusive seller of Van Steenbergen items in the United States, Adriane Jamison explains that her customers are drawn to Van Steenbergen’s clothes because of their Edwardian quality. “They are so well made, both inside and out,” she says. “He even pipes the lining -- which no one will ever see. They feel like garments that aristocrats from some bygone age would have had made for [themselves], they’re so regal.”
BACK IN ANTWERP, at his charmless yet functional studio, Van Steenbergen chooses fabrics, pins designs on mannequins, and has fittings with his models as he plans the remainder of his new collection. He’s on top of the fashion world, but instead of living in one of the more traditional fashion cities -- Paris, Milan, new York -- this young man who’s been touted as the next Nicolas Ghesquiére (of Balenciaga) and Alber Elbaz (of Lanvin) is staying put in Antwerp. It’s his hometown and his source of inspiration. “I never wanted to go for the big money and do those enormous collections for those fashion houses in Milan and Paris,” Van Steenbergen says. “I’m in search of old values in a new world.”
To him, and to the many other designers who have made Antwerp their home, this city is the perfect size; it’s close to so much yet livable and not distractingly hectic. It has great art, music, and culture, not to mention what are probably the best frites (Belgian fries) in the world. But most of all, for people like Van Steenbergen, those who really love making clothes, this is a fashion-conscious city that celebrates the design, not the designers. People here are far more interested in the work than in the image.
BEYOND TIM VAN STEENBERGEN
recent graduates of antwerp’s royal academy of fine arts continue to make a splash in the fashion world. take, for example, london-based peter pilotto (www.peterpilotto.com), who has had his work featured in britain’s vogue, harper’s bazaar, and the new york times’ t magazine. he just dressed rihanna for the mtv video music awards. or there’s kris van assche (www.krisvanassche.com), who relocated to paris and works as the artistic director for dior homme and shows his own line during paris fashion week.
but some of the best and brightest have chosen to stay in antwerp, such as christian wijnants (www.christianwijnants.be), a 2000 graduate of the royal academy and a dries van noten disciple. he is now teaching at the royal academy. his sought-after line of twisted skirts and artistic asymmetrical draped items is sold in some of the best fashion boutiques around the world, including jeffrey and seven in new york and walter in antwerp. then there’s bruno pieters (www.brunopieters.com), who graduated in 1999 and worked for martin margiela and christian lacroix in paris. he’s now back in antwerp, designing his own somewhat androgynous line (which can also be found at walter) and working as the new art director for hugo boss’s avant-garde collection. finally, the shoe goddess of antwerp, els proost, also deserves mention. a former accessories designer for van noten, emporio armani, and margiela, proost has started her own line, elsa, and opened a store in antwerp by the same name to sell the collection of beautifully made artistic shoes, bags, and belts, as well as accessory lines by other notable antwerp designers such as fiorentini + baker, nathalie verlinden, and ellen verbeek.